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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 September, 2003, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
China space mission 'on track'
Chen Long (left), Xinhua
It is not yet decided who will be China's first man in space
China says preparations for the launch of its first manned spacecraft are going extremely smoothly and that the blast-off will take place some time within the next three months.

There has been widespread speculation in Hong Kong that the flight could take place within the next few weeks.

But even at this late stage, Chinese authorities are giving little away.

According to China's Minister of Science and Technology, the launch itself will happen before the end of this year.

Many commentators believe the launch could take place even sooner.

Hong Kong media is reporting that the rocket launcher and spacecraft have already arrived at the launch site in north-west China and are now undergoing final assembly.

According to those reports, blast-off could take place as early as 10 October.

Christine Yu, who works in the media in Beijing, told the BBC that the proposed launch was a great source of national pride.

"I think most Chinese will be really excited and thrilled by the news if the Shenzhou 5 is successfully launched, because this will symbolise China's significant breakthrough in space flight and aerospace business...

"It will be a big national pride for Chinese because it has been the dream for a long time," she told the East Asia Today programme.

Mystery astronaut

One thing no one knows yet though is who will be China's first man in space.

Chinese officials say that is because the final choice on who will ride the rocket and thereby become a national hero to 1.3 billion people still has not been made.

This has not stopped speculation that it will be Chen Long, a fighter pilot who has been to Russia to train with the cosmonaut programme.

Critics of the project have argued that as a developing country, China should be spending its money on education and agriculture.

But Christine Yu said the manned spacecraft launch would be a big money-spinner for China.

"It will help China, not only in the material industry, but also in many other industrial technologies... so actually [it] will help the country to develop in lots of areas," she said.

China has now completed four successful flights of its Shenzhou capsule, based on Russia's Soyuz model.

The last mission carried all the equipment necessary for manned flight and tested life-support systems.

Although Shenzhou 5 will launch the first Chinese national into space, it will not lift the first Chinese-born astronaut above the Earth.

US astronaut Shannon Lucid was born in Shanghai and has completed five space shuttle flights. Taylor Gun-Jin Wang was also born in Shanghai in 1940 and became an American citizen in 1975 and has flown on the space shuttle once.

China manned space mission nears
23 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
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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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