BEIJING: China began the final countdown yesterday in its bid to become the third nation to rocket a man into orbit, with clear skies forecast over the Gobi desert launchpad where lift-off was due to come as soon as today.
But with the pride of a rising nation pinned to the mission, it was unclear whether China would risk allowing its 1.3 billion people to witness the launch.
Newspapers said state television had scuttled plans for live broadcast and station officials gave conflicting accounts of plans.
On Monday, mission control successfully simulated the launch of the Shenzhou V, or “Divine Ship”, and was fuelling the spacecraft, the Lanzhou Morning Post, based in the province of Gansu, reported from the launch base in nearby Inner Mongolia.
President Hu Jintao was to fly there later yesterday to watch China's bid to realise its decades-old space dreams, Hong Kong media said.
Hu and other leaders have been closeted in Beijing grappling with more earthly concerns, such as a harrowing rich-poor gap, at a Party Central Committee plenum.
Hu was to meet the astronaut – identity still unknown – chosen for the solo flight and preside over a short ceremony before the launch, Hong Kong reports said.
After months of secrecy, the official Xinhua news agency said last week the manned mission would blast off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base between today and Friday and make 14 orbits, spending about 21 hours in space.
Chinese television began whetting the popular appetite for otherworldly adventure on Monday.
It screened a documentary on the history of the nation's space programme called Shaking the Heavens and clips of Hollywood's extraterrestrial run-ins, such as cult director Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space.
Meteorologists expected fair skies over Jiuquan today and many Chinese were equally upbeat.
“In the 21st century, China is moving from the ranks of the developing countries to the ranks of the developed,” said Liu Qingsong, 33, manager of a health products firm in Beijing.
“This will be a big step in that direction.”
Space application systems director Gu Yidong told Xinhua the launch would be just a “first step” towards loftier goals like tapping the cosmos as an industrial base.
For now, though, China is trumpeting more modest aims for its growing investment in space, like better satellite data services, weather forecasts and new strains of rice, with up to 12% more protein than that now planted in Chinese padi fields.
There are already signs a smooth mission, along with plans for a lunar probe, a stroll on the moon and a space station, will boost China's aerospace sector.
Shares of Hong Kong-listed China Aerospace International Holdings Ltd, which makes global positioning systems, jumped 16.4% on Monday on hopes of more government investment in space industry.
China would be the third nation to accomplish manned flight, after the former Soviet Union and the United States.
Despite a lag of more than four decades between China and its predecessors, success would spur the country's efforts to emerge on the world stage marked by more active diplomacy, a winning bid to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and a robust economy.
Failure would deal a blow to the national psyche and cast the country's myriad problems – from the unrest of laid-off workers and disgruntled farmers to derelict welfare and health systems – in stark relief.
In a possible sign of Beijing's apprehensions, several newspapers said state broadcaster CCTV planned to show only taped footage of the launch.
It cancelled live coverage on the advice of “relevant space experts”, the Lanzhou paper said. – Reuters