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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK


China to test 'space shuttle' in October

Ships will track the space flight

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

The Chinese space programme will try to launch its first spacecraft designed to carry astronauts on 1 October.

Officials quoted in the Yangcheng Evening News said preparations of a recoverable capsule were far ahead of schedule.

If the date can be achieved the flight would coincide with the communist state's 50th anniversary celebrations.

[ image: Astronauts have been trained]
Astronauts have been trained
Although there had been rumours that China was planning a mission to test its new spacecraft design no specific timing has previously been given, other than "by the end of this century or the beginning of the next."

The October flight would be unmanned and used to test the technology. But Li Jianzhong, director of the Chinese Academy of Launch-Vehicle Technology, said that a manned launch was "under preparation", and indicated it would follow not far behind the test flight.

He said that their Long March 2E rocket already had a lift capacity of 10 tonnes and that China was about to complete research for a rocket capable of launching 20-tonne payloads.

[ image: China's Long March rocket]
China's Long March rocket
Astronauts have been trained and research into life support systems had made "great progress," he said. The helmets, pressure suits and feeding system were ready to go.

In recent months, China has refurbished its fleet of satellite tracking ships. Experts say that if such an important mission does take place in October then these ships would be positioned in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

Li Jianzhong has also said that China is developing a spacecraft similar to the US Space Shuttle.

Western experts believe that this is a mis-translation. They expect the spacecraft to have more in common with the Russian Soyuz manned spacecraft than the US shuttle which it is believed is far beyond China's technical abilities.

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