- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2001

BEIJING An unmanned Chinese spacecraft rocketed into orbit yesterday in the second test flight of a vessel intended one day to carry astronauts and make China the third nation capable of manned space travel.
A Long March rocket blasted off from the Gobi desert launch center at 1 a.m. and put the Shenzhou II spacecraft into orbit 10 minutes later, state media reported.
The spacecraft would return "in a few days" after conducting experiments in physics and astronomy and on space's effects on life forms and materials, the Xinhua News Agency said.
China has placed great prestige on its secretive 31-year-old space program and poured an undisclosed amount of resources into it. If successful, the program will lift China alongside the United States and Russia into the exclusive club of space travel.
"An important step in realizing manned spaceflight," the People's Daily said in a headline below a picture of the Long March 2-F rocket blasting off from the Jiuquan launch center.
Newspapers praised the rocket and capsule as triumphs of domestic engineering, and President Jiang Zemin sent a congratulatory telegram.
"I hope you will work persistently and unremittingly to achieve even greater victory," Mr. Jiang said in his message to the program's civilian and military personnel.
A smooth flight and safe return would mean China could be ready to put astronauts aloft in 18 to 24 months, said Joan Johnson-Freese, a Hawaii-based analyst and one of the few foreign experts on the Chinese space program.
The government, however, has been circumspect about when it will send up astronauts or what some Chinese have dubbed "taikonauts," from the Chinese word for space. Program scientists and officials quoted by state media in recent months have suggested it could come within the next five years.
Yesterday's flight was the second unmanned test of the Shenzhou family of space capsules in less than 14 months. In the first test, in November 1999, the Shenzhou, or "sacred vessel," orbited the Earth for 21 hours before landing on the grasslands of China's Inner Mongolia region.
Unlike the first flight, which was disclosed only after the craft safely touched down, China announced the second launching shortly after it occurred and provided more information about the craft and rocket.
"It's a sign of confidence and a sign of pride," said James Oberg, a veteran analyst of the U.S. and foreign space programs. He watched the Shenzhou arc across the clear eastern sky at sunset near his home in Houston.


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