- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

BEIJING A wisp of wind blows red earth into the air and gusts over scorching black rock the only sign of movement on a desert plain east of Jiuquan.

Dry, lifeless and red, the area around this remote settlement, from where the first Chinese astronaut will be launched into space possibly later this year looks like a Martian landscape.

It provides inspiration for an ambitious space program to conquer first the moon and then Mars. Despite the cost, estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars, and immense technical difficulties, China boasts that it will beat the United States with a manned mission to Mars.

Unauthorized personnel are not permitted to enter the Jiuquan Satellite Launching Center, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, but from the perimeter one can see the massive steel tower that supports the country's "Long March" rockets. A cluster of buildings stretches away from the launch pad, linked by a rail line.

Opposite the pad stand two giant towers, at least 20 stories high, where the rockets are assembled. It is inside these that the Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," space capsule is attached before being shunted down the rail to the launch pad.

The official China Daily newspaper announced last week that Beijing would launch one more unmanned space flight this year. Before the end of the year, China plans to be the third nation to put an astronaut in space with its own rockets.

Preparations for a manned flight have been intensified as scientists rush to complete the program ahead of a 2005 deadline for placing astronauts on an orbiting space station. The calendar for getting to Mars is slightly vaguer, although the year 2010 is frequently mentioned as a target date.

"If the test flight of the fourth Shenzhou spacecraft is successful, the manned space mission would be just around the corner," China Daily said.

Western scientists are skeptical that a country that has not yet put a man into orbit is serious about tackling Mars.

The triumph of man over nature, however, brought Jiuquan into existence, and if China can build up such an inhospitable part of the Earth, scientists reason, it can easily conquer space.

The model for a Chinese base on Mars, laid out in an exhibition traveling the country, is reminiscent of the colonization of Jiuquan by Mao Tse-tung's scientists in the 1960s.

The beehive models of laboratories and housing on Mars differ from the air-conditioned concrete towers at Jiuquan only in that gravity as well as temperature must be controlled and oxygen imported or manufactured.

Otherwise, the principles of colonization appear remarkably similar. The dry riverbeds and black-green rock outcrops at Jiuquan are interspersed with inkblot patches of cultivated land won back from the desert to feed a transplanted population of scientists.

On the model Mars base, a row of oil derricks overlooks a long series of domes ready for human habitation.

Before it gets to Mars, China must put an astronaut into space. Soviet space capsules from the 1960s have been adapted to the point where this is "technically feasible," and officials have boasted that, by 2040, a Chinese base on Mars will be a reality. Beijing has unleashed a barrage of propaganda to proclaim its achievements in space exploration.

"Our country's space science activities have developed very fast in recent years," says a retired Communist Party official, Wu Xunjia, 68. "I think the idea that Chinese could put humans into space within one or two years gives us all great hope."

Student interest in space has suddenly exploded, said Chen Xiao, a third-year undergraduate student at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Mr. Chen's career horizons have been lifted in recent weeks far beyond earthly boundaries.

"Twenty years ago, people of my parents' generation never thought they would be using computers today," he said. "In my lifetime, Chinese science is speeding up, and I'm sure I will land on Mars before 2040."

The mandarins in charge of the space program are drawing a nationalist dividend from a project highly dependent on foreign technology. Despite the hype, however, much of the Chinese space program remains shrouded in secrecy. It is impossible to get access to the Jiuquan facility, or even to the viewing platform on the Great Wall of China, from where senior leaders watch rockets blast off.

Almost 2,000 miles east of Jiuquan, the astronaut training center north of Beijing is equally well-guarded. Fourteen astronauts are in training at the facility.

Two of these, Li Qinlong and Wu Zi, have spent a year working in Moscow and are the favorites to go into orbit when the mission is launched. The other space cadets are candidates for later missions.

Official rhetoric contends that the chosen candidates are made of the right stuff.

"China has begun selecting astronauts, chosen from outstanding air force pilots who will undergo strict basic training and pass specialized tests before undertaking a manned space mission," said the head of the space program, Su Shuangning.

"Appropriate and medium in stature, quick in movement and unafraid of hardship, Chinese astronauts are obviously superior."

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