China takes another leap toward manned spaceflight
(CNN) -- China launched the prototype of a manned space vessel into orbit Monday in a test flight designed to pave the way for the country's first human space flight, state media has reported.
Riding atop a Chinese Long March rocket, the unmanned spacecraft lifted off shortly after 2200 local time (1400 GMT) Monday night and entered its planned orbit within minutes, according to the People's Daily Online.
Among the onlookers at the space launch facility in north central China was President Jiang Zemin, who offered praise during a congratulatory speech.
The Shenzhou III, which Chinese media described as being "technically suitable for astronauts", was launched after months of delays.
It was the third such experimental craft launched from the Jiaquan Satellite Launching Center in Gansu province in recent years.
"The successful launches of three Shenzhou spaceships takes the country to new heights of space science and technology," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Jiang as saying after watching the launch.
The space program, he added, showed the Chinese people's spirit of constantly striving to become stronger.
The spacecraft was carried atop a "Long March II F" booster rocket, designed specially for China's manned space program.
The Long March series has been widely used in China's successful commercial satellite launch business.
Some 10 minutes after launch the spacecraft entered orbit, where it is due to remain for several days circling the Earth every 90 minutes.
Its flight is being monitored and controlled from several ground stations, including the Beijing Aerospace Direction and Control Center in the Chinese capital, Xian Satellite Monitoring Center, and a fleet of four monitoring vessels deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
China sent its first Shenzhou, which loosely translated means Vessel of the Gods, into orbit in 1999.
The secretive Chinese space agency announced details about the flight only after the capsule landed 21 hours later in a remote region of Inner Mongolia.
In 2001, the center launched Shenzhou II into orbit with several small animals including a monkey, dog and rabbit as passengers on board.
The menagerie returned unharmed one week later, according to Chinese media reports.
The Shenzhou III, which includes a simulated human complete with sensors to monitor conditions, is expected to return within days, the People's Daily Online, the Internet division of the China's leading People's Daily newspaper reported.
The craft also contains biological, astronomical and engineering materials experiments.
During the launch, an escape system that could save the lives of astronauts should anything go wrong in a future launch was also tested.
China hopes the Shenzhou program will help it join in an elite technological club. Only the United States and Russia have sent humans into orbit.
China hopes to perform the feat within the decade although no fixed date has yet been set. Officials say ensuring the safety of future astronauts is the number one priority.
A group of astronauts -- or Taikonauts as they have been dubbed from the Chinese word for outer space -- have been trained for the program.
China's leaders says the country's space achievements will spur economic development, scientific advancement and the modernization of national defense.
Last year, Asian media reports suggested that China would send its own explorers into space before the end of 2002.
But a top Chinese space expert told the People's Daily Online that the timetable was too ambitious and additional unmanned tests would be required before the first manned flight.
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