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China eyes mid-October space date

A Long March rocket like this one is waiting on the launch pad.
A Long March rocket like this one is waiting on the launch pad.

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China's space program and its first manned space flight are seen as a reason for national pride and prestige.
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Shenzhou spacecraft

HONG KONG, China -- A mid-October launch date is emerging as the most likely for China to blast its first astronaut into space, according to reports in Chinese media.

One report, quoted on the Chinese Web site Sina.com Wednesday, said the historic flight would take place on October 15, last about 90 minutes and involve just one orbit of the Earth -- about the same as the first man in space, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Other recent reports, citing a less specific mid-October date, have said the flight could last up to 24 hours and involve several orbits.

Wary of being bruised by any setbacks, China's government has remained tight-lipped about the launch date despite the mission being front page news across the country for weeks.

With its close ties to the military, China's space program is clouded in secrecy.

No previous launches have been announced in advance, although the successes have been widely trumpeted by state media as a source of national pride.

However, in recent days speculation has been mounting that October 15 is the optimum launch date, coming a day after a key meeting of the communist party leadership concludes.

Current and past leaders -- including former president Jiang Zemin, a key proponent of the manned space program -- are expected to travel to the Jiuquan launch site in the remote west of the country to witness the blast off.

If it is successful, the Shenzhou V flight will bring China alongside the United States and Russia as the only nations on Earth capable of launching humans into space.

Sina.com and other media have also said that engineers for CCTV, China's state television broadcaster, were making preparations to carry the launch live.

"The provisional plan is for October 15," an unnamed CCTV official told Reuters.

"We have plans to cover the launch of Shenzhou V live," the official was quoted as saying, adding "the exact time has not been fixed yet."

'Full of confidence'

A corps of 14 astronauts has been trained for space missions.
A corps of 14 astronauts has been trained for space missions.

Earlier reports in state media have said the launch would take place during daylight hours in order to maximize safety for astronaut or astronauts on board.

Previous unmanned test launches of the Shenzhou spacecraft have taken place at night.

Sina.com quoted Hong Kong-based broadcaster Phoenix Television as the source of the latest report citing October 15 as the prime launch date.

The Web site also carried comments from the former head of the government's China Rocket Design Department saying he was "full of confidence" about the imminent launch.

"China's space technology has been created by China itself," Xie Guangxuan was quoted as saying, apparently refuting suggestions that much of the space program is based on acquired Russian technology.

Xie said the first manned flight of the Shenzhou spacecraft would involve just one flight and would carry no scientific equipment, "to ensure the astronaut has space," Sina.com reported.

China has trained an elite corps of some 14 astronauts, all of whom are reported to have traveled to the launch site for training in the Shenzhou V capsule.

All being well, in a matter of days one or more of these men will find themselves catapulted into the history books.


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