Manned Mission Expected This Weekend
You wouldn't know it to
talk with a government official in Beijing, but China is on the
verge of its "glorious" first manned space mission. In fact, the
launch could take place as early as this weekend. What the rest of
the world doesn't know could fill the fuel tanks of a booster
For instance, the upcoming mission could carry one "taikonaut"
into orbit. Or three. China won't say. There are 12 candidates for
the job(s), all 5'7" tall and weighing around 143 pounds. But who
are they? The government won't say.
The cost of the space capsule that will carry the taikonaut(s)
into orbit is estimated at $1 billion. But what's the exact cost?
The Chinese won't say.
"They don’t want to commit themselves," said Phillip
Clark, a British expert on the Chinese program.
The irony is that, 42 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri
Gregarin became the first human in space, China is about to do what
the world's leader in space technology can't. US orbiters are
currently grounded. There will be no manned launches from Cape
Canaveral for at least another year, barring emergencies at the
International Space Station.
But there's a heavy cost associated with China's space program
and some people there are beginning to get resentful. The Chinese
government has been working on this launch for eleven years. It
costs the average Chinese worker -- who makes only $700 a year -- a
dollar every 12 months.
That money funds development, testing and construction of the
Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel." It weighs about eight tons, making it
bigger than the Russian Soyuz capsule, upon which its design was
based. China bought Russian space suits and life support systems,
but they don't plan to put them in space. Beijing insists that
everything -- right down to the food -- that goes on board the
Shenzhou will be made in China.
There have been four test flights of the "Divine Vessel." The
capsule used on the third flight was reportedly damaged in a hard
landing (the Shenzhou lands just as the Soyuz does, by parachuting
from re-entry to solid earth, rather than the watery landings
favored by NASA).
If the people of the People's Republic aren't thrilled about the
space program, given its tremendous costs, the Chinese government
certainly is. Last week, the secretary-general of the
government’s Commission of Science, Technology and Industry
for National Defense was quoted by a state news agency as issuing a
rare public affirmation of official interest in such ambitions. "In
the future," the China News Service quoted Wang Shuquan as saying,
"China will conduct tests on lunar-landing flight."
But as to when, the Chinese government... won't say.