- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

JIAYUGUAN, China — Two years after China became only the third nation to launch a human into orbit, a pair of astronauts blasted off today on a longer, riskier mission after receiving a farewell visit from Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Mr. Wen said the “glorious and sacred mission” would demonstrate China’s confidence and ability.

A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 6 capsule and the astronauts blasted off from a remote base in China’s northwest. In a break with the space agency’s typical secrecy, the launch was shown live on state television.

The mission, reportedly scheduled to last up to five days, is a prestige project for China’s communist leaders, who have justified the expense of a manned space program by saying that it will drive economic development. It will be more complicated than the first flight in 2003, which carried one astronaut and lasted 21 hours.

Minutes after liftoff, mission control announced that the first-stage booster had separated successfully from the rocket and that the flight had entered its preset orbit.

The official Xinhua News Agency said the two astronauts, or “taikonauts,” will take off their 22-pound spacesuits to travel back and forth between the two halves of their vessel — a re-entry capsule and an orbiter that will stay aloft after they land.

Earlier in the day, Xinhua announced the identities of the two taikonauts — Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haishen, 41. Previous reports said 14 former fighter pilots were training for the mission.

Images of the two voyagers in their cockpit as the craft roared toward orbit were broadcast live to hundreds of millions of Chinese television viewers. The 2003 spaceflight was not shown live.

“Feeling pretty good,” Mr. Fei said in the taikonauts’ first broadcast comment from space.

Xinhua said the crew was picked from a field of six finalists. Mr. Nie was one of three finalists for the 2003 mission, which made a national hero of Yang Liwei.

The two taikonauts will conduct experiments in orbit, Xinhua said without elaborating.

China, the third nation to put a man into orbit, insisted ahead of the launch that its aspirations in space were strictly peaceful and that it opposes deploying weapons there.

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