- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

BEIJING An unmanned Chinese space capsule returned safely to Earth yesterday, state media said, laying the groundwork for China to try to send an astronaut into space later this year.
A successful manned flight would make China only the third country, after Russia and the United States, to send its astronaut into space.
The Shenzhou IV capsule landed as planned just after 7 p.m. on China's northern grasslands in the Inner Mongolia region, the official Xinhua News Agency and state television said.
"Experts in charge of China's manned space program said the return of the spaceship represents a complete success of the fourth test flight of the program," Xinhua said. It said the flight "lays a solid foundation" for manned missions.
Chinese officials said last week that barring problems with Shenzhou IV, the next launch would be manned a possibility that appeared to grow yesterday with the reported smooth conclusion of the flight.
China's leaders hope manned space flight will be evidence of the country's progress and technical prowess, winning them support at home and respect abroad. However, some ordinary Chinese criticize the program as a waste of money in a country where the average annual income is about $700.
Shenzhou IV blasted into space Dec. 30 from a base in the Gobi desert. Xinhua said that it orbited the Earth 108 times and performed hundreds of maneuvers, including unfolding its solar panels.
Instruments functioned normally and collected a large amount of test data, Xinhua said. It added that the re-entry vehicle and its contents will be sent to Beijing for analysis.
The flight was the second in less than 10 months for a Chinese space capsule the shortest period to date between launches and a possible sign of growing official confidence in the program.
Communist Party and military leaders observed the spacecraft's return from the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center, Chinese Central Television reported.
Television pictures showed officials and technicians, many wearing military tunics under their white lab coats, sitting at control panels before a large television screen showing what appeared to be the capsule lying on its side in the dark.
A corps of about a dozen astronauts picked from among fighter pilots in the country's air force have been training for years to take the first trip into space. At least two were sent to Russia's cosmonaut school.
Called "taikonauts" after the Chinese word for space, they used the Shenzhou IV capsule for training and lived inside it for a week last April, according to newspapers.
The Shenzhou IV, meaning "Sacred Vessel," carried the equipment necessary for a manned flight, and the mission tested life-support and other systems, scientists said. Xinhua said the capsule was "identical to manned spaceships, except there were no men aboard."
Foreign experts note that Shenzhou, based on Russia's Soyuz capsule, can carry up to three astronauts, and say that China might be planning to send more than one person on the first flight.
However, reports by Hong Kong and Taiwan news media said this week that only one astronaut would make the flight.
The newspapers Sing Tao of Hong Kong and China Times of Taiwan and the Chinese news Web site Muzi.com identified Chen Long as the pilot picked. The reports cited anonymous Chinese sources.
They said Mr. Chen had been chosen from 14 trainee astronauts and described him and an unidentified backup pilot as being about 30 years old and of medium height and build. They said each has flown more than 1,000 hours in fighter jets.

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