China launched its first manned spacecraft today, staking its claim to superpower status by joining an exclusive club of space-travelling nations that previously included only the United States and Russia.
Lieutenant-Colonel Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old fighter pilot, was aboard the Shenzhou 5 (Divine Vessel) when it blasted into space aboard a Long March 2F rocket from a launch pad in the Gobi Desert at exactly 9 a.m. this morning (9 p.m. EDT).
Within 10 minutes it had entered orbit. The spaceship is expected to circle the Earth 14 times in the course of about 21 hours. President Hu Jintao proclaimed it a "historic step" and "the glory of our great motherland."
The first Chinese person in space, who earns a modest salary of about $1,525 per month, is the son of a teacher and an agricultural official from the industrial "rust belt" of northeastern China. The 5-foot-6 officer in the People's Liberation Army, chosen from a pool of 14 astronaut candidates, will be lionized in the news media here as China's newest hero.
"I feel good," he reportedly told ground controllers in his first words from space about half an hour after liftoff. "See you tomorrow."
Television announcers said he was "composed and at ease" as he read a flight manual in his spacecraft. "I will not disappoint the motherland," a Chinese Web site quoted him as saying before the launch. "I will complete each movement with total concentration. And I will gain honour for the People's Liberation Army and for the Chinese nation."
Chinese state television broke into its regular programming to announce the launch this morning. Pictures quickly followed, and crowds gathered around television sets to watch.
Earlier plans for a live broadcast of the liftoff were cancelled, apparently for fear of a disaster. (In 1995 a Chinese rocket exploded after liftoff, killing six people on the ground.) But within minutes of liftoff, Chinese state television began heavy coverage of the story, with hour after hour of constant reporting. Scenes of the liftoff were accompanied by uplifting music that sounded like the Star Wars theme.
Until today, only the United States and Russia had the capacity to send a human into space. But China has aggressively pursued its space goals, seeking both the propaganda gains and the commercial and military applications that it can achieve by launching its own astronauts into space.
In downtown Beijing, hundreds of people gathered around a giant television screen on a major shopping street to watch the latest news of the launch. "I'm very excited," said 40-year-old Liu Zengke, a manager of a forestry company, who learned about the launch from a message on his cellphone. "It's a sign of China's national power. This will be good for China's military and scientific technology."
A special edition of Liberation Daily hit the streets of Beijing within minutes of the liftoff. "Chinese today ascend into space," the banner headline blared.
The space launch has fuelled a growing wave of nationalist fervour here. News stories of Chinese space triumphs abound, along with breathless accounts of future missions to the moon or Mars. One television channel has launched a 20-part documentary series on the Chinese space program.
"This proves our strength," one reader wrote on the People's Daily Web site. "Long live our great motherland!" Another proclaimed that she would name her new baby Yin He (Milky Way) in honour of the space launch. "It's a glorious moment in my life to see the rise of our country's manned spacecraft," someone else added.
Many Chinese used the space launch to take jabs at the United States and Japan. "The Americans are too hegemonic," said one. "They are taking outer space as their back garden. So we must go up there."
Despite the patriotic mood, many Chinese people still question the cost of the space program. Beijing is spending more than $2.5-billion annually to develop its space program, a vast sum in a country where 140 million live on less than $1 a day.
Beijing's great leap up
China launched its first manned spacecraft this morning, making it the third country to do so after the Soviet Union and the United States.
SHENZHOU V( Divine Vessel V)
The Shenzhou spaceship will be carried into the skies by the Long March 2-F rocket.
Length: 8.65 m
Width: 2.80 m
Weight: 7.8 tonnes
Crew ascent/descent module: Can accommodate three crew but only one is expected for the first flight.
Orbital module: Contains scientific equipment and is likely to remain in orbit for up to six months.
Service module: Loaded with ship electronics and rocket engine assembly.
Spacecraft currently in use:
Max. crew: 8
Weight (at liftoff): 2,041 tonnes
First manned launch: April, 1981
Max. crew: 3
Weight (at liftoff): 297 tonnes
First manned launch: November, 1963
Long March 2-F
Max. crew: 3
Weight (at liftoff): 464 tonnes
First manned launch: Today