CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- China reached a milestone in human history Tuesday with the launch of its first piloted spaceflight into Earth orbit. Blasting off from a remote space base in the Gobi Desert atop a Long March 2F rocket, a single Chinese astronaut named Yang Liwei is circling the planet every 90 minutes aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. As a result, China has become only the third nation on Earth capable of independently launching its citizens into orbit. The former Soviet Union was first in 1961, followed by the United States in 1962. "I feel good," Yang said 30 minutes into the flight, according to Xinhua. He then reported his blood pressure and other vital signs were normal and said "See you tomorrow." It is expected the three-part capsule, whose more modern design is largely based on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, will make 14 orbits and remain in space for about 21 hours before executing re-entry and a parachute landing onto Chinese soil.
Liwei, 38, is an avid ice skater and swimmer, according to Chinese news media. He was raised in the northeast province of Liaoning and comes from a family of teachers. He had been a pilot since 1987 and an astronaut since 1998. "I will not disappoint the motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honor for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation," Chinese news media reported Yang as saying before the shot. Liwei already is a hero to the Chinese people. And if successful, observers say the communist nation will have demonstrated improved technological competence and scored a propaganda victory in the world community. How the rest of the planet actually reacts remains to be seen. When the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961, and having already lofted the first artificial satellite in 1957, a full scale Space Race to the Moon was begun with the United States in an effort to prove which economic and political system was better. And clearly, one of China's aims is to enhance its prestige, said Dean Cheng, a China space specialist for the CNA Corporation in Arlington, Va. "By the very fact that it is a space power, China already has set itself apart from most other nations, and certainly all the other Asian states," he said in a recent forum on China's space prowess.
China's space infrastructure, its array of launchers, its space industries, Cheng said, and now a piloted space mission, "place them above even the Japanese, in terms of demonstrated space capabilities. Instead, they are in the same category as ourselve and the Russians." And with NASA's shuttle fleet grounded because of the Feb. 1 Columbia tragedy, China's new capability appears at an interesting time. Moreover, the U.S. military is likely to keep a close eye on future developments. In fact, according to a Pentagon report released in July, China's space program will result in making them a greater military threat. "While one of the strongest immediate motivations for this program appears to be political prestige, China's efforts almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 timeframe," the report to Congress said. The report quoted a Chinese naval captain, Shen Zhongchang, as writing: "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory, with outer space becoming the new commanding heights for combat." Another view, expressed before the launch, comes from The Times of India, which in an editorial Monday called the Shenzhou 5 launch a "joke." "It would be better to call it China's Late Creep Forward, given that Beijing is attempting to showcase a four-decade-old technology. If this is China's idea of arriving, then it's come at a time when the other two spacefaring nations have left it light years behind," the publication said.
The mission began at 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday (0100 GMT Wednesday), which was early morning at the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. A last minute decision to not broadcast the launch on live television prevented millions from seeing the 19-story-tall rocket climb toward space. Chinese president Hu Jintao was at the launch site to witness the shot in person and called it "the glory of our great motherland." "The party and the people will never forget those who have set up the outstanding merit in the space industry for the motherland, the people and the nation," Hu said.
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe added his congratulations in a statement released late Tuesday. "This launch is an important achievement in the history of human exploration. The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration. NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program," O'Keefe said. In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin said, "We wish them success and for their astronaut's safe return."
It took 10 minutes for the Long March 2F to carry the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft (seen to the left) into orbit. Shenzhou is Chinese for "divine vessel." The Long March 2F is a two-stage rocket equipped with four liquid-fueled strap-on boosters. An escape tower attached to the Shenzhou spacecraft topped off the launch vehicle. The spacecraft is capable of holding up to three astronauts, which some are calling "taikonauts" based on the English translation of the Chinese word for space. Others are using the word "yuhangyuan," which means travelers of the universe. Flying alone for this first mission, Liwei was among 14 astronauts who have been training for several years. Some of the pilots spent time at Star City near Moscow, where Russian cosmonauts prepare for their missions.
Although the Shenzhou spacecraft is based on the Soyuz design, it is slightly more advanced and uses more modern computers to manage operations and navigation. Beijing insists, however, that everything sent into space was developed and made in China. State media, trying to dispel suggestions that its triumph depended on foreign know-how, has refered to Shenzhou as "China's self-designed manned spaceship."
Christopher Bodeen of the Associated Press contributed to this report from the launch site in the Gobi Desert.
Name: Yang Liwei
Profession: Fighter pilot
Born: June 1965 in Liaoning Province
Height: 5 feet, 6 inches
Personal: Married, 8-year-old son.
Professional: Joined People's Liberation Army at 18. Works for PLA Aviation Military Unit. Became fighter pilot in 1987 and astronaut candidate in 1998.
On his mission: "I will not disappoint the motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honor for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation."
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