JIUQUAN, Oct 15: China on Wednesday launched an astronaut into space aboard the Shenzhou V craft in a historic mission which catapults the country into an elite club alongside Russia and the United States.
The Long March II F rocket carrying the capsule blasted into clear skies from the Gobi desert, in north China’s Inner Mongolia, at 9am (6am PST) for a 21-hour flight during which the craft was to orbit the Earth 14 times.
Shenzhou V went into a pre-set orbit 10 minutes after takeoff as China became just the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to put a man in space 42 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s epic first flight.
Reflecting official Chinese pride, an official of the People’s Liberation Army, Lt Col Yang Liwei, who was at the controls, unfurled China’s five-star national flag after he reached space.
“I feel good, see you tomorrow,” 38-year-old Yang, a fighter pilot with more than 1,300 hours flight time, was quoted as saying 34 minutes after liftoff in China’s first words from space.
Late in the day, he made a long-distance call to his wife, telling her the view was “beautiful”.
“It feels good to be in space,” he told his wife, Zhang Yumei, who is also employed at China’s space programme, while their eight-year-old son was listening in. “The view of the universe is beautiful.”
Described as a “warrior” by President Hu Jintao, Mr Yang was shown three hours into the mission lying on his back resting after a traditional Chinese lunch of diced chicken meat and rice cooked with nuts and dates.
Seven hours into the flight, he completed a planned orbit shift, said to be crucial in order to pull off a safe and precise landing.
Ninety minutes later, he was in radio contact with Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan, reassuring him everything was going according to plan.
“Thank you for your concern, commander, please don’t be worried,” Yang told the minister, according to the People’s Daily website.
Hu watched the blast-off at the Jiuquan centre and hailed the launch as “the glory of our great motherland”.
Former president and military chief, Jiang Zemin, who named the Shenzhou programme and was expected to be at Jiuquan, was not mentioned by any official media as attending.
Hu said the culmination of the 11-year space programme was a “historic step of the Chinese people in the advance of climbing over the peak of the world’s science and technology”.
Russia, which has trained Chinese astronauts, led congratulations from around the world.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair also sent a congratulatory message, saying he was impressed by “the dedication and skill of all those involved in this historic mission”.
The mission is being tracked from 13 monitoring stations dotted across China, Pakistan, Namibia and Kenya.
The craft is expected to land in central Inner Mongolia between 6am and 7am on Thursday (3am and 4am PST).
SECRETIVE PROGRAMME: The launch caps a highly secretive programme, codenamed Project 921, that has cost billions of dollars and comes as the United States agonizes over its own manned space flights following the loss of its second shuttle Columbia in February this year.
The secrecy continued up to the launch with the government pulling the plug without explanation on a live broadcast. Analysts said fear of disappointment and criticism if the mission failed was likely behind the decision.
The Communist Party has much riding on a successful mission, hoping it will promote patriotism, national cohesion and legitimacy for its rule, and with millions potentially watching, failure would have been a publicity disaster.
While prestige is a key component of China’s desire to compete in space with other world powers, Chinese officials have said there are military connotations.
Beijing has played this down in recent days and the United States has indicated it is willing to accept this version of events.
Several US experts have speculated that China is aiming to catch up with the United States and Russia, which already have numerous military spy satellites in orbit. —AFP