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 Thursday, 2 January, 2003, 06:05 GMT
China plans manned spaceflight in 2003
Shenzhou IV
The announcement follows a successful test flight
China hopes to launch its first manned spacecraft later this year, a senior official has said.

This would make it only the third country to put humans into space.

Shanghai aerospace centre director Yuan Jie said the project had already entered the overall assembly and testing phase.

Space staff at Jiuquan AFP
The space programme is a source of pride in China
The launch would take place in the second half of 2003, he told the semi-official China News Service.

China has already launched spacecraft designed to carry people.

The fourth such launch, of the Shenzhou-IV spacecraft, took place on Monday.

President Jiang Zemin hailed it as a "great victory".

The BBC's Holly Williams in Beijing says that just like the American or Russian space programmes 40 years ago, China's efforts to put a man into space are as much about national pride as it is about science.

To boldly go

In April, Shenzhou III carried out a successful week-long flight, with a module landing safely back on Earth.

To distinguish them from Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts, China uses the term "taikonauts" for its would-be space crews, deriving from the word "taikong" meaning space.

Shenzhou III
Shenzhou III returned to Earth safely in April
It is understood that about a dozen fighter pilots are training to become taikonauts, although there have been conflicting reports about how many have been chosen and where they are undergoing their training.

Plans to build a Moon base by 2010 and a space station were also reported last year, but some of these claims have since been denied.

Success so far

Shenzhou IV has all the facilities necessary for manned flight, and the Xinhua news agency reported that taikonauts had been training in the module, which can accommodate three people.

The first test flight of the Shenzhou programme was in November 1999, when a capsule orbited the Earth 14 times in a 12-hour mission aimed at testing launch and re-entry systems.

Shenzhou II, launched in January 2001, circled the Earth 108 times and tested life support systems - it put a monkey, a dog, a rabbit and snails into orbit.

It returned nearly a week later to a press blackout that left Western analysts suspecting a re-entry failure. The Chinese authorities denied this.

Shenzhou is modelled on Russian space technology, but with wide-ranging modifications by Chinese engineers.

At least two taikonauts have been sent to Russia for training, although China has released few details about the personnel involved in Project 921, as the space programme is known.

Shenzhou means "divine vessel" in Chinese.

  The BBC's Holly Williams
"The Chinese government feels the need to put a Chinese man into space"
See also:

30 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
21 May 02 | Science/Nature
06 Dec 02 | Science/Nature
14 Jan 03 | Science/Nature
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