China celebrates space success
Manned launch before end of year, say experts
HONG KONG, China -- Chinese state media on Monday trumpeted the success of its latest space launch and beginning the countdown to an anticipated manned mission later this year.
On Monday, state newspapers and television showed images of the unmanned Shenzhou IV spacecraft, which landed in January in remote Inner Mongolia after nearly a week in orbit.
Quoting unnamed experts associated with the space program, the reports said the next launch -- planned for before the end of the year -- was expected to carry at least one Chinese astronaut.
If China successfully completes a manned space mission it would become only the third country in the world capable of putting humans into space.
"The latest mission further testified to the maturity of China's space ... technology and laid a solid foundation for the country to realize its long-cherished dream of manned space flights," the official China Daily newspaper quoted an unnamed source as saying.
So far, only Russia and the United States have launched manned space missions.
The reports released Monday included rare video footage of Chinese astronauts in training.
State television showed two astronauts -- dubbed "Taikonauts" after the Chinese word for space -- in what appeared to be zero gravity training.
Accompanying them were a couple of stuffed toy pandas, as well as several apparently Western scientists, suggesting that the training may have taken place in Russia or with Russian assistance.
The report did not say when the training was filmed or name either of the two astronauts, the Associated Press said.
In total China is thought to have some 14 astronauts undergoing training for space missions, all of them drawn from the elite of the air force's fighter pilots.
However, few other details have emerged from the program, which has been clouded in secrecy since it began in 1992.
The Shenzhou IV space capsule was launched into space on December 30 from a site in the Gobi desert.
It orbited the Earth 108 times, testing its maneuverability and life-support systems, according to Chinese media.
The capsule, based on Russia's rugged but reliable Soyuz spacecraft, reportedly carried all the equipment necessary for a manned mission.
It is expected to be transported within days back to Beijing. There scientists will examine samples carried in the capsule and conduct tests on the vehicle to determine how well it coped with the intense heat of re-entry.
China has been investing millions of dollars and man-hours in its effort to achieve manned space flight -- a program seen by the country's leaders as a symbol of national prestige.
Also thought to be in the works as part of China's wider space ambitions are plans for a manned moon mission.
However, some groups criticize the program as a waste of money in a country where hundreds of millions of rural peasants still struggle to make ends meet.
The Shenzhou capsule is thought to be capable of carrying three or four astronauts, but it is unclear how many astronauts might take part in the first mission.
Some regional newspapers with close connections to Beijing have suggested that the first orbital mission might be flown by just one person.
Citing anonymous sources, unconfirmed reports in Hong Kong and Taiwan have suggested that the astronaut will be Chen Long, a 30-year-old fighter pilot.