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"It'll be good for national pride"
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Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 15:10 GMT
Countdown for Chinese astronaut

Capsule Shenzou orbited the Earth 14 times in November

By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Speculation is growing that China may attempt a manned space flight to usher in the Year of the Dragon which begins on 5 February.

A number of sources of information indicate that a launch may be imminent, including recent editorials in two pro-China Hong Kong newspapers.

In China itself, the People's Army Liberation newspaper recently carried an interview with Professor Liang Sili of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who was quoted as saying that sometime soon Chinese astronauts "would travel in space in the Shenzhou series of spacecraft."

And last month, following a visit to Chinese space facilities, Russian cosmonaut Anatoli Berezovoi said that he believed China would soon become the third nation to be able to launch people into space, after Russia and the United States.

Western surprise

Western experts are surprised by this speculation as they expected China not to attempt a manned mission for a few years yet. They point out that the recent Shenzhou mission, although it went well, is not a good basis for a manned flight so soon. Or at least it would not be in the West.

Because of this, such reports have to be treated with caution, but it is clear that China does intend to launch an astronaut or a "taikonaut" as soon as it can.

When they do launch a taikonaut, they will use the Shenzhou manned spacecraft that was tested in unmanned mode last year.

In November, China tested Shenzhou, literally meaning "divine ship". It was in space for 21 hours and orbited the Earth 14 times before touching down in the northern province of Inner Mongolia.

Shenzhou is a modified version of the tried and trusted Russian Soyuz design. November's launch was designed to test the technology of the craft for future manned space travel and it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party regards putting an astronaut into space as an important prestige project.

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See also:
24 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
Russian hand on Chinese space capsule
22 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
China's Soviet space heritage
22 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
China joins space club
20 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
Intriguing details of Chinese space plans
10 Jun 99 |  Sci/Tech
China's secret manned spacecraft revealed
13 May 99 |  Sci/Tech
China to test 'space shuttle' in October

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