China's space capsule a success

BEIJING: As China celebrated the return of its latest unmanned space capsule from orbit, state television offered a rare glimpse yesterday into its secretive astronaut programme, showing two men training in simulated weightlessness. 

The brief footage on the national midday news came during a report on the landing on Sunday of the Shenzhou IV capsule after a week-long flight that officials had said could lead to a manned launch this year. 

It was one of the first images ever shown on state television of China’s astronauts, dubbed “taikonauts” after the Chinese word for space. Their identities haven’t been released. 

The two men were shown in what appeared to be an airplane outfitted to simulate zero gravity. There were several Westerners with them, suggesting the scene was filmed in Russia, where at least two Chinese astronauts have trained. 

A pair of stuffed toy panda bears floated past the camera as the two men, dressed in coveralls with Chinese flags on the chest, donned space suits in the background. The report didn’t say when the scene was filmed. 

The broadcast added to signs of China’s growing confidence in its effort to become the third nation, after Russia and the United States, able to send its own astronauts into orbit. The programme began in 1992 but has released little information, possibly to avoid embarrassment if it suffered technical setbacks. 

Communist leaders have invested heavily in the programme, which they hope will win them domestic support and respect abroad. A manned flight would serve as proof of the country’s technical prowess and progress after two decades of economic reform. 

State newspapers yesterday carried adulatory coverage of the Shenzhou IV landing late Sunday on the snow-covered northern grasslands of the Inner Mongolia region. Front page photos showed the drum-shaped capsule lying on its side, surrounded by recovery crews bundled up against the subfreezing cold. 

The Shenzhou IV blasted into space on Dec 30 from a base in the Gobi desert. The official Xinhua News Agency said it orbited the earth 108 times and performed hundreds of manoeuvres, including unfolding its solar panels. 

It was the fourth unmanned Shenzhou flight. Official media said the capsule, based on Russia’s Soyuz, carried all the equipment necessary for manned flight and tested life-support equipment. 

“Completion of the successful voyage starts a countdown for China to realise its ambitions of becoming the third country to put people in orbit,” the China Daily said. 

Despite such cheerleading, ordinary Chinese are ambivalent, partly because of the lack of public information. Some criticise the program as a waste of money.  

Foreign experts note that Shenzhou can carry up to three astronauts, and they say China might be planning to send more than one person on the first flight. However, reports by Hong Kong and Taiwan news media said last week that only one astronaut will make the first flight. 

The newspapers Sing Tao of Hong Kong, China Times of Taiwan and the Chinese news Web site identified the first pilot as Chen Long. The reports cited anonymous Chinese sources. 

They said Chen had been chosen from 14 trainee astronauts and described him and an unidentified backup pilot as about 30 years old and of medium height and build. They said each has flown more than 1,000 hours in fighter jets. – AP  

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