China confirms October space date
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China has confirmed that it is planning to launch its first manned space flight at "an appropriate time" between October 15 and 17.
The announcement was made Friday by an unidentified official in charge of the country's manned space program, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
If it is successful, the flight will put China in an elite club of space powers, making it only the third nation -- in addition to the United States and Russia -- capable of putting humans into space.
"The Shenzhou V spacecraft will carry out the first manned space mission and will lift off from the China Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center," Xinhua quoted the official as saying.
"Now all preparatory work for the launch is progressing smoothly."
Factors affecting the final launch time include the weather at the launch and landing sites and the presence of orbiting space debris that could strike the spacecraft.
Reports earlier this week quoted officials at China's state-run CCTV television as saying they planned to broadcast the launch and subsequent flight live across the country.
Friday's announcement also gave the first official details of the planned flight, revealing that the Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) V spacecraft would make 14 orbits of the Earth before landing in a pre-selected area.
However, no details were given about the identity or number of the spacecraft's first passengers.
The Shenzhou is thought to be capable of carrying up to three astronauts, but several reports have said the first flight will carry just one.
Nonetheless, the wording of the Xinhua report implied that at least two astronauts had been selected for the mission, saying that a "team" of astronauts – also dubbed "taikonauts" after the Chinese word for space -- had been formed for the mission.
Training and selection
The report added that "they" had passed "strict tests, training and selection" and "a comprehensive drill" in preparation for the flight -- although that may mean that only one astronaut will fly on the day with one or more kept as backup.
China has trained an elite corps of 14 astronauts, all of them men and all former fighter pilots with more than 1,000 hours flying experience.
At least two are believed to have received training at Russia's Star City space training center outside Moscow.
The astronaut or astronauts will wear a Chinese-designed space suit that official media has described as costing "the equivalent price of a luxury car."
Other than that little is known about the men, at least one of whom is destined to become a national hero if all goes well.
The identities of all of China's astronauts, like many details of the military-linked space program, has been kept a closely guarded secret.
China's government sees the space program as a focus for building national pride and demonstrating the capability of Chinese engineering.
However, critics have said the program, which costs billions of dollars a year, is wasteful for a country where millions of citizens still struggle to earn enough to feed themselves.