- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

China will launch its first manned mission into outer space Oct. 15, crashing an exclusive club previously restricted to U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts and raising fresh fears about Beijing’s military ambitions in the cosmos.

Several Hong Kong news outlets and Web sites close to China’s communist leadership reported yesterday that a Shenzhou 5 rocket will blast off from a remote Gobi Desert town in northwestern Gansu province shortly after dawn, carrying a single Chinese “taikonaut” — a play on the Chinese word for space — for an undetermined number of orbits before returning to Earth later in the day.

The $2.4 billion mission, the culmination of an 11-year Chinese program to break into manned space flight, is seen by the country’s leaders as both a symbol of national progress and a matter of military necessity to counter increasingly advanced U.S. space-defense systems.

“For all of China’s other needs, there has been virtually no debate over whether to proceed with the manned mission,” said John J. Tkacik Jr., a former top State Department analyst on China now with the Heritage Foundation.

China’s leaders are hoping that a successful flight will provide the same kind of national uplift that the pioneer missions of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gregarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard had in 1961 at the height of the Cold War.

“This is seen as a sign that China has entered the ranks of the world’s great powers, that it is not just a great power but an emerging superpower,” Mr. Tkacik said.

Officials of China’s space program, who operate within the People’s Liberation Army, say plans call for a mission to orbit the moon within five years, a permanent space station, and a manned flight to the moon by 2020.

The Bush administration has taken a low-key approach as the date of the mission neared.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said late last month that “a Chinese manned space flight would obviously be an important event in space-launch history and we wish them every success and we wish their astronauts a safe return.”

But a Defense Department report on China’s military issued in August painted a far more ominous picture, saying Beijing’s space efforts presented a very real threat to U.S. military efforts, from potential programs to disable American surveillance and reconnaissance satellites to the Bush administration’s national missile-defense shield.

“While one of the strongest immediate motivations for the program appears to be political prestige, China’s manned space effort almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 time frame,” according to the Pentagon report.

China’s military planners were said to be impressed and intimidated by the precision of space-guided U.S. munitions in both the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in the recent campaign to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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