- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 14, 2003

GOBI DESERT, China — China launched its first manned space mission this morning, sending a man into orbit and becoming the third country in history to do so — more than four decades after the Soviet Union and the United States.

With a column of smoke, the Shenzhou 5 craft cut across a bright, azure northwest China sky at exactly 9 a.m. local time. The official Xinhua News Agency confirmed the launch and said the “taikonaut,” or astronaut, was Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, 38.

State television cut into its programming to announce the launch, though no footage was shown.

Minutes later, a CCTV announcer said that Shenzhou 5 and Col. Yang had entered orbit at 9:10 a.m.

It was the culmination of a decade of efforts by China’s military-linked manned space program — and a patriotism-drenched moment for a communist government more concerned than ever about its image on the world stage.

Security was tight around the remote Gobi Desert base, some 175 miles northeast of Jiuquan.

The only road to the launch site was crowded with traffic, including military vehicles and civilian tour buses. But private cars were turned back, and phone calls to the base were blocked.

China kept advance details of the event secret, saying only that the launch would take place between today and Friday and that the astronaut would orbit the Earth 14 times.

The Shenzhou 5 launch came after four test launches of unmanned capsules that orbited the Earth for nearly a week before parachuting back to China’s northern grasslands. State media said the manned flight was expected to last about 20 hours.

“The launch of Shenzhou 5 is long-awaited by the Chinese people,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said earlier.

She said the flight was a key step in the “peaceful development of space” — a reflection of Beijing’s effort to reassure the world that its military-linked program is benign.

The Shenzhou, or “divine vessel,” is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications. China also paid Moscow to train at least two astronauts.

But Beijing insists everything sent into space was developed and made in China. State media, trying to dispel suggestions that its triumph depends on foreign know-how, refer to Shenzhou as “China’s self-designed manned spaceship.”

Chinese media reported earlier that Col. Yang has been a pilot since 1983.

“I will not disappoint the motherland. I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honor for the People’s Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation,” the popular Web site Sina.com quoted him as saying.

He was reportedly born in 1965 in Youzhong County in Liaoning province, an industrial area in China’s northeast. He is 5 feet, 6 inches tall and earns about $1,200 a month, according to media reports.

State television scrapped plans for a live broadcast of the launch. A Hong Kong newspaper said the cancellation was prompted by fears of the “political risks” of something going wrong.

China used to broadcast satellite launches live, but stopped in 1995 after a rocket blew up moments after liftoff, reportedly killing six persons on the ground.

Dozens of messages left on Chinese Web sites taunted officials for their decision and demanded that the government show the historic launch as it happens.

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