Orbit first step on China's way to moon
By Joe Havely
China has plans to plant another flag on the lunar surface.
China's first manned space flight is seen as reason for national pride and prestige, CNN's Jaime FlorCruz reports
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(CNN) -- China's much anticipated first manned space flight is just the initial step in an ambitious program of space exploration.
Although the program remains clouded in secrecy, some tantalizing details have emerged in recent years over how China plans to carve out a place among world space powers, exploring distant planets and establishing permanently manned bases beyond Earth's gravity.
Aside from putting a man into orbit, a government White Paper published in November 2000 laid out plans for a fast track effort to launch a Chinese space station, send probes to the moon and eventually establish a manned base on the lunar surface.
Beyond that, scientists are also looking at sending robotic probes to Mars while simultaneously putting out feelers exploring the possibility of joining the International Space Station.
From their approach China's space scientists seem confident of their technological ability to catch up with, match, and, in some cases, jump ahead of the more established space powers -- namely Russia, the United States and, to a lesser degree, the European Space Agency .
The first manned space launch, for example, comes after just four test flights of the Shenzhou spacecraft.
Both the Soviets and the Americans conducted two or three times as many tests before having the confidence to risk the life of an astronaut.
Now, with shuttle flights suspended, China's historic launch also looks set to take place at a time when the United States has no manned space flight capability in operation.
That said, in the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster and the more recent launch pad explosion of a Brazilian rocket, China's mission controllers do not want to be seen as reckless. Safety is being given absolute priority.
Nonetheless, the objective is clear that putting a man into space is merely the first step towards a greater goal.
Once human space flight is cracked, observers say, the next objective will be docking between two spacecraft in orbit.
Already China is reported to have purchased a space docking system from Russia under a secret agreement on space cooperation signed between the two countries in 1996.
Manned space flight is just the first step in China's space ambitions.
That system has already been built into the Shenzhou spacecraft – the vehicle likely to be the cornerstone of China's space effort in the near future.
With a docking capability experts say the obvious next step is the establishment of a Chinese space station, giving China a platform for a permanent manned platform in space.
From there, China's space plans go further even afield.
The November 2000 White Paper gave the nation's scientists a decade to begin "carrying out pre-study for outer space exploration centering on exploration of the moon."
The project has been named Chang'e, after a mythical lady who flew to the moon.
More recent reports in state media say plans are already well in progress to begin sending a series of unmanned probes into lunar orbit and then to the surface of the moon as early as 2005.
That stage of the program would culminate in the return of lunar samples to Earth, Luan Enjie, director of the China National Space Admistration told state media in early 2003.
That in turn would pave the way for the most ambitious part of China's space plan -- sending manned missions to the moon and eventually establishing a permanent Chinese lunar base.