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China Opens New Chapter in Space History

China launched its second manned space mission, sending two astronauts into orbit as it opened a new chapter in its ambitious drive to become a global space power.

Shenzhou VI lifted off on a Long March 2F carrier rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 9 AM (0100 GMT) for a five-day mission carrying air force pilots Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.

It entered a fixed orbit 21 minutes later.

The first day's flight is satisfying, the Xinhua News Agency quoted space experts as saying.

The spacecraft enjoyed normal electricity supply and maintained its basic functions after entering the orbit, said the experts.

The astronauts smoothly completed their actions as planned, such as taking on and off the space suits, opening the capsule doors, eating, drinking and sleeping, Xinhua said.

The capability of the spacecraft to shift orbit also stood the test.

The two astronauts will Thursday be engaged in an anti-disturbance experiment in which Fei and Nie will open and close the capsule doors, take on and off their space suits and operate various equipments.

They would purposely use more strength to move, so as to test the disturbance of people's movement on the spacecraft.

Having two crew on board is a departure from October 2003, when Yang Liwei spent 21 hours on a solo odyssey -- a mission that made China only the third country after the United States and former Soviet Union to achieve the feat.

Some 40 seconds after Wednesday's launch the craft disappeared into the clouds, but a camera on board showed Nie waving as the launch center said lift off and all signals were "normal".

"I feel good," said Fei in his first transmission from the craft.

Fei, 40, and Nie, 41, were seen off by Premier Wen Jiabao, who was at the launch pad to drum up nationalistic sentiment, saying he believed "the astronauts will accomplish the glorious and sacred mission".

"You will once again show that the Chinese people have the will, confidence and capability to mount scientific peaks ceaselessly," Wen said, adding that the whole country expects "their victorious return from the mission."

Other top leaders including President Hu Jintao and and Vice President Zeng Qinghong watched the event at the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center.

Snow was falling at the launch site shortly before lift off but stopped at about the time the astronauts entered their craft, Xinhua news agency reported.

The fact that Wednesday's mission carried two astronauts reflects the twin purposes of China's space program, which aims for both scientific gains and kudos at home and abroad.

"Part of it is technical. If you are two people, you can do more complicated and more sophisticated types of work and experimentation," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the US Naval War College.

"Part of its also too is prestige. Two people is harder than one person," she said.

The two astronauts talked, through a phone, with their family members in the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center for about seven minutes, the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Nie Tianxiang, daughter of Nie Haisheng, sang a song for her father's birthday which falls on Thursday.

Shenzhou VI is expected to circle around the Earth for the next 119 hours, or nearly five days, before landing in the Inner Mongolian grasslands.

The craft is based on the robust and thoroughly tested Soviet design for the Soyuz vessel, and consists of three modules.

These include the orbital module where scientific experiments are carried out; the re-entry capsule where the astronauts will spend most of their time; and the service module, which contains fuel and air, solar panels and other technical gear.

Unlike Yang Liwei two years ago, the two astronauts will leave their capsule for lengthy experiments in the orbital module at the nose of the spacecraft, observers said.

"They'll do quite a lot of medical tests, they'll take blood tests, urine tests, and they will also work out what kind of space food works for them" said Brian Harvey, the Dublin-based author of a book on China's space ambitions.

"Because ultimately what they are planning is a space station... and to do that they will need to learn how do they survive on longer missions."

The flight of Shenzhou VI will also be a thorough and comprehensive test of China's tracking network, which includes tracking stations as far away as Namibia and four tracking ships placed around the oceans of the world.

In Jiuquan city, several hours' drive away from the satellite launch center, a sense of local pride was clearly visible.

"Wishing a successful launch of Shenzhou VI," said a large red poster in front of one of the city's hotels, while billboards advertised special "Shenzhou Rice Wine."

"We're very happy about all this," said Ma Li, a teenage resident of Jiuquan city. "It's amazing that we Chinese gradually have the know-how to pull this kind of thing off," she said.

Peaceful use of space

China had stressed that its space program was peaceful and it did not want to enter any arms race in space.

China develops space technology purely for peaceful purposes, Premier Wen Jiabao said, adding that China is willing to cooperate with other nations in the development of space science and technology.

The United States congratulated China on successful launch and welcomed any effort to make peaceful use of space.

"We obviously congratulate China on the successful launch of its second manned space mission," Deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.

"Our view is that the peaceful use of space is something that is appropriate and we welcome China's developments in this area."

(Xinhua News Agency October 13, 2003)



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