Launch nears for China's spacecraft
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Final preparations are being made ahead of China's highly anticipated launch of its first manned spacecraft, state media has reported.
Mission controllers have said the launch will take place in daylight anytime between Wednesday and Friday, although there is mounting speculation in the Chinese media that the Long March 2-F rocket will blast off at about 9 a.m. Wednesday (0100 GMT Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET Tuesday).
If it is successful the 14-orbit flight of the Shenzhou V spacecraft will bring China membership of an elite space club, making it only the third country after Russia and the U.S. capable of putting humans into space.
Senior Communist party leaders including President Hu Jintao and his predecessor Jiang Zemin are expected to travel to the remote Jiuquan launch site in the Gobi Desert Tuesday night in preparation for the launch. (Launch site satellite photo)
Weather forecasters say clear skies at the site should provide ideal conditions for the launch to go ahead as planned.
The Shenzhou V is expected to carry just one person on its flight; although reports say the capsule -- based on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft -- is capable of carrying up to three passengers.
China is thought to have trained a corps of 14 astronauts for its manned space program -- whittled down as of Tuesday to a shortlist of three for the coveted spot on the first flight.
The military-linked space program is shrouded in secrecy and the identity of the astronauts, like many other details, has not been officially revealed.
However, according to Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po, which has close connections with Beijing, the most likely candidate to be chosen as China's first man in space is Yang Liwei.
Splashing a picture of him across its front page, Wen Wei Po said Yang was born in 1965 and qualified as an astronaut in 1993. (Image: Wen Wei Po front page)
The paper named the other two astronauts on the shortlist as Zhai Zhigang and third is Nie Haisheng but gave no other details about them.
A last round of tests Tuesday night will select the man who will pilot the Shenzhou V, state media reported.
As the final countdown gets under way the Jiuquan launch center is reported to be a scene of feverish activity, with hundreds of paramilitary police ensuring tight security around the facility.
Other than mission controllers and select VIPs, no outside journalists have been allowed permits to cover the event with only a few representatives of Chinese state-run media likely to witness the launch.
Reports Tuesday said state broadcaster CCTV had scrapped plans to transmit live television pictures of the launch on the advice of "space experts."
According to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post the live broadcast was canceled "because the leadership considered the political risks of a failure too great," the newspaper said citing unidentified "media sources."
In 1995 a Long March rocket veered off course on take off and exploded, killing six people on the ground.
The accident was broadcast live on national television and observers say it continues to cast a cloud over the current space program
In the run-up to launch state media has ramped up its coverage of the space effort, covering front pages with red flags and pictures of the Long March rocket waiting atop the launch pad.
China's leaders are banking on a successful flight being a huge boost to the country's prestige and a demonstration of its technological prowess.
However, observers say the leadership is also wary of concerns that the launch may fail, striking a damaging blow to national pride and the image of the Communist party.