China Launches Manned Spacecraft

Launch of China's Shenzhou VI

China launches its second manned spacecraft Shenzhou VI at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu Province, Oct. 12, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

China successfully launched its second manned space flight, carrying two astronauts. The launch is part of an effort to eventually establish the country's own orbiting space station.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China this morning successfully launched its second manned space flight. It carried two astronauts this time, one more than China's first manned flight in 2003. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, the launch was a carefully planned step in a space program that aims to create a lasting Chinese presence in space.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Yesterday, the astronauts' identities were a secret. Today, fighter pilots Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng became instant national heroes. A light snow fell at dawn at the Jiquan space center in northwest China. Crowds cheered the pair on as they lumbered to the launch pad in their space suits. The Long March rocket carrying the Shenzhou VI lifted off at 9 AM sharp.

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KUHN: State television carried the launch live, but apparently with a few seconds' delay. At the mission control center in Beijing, China's leaders watched the craft jettison its rockets and enter its planned orbit. Premier Wen Jiabao congratulated his country's space program on its success and reassured other countries about China's intentions.

Premier WEN JIABAO: (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: `China is conducting experiments in space flight for entirely peaceful purposes,' he said. `We're willing to move forward, hand in hand, with the peoples of the world to use space peacefully.'

While the Shenzhou V stayed aloft for only 21 hours, the Shenzhou VI will orbit the Earth for five to seven days. It carries a separate module with living quarters, facilities for scientific experiments and its own engines. The module will remain in orbit after the mission. According to local media, other on-board improvements include flushing toilets and hot Chinese space food.

Dean Cheng is an expert on China's space program at the CNA Corporation, a Virginia-based think tank. He says that the Shenzhou VI is bigger than the Shenzhou V and represents an evolution beyond the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft technology on which China had based earlier ships.

Mr. DEAN CHENG (CNA Corporation): The Shenzhou craft is longer, it's wider, it has two sets of solar panels rather than one. We believe it has power-generating capacity which, based on the two sets of panels, that probably makes it comparable to the old Mir space station as opposed to simply the Soyuz capsule.

KUHN: China's plan for future Shenzhou missions includes docking orbiting modules, conducting space walks, constructing a permanent orbiting space station and eventually landing an unmanned probe on the moon. Its civilian space program has already brought China economic benefits in the fields of communications, navigation systems and resource exploration. Dean Cheng points out that the People's Liberation Army, which runs the whole space program, has gotten something out of it, too.

Mr. CHENG: The PLA understands that, militarily speaking, space is the new high ground. And the same capabilities produce benefits in terms of information, in terms of reconnaissance, in terms of secure communications.

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KUHN: Perhaps no payoff is as immediate as the public relations one. Not many images can compare with the blast-off of the manned spacecraft for summing up a nation's economic and scientific capabilities, which is why so much is riding on this mission's success and why Chinese will be watching and waiting for the Shenzhou VI to touch down safely on the grasslands of inner Mongolia. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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