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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005, 13:08 GMT 14:08 UK
China's reach for the stars
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

China's second manned space mission is just the latest stage in what is becoming an increasingly ambitious project that may one day see a Chinese astronaut on the moon.

Three Chinese astronauts Nie Haisheng, left, Yang Liwei, centre, and Zhai Zhigang, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2003 file photo

In 2003, China became only the third country to put a human into space on

its own, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.

The astronaut then was a former fighter pilot, Yang Liwei. He was given a hero's welcome on his return to earth - meeting national leaders and touring the nation.

But China has not stopped there. This latest flight is set to be longer and more complicated than the first one. This time there are two astronauts who are expected to be in space for five days. They are going to carry out experiments as well as move freely about the spacecraft.

China's booming economy may make it the world's next economic giant - now it wants the other trappings of superstar status as well

If this trip is successful, China has much larger goals. More manned missions are likely to follow. National space officials say they want to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010, and also build a space station.

In the longer term there are plans to put an astronaut on the moon, although the time-frame for that happening is still unclear.

China has had a rocket programme since the 1950s and has been launching satellites into space for more than 30 years.

Although its technology has Russian influences, Beijing says that everything sent into space is made in China.

The manned space missions are all launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre, located on the edge of the Gobi desert, in the north-west of the country.

The nation's spending on its space program is a state secret, but by international standards it is thought to be much smaller than American expenditure.

Why the rush?

Yazhuo Ye
Hopefully, this launch will help other [countries] understand our progress better
Yazhou Ye

China has many reasons for pressing ahead with its space programme. The first is boosting national pride.

The number of visitors going to space exhibitions in major Chinese cities suggests there is considerable public support for the initiative.

The programme appeals to nationalist sentiment, helping the Communist Party shore up its standing amid widespread frustration over official corruption and the growing economic divide between rich and poor.

So Chinese state television is likely to carry much of the mission live, and just as Yang Liwei was feted on his return to earth, so the latest two astronauts will also be treated like heroes after they touch down.

The country's top leaders also view the space programme as an important source of international prestige.

China's booming economy may make it the world's next economic giant - now it wants the other trappings of superstar status as well.

Beijing feels that a space programme with the capability of putting a human into orbit, and perhaps onto the moon, will help put it in the same league as the US and the former Soviet Union.

And then there are the commercial and military applications, such as satellite-based navigational systems, although other technological benefits from the space initiative are still a long way in the future.

This year, China is commemorating the 600th anniversary of the voyages of the legendary Chinese admiral, Zheng He, who explored the Pacific and Indian Oceans nearly 100 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic.

Now six centuries on it has a new generation of explorers to celebrate - China's astronauts.

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