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China's space quest gathers speed

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The space suits worn by China's two October 2005 astronauts, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, go on display in Beijing after the pair's safe return.

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(CNN) -- China has mapped out an ambitious space program for the next decade that includes a space walk in 2008, a lunar robot lander by 2012 and a possible space station after that, according to state-run media.

China already has completed two piloted space flights -- the Shenzhou-5 launch in October 2003 and Shenzhou-6 in October 2005 -- that demonstrated its ability to put one or more astronauts into space and bring them home safely.

The first flight, with Yang Liwei aboard, lasted less than a day before the capsule, slung beneath a parachute, landed on Inner Mongolia's grasslands. The 21-hour flight transformed the 38-year-old former air force pilot into an instant hero for millions of Chinese.

Two years later, two astronauts, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, stayed aloft for five days, giving a further enormous boost to China's national pride. Their capsule safely parachuted to earth in the same area of Inner Mongolia as Yang's flight.

Those achievements lifted China into an elite group. Only the former Soviet Union and the United States previously had successfully put men and women into space, beginning with Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's first Earth orbit in 1961 aboard Vostok-1, and John Glenn's Mercury-6 orbital mission the following year for the U.S.

Now, according to state-run Xinhua news agency, the China Manned Space Flight Engineering Office says its next piloted space flight, Shenzhou-7, scheduled for 2008, will feature a space walk.

"Our initial plans are to have one or two astronauts walk in space for about half an hour," office director Wang Zhougui was quoted as saying recently by Xinhua.

Shenzhou-8, with a mission that includes a space dock, will be launched around 2009-2011, according to Wang, Xinhua reported.

Along with the Shenzhou piloted space program, China is pushing ahead with its Chang'e (named for the Chinese Moon goddess) series of pilotless missions. These envisage a lunar orbiter in 2007 (Chang'e-1), a lunar landing by 2012 and a robotic rover that will land, sample the Moon's surface and return to Earth by 2020.

China's space program, which dates back to the founding of the first rocket research institute in October 1956, has been held up by the Chinese leadership as a shining example of the country's technological prowess.

After Soviet assistance was withdrawn in the late 1950s, China set to work on applying the technology it had acquired. It launched its first self-developed liquid propulsion rocket in February 1962, and by April 1970 was able to launch its first satellite, Dongfanghong-1, aboard a Long March rocket. The satellite remained in orbit for 26 days transmitting the revolutionary song "The East Is Red."

The Long March rockets became the mainstay of the country's commercial satellite launch business in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but China's reputation slipped in the mid-1990s following a series of embarrassing rocket failures.

In 1992, China's leadership had given the go-ahead for Project 921 -- the mission to put a man in space.

The Russian Space Agency helped train the Chinese astronauts, and by 1999 China had launched its first Shenzhou rocket and was on track for the successful missions of 2003 and 2005.

Now, China's space goal is similar to the motto of the athletes who will compete in the Beijing 2008 Olympics: swifter, higher, stronger.

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