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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 July, 2003, 20:06 GMT 21:06 UK
China manned space mission nears
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Long, Xinhua
Li Qinglong (left) should fly in October
(Image by Xinhua)
Chinese officials say they are on schedule to launch their first manned spacecraft in October, becoming only the third nation to send a human into orbit.

"The current plan is that Shenzhou 5 will be launched in October but it is very hard to say the exact date," an official at the China Rocket Research Institute told the AFP news agency.

An official named Zeng, from the space department of the China Great Wall Industry Corporation, is also reported to have confirmed the month of October for lift-off.

Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper earlier said that official Chinese sources were saying the launch would take place sometime in the next 100 days.

If the mission does go ahead, China will join the former Soviet Union and the United States as the only countries to have carried through a manned space programme.

Pilot Li Qinglong has been named as part of Shenzhou 5's crew. It is unclear, however, how many astronauts will be on board the maiden flight with him.

It is known that 14 fighter pilots, each with more than 1,000 hours flying experience, have been training as astronauts. Two, including Long, have spent some time at Russia's cosmonaut school.

Russian copy

Analysts believe the Shenzhou spacecraft that China is developing is an enlarged copy of the Soviet-era workhorse - the Soyuz.

To date, China has so far launched four unmanned space missions to test the hardware for the manned flight.

The last, Shenzhou 4, touched-down in Inner Mongolia on 5 January after a 162-hour mission.

Officials say the manned flight will take place during the daytime to aid the tracking of the capsule. Previous Shenzhou flights have taken place at night. It may also be carried live on Chinese TV.

After the Shenzhou 4 flight, Chinese media said the capsule carried all the equipment necessary for manned flight and tested life-support equipment.

It added: "Completion of the successful voyage starts a countdown for China to realise its ambitions of becoming the third country to put people in orbit."

China has made clear it wants to expand the exploration of space. It plans an unmanned mission to the Moon, according to Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist in the country's lunar programme, who spoke to BBC News Online last year.

Chinese space effort eyes October
17 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
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05 Jan 03  |  Asia-Pacific
China launches new space mission
30 Dec 02  |  Sci/Tech

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