Wed, Oct 08, 2003 - Page 5 News List

China shrouds first manned space flight in secrecy


A visitor to the Beijing Science Museum looks at a space suit yesterday. China has declared that its first manned space flight is due to take place this month but remains secretive about the precise details.


The launch could happen as early as this weekend from a remote base in the Gobi Desert. China's first manned space flight would carry one taikonaut -- or as many three. It could last from hours to several days.

Other than that, the Chinese government isn't really saying.

After 11 years of planning to join the space-faring elite, China is on the brink of making history and reaping a propaganda windfall. But as the hour approaches, the communist government is staying silent about a date and other details, wary of risking the damage of public setbacks.

"They don't want to commit themselves," said Phillip Clark, a British expert on the Chinese program.

A successful manned launch would stand as a testament to China's economic and technical progress, winning Beijing respect abroad and -- more importantly -- approval at home. Chinese leaders long ago traded in leftist ideology for economic reform and, battered by corruption scandals, have used such flag-waving appeals to nationalism to bind the nation together.

The launch would come 42 years after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. But China would still be only the third country capable of manned space flight, vaulting it ahead of Japan and European countries, which have only unmanned programs.

And China would be accomplishing something that even the US, with its space shuttle fleet grounded following the Columbia disaster, can't do right now.

Still, some Chinese complain privately that the program is a waste of money in a society where the average person makes about US$700 a year.

China hasn't released the identities of its first astronauts, 12 military pilots who, according to state media, were picked from among 2,000 applicants. Newspapers say all are about 30 years old and 170cm tall.

They have been dubbed taikonauts (pronounced locally Ty-Koo-Nawts). In Chinese, they are yuhangyuan, or travelers of the universe.

At least one of them will go up before the end of October, state media say.

And the Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao said it would happen sometime after this Friday. That could coincide with a meeting of the Communist Party's ruling inner circle that convenes Saturday, allowing President Hu Jintao and other leaders to be shown on state television talking with the crew in orbit.

The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," capsule is based on Russia's Soyuz vessel, with extensive modifications. China bought Russian space suits and a life support system to study, though officials stress that everything sent up will be made in China.

Like other details, the cost of the military-linked program is secret but is believed to total at least US$1 billion -- equal to the annual government budget of a smaller Chinese province.

The 8-tonne Shenzhou is even bigger than Soyuz, which can seat three astronauts. And Chinese reports say specialists have created a menu of 20 space meals -- enough for a week.

But Clark, the British specialist, said China probably will keep the first flight simple, with one pilot sent up for less than a day.

It isn't even clear yet whether the government will alert its own public before the launch. State media said two years ago that the astronauts might be identified in advance -- possibly to dispel rumors that a fatal accident would be covered up.

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