China plans to launch its first manned spaceflight in the second half of this year, a move that would make it the third nation to put a human being in space, state-run media announced today.
Shanghai's Liberation Daily quoted Shanghai Aerospace Bureau head Yuan Jie as saying the launch of the manned Shenzhou V, or "Divine Vessel," would "realize a historic breakthrough" for China's space program.
Yuan was returning to Shanghai from the Jiuquan satellite launch center in the western province of Gansu, where China just launched the unmanned Shenzhou IV. The Shenzhou IV orbited Earth today, the third day of a weeklong flight. State media said all systems were functioning normally.
The Shenzhou V is already being built and tested, the newspaper reported.
In a country in which the highest ruling body -- the Communist Party's nine-member Politburo Standing Committee -- is composed of scientists and engineers, state-sponsored high-tech projects from magnetic levitation trains to spaceships also function as vehicles of national prestige.
The U.S. and the former Soviet Union, the latter now succeeded by Russia, are the only nations to launch manned space flights.
Li Peng, head of China's national legislature, watched the Shenzhou IV's liftoff from Jiuquan. Earlier this week, President Jiang Zemin hailed the launch as a "great victory" and called for further advances in the country's space program.
The successful Shenzhou IV launch provided the final testing of the space capsule, rocket, communications, launch and recovery systems necessary before a manned flight. Before liftoff, Chinese astronauts briefly boarded the space capsule for training, according to the official New China News Agency.
The Shanghai Aerospace Bureau, which has been responsible for research and testing of the Shenzhou IV flight, will also be in charge of the manned launch. China has sent several astronauts, fighter pilots of the People's Liberation Army's air force, to Russia for training.