GOBI DESERT, China, 16 October 2003 — China fired its first astronaut into orbit without any visible hitches yesterday, becoming only the third nation capable of manned spaceflight. The government said the mission was going smoothly and its “taikonaut” radioed back: “I feel good.”
The launch capped a decade-long effort by China’s secretive, military-linked space program that communist leaders hope will boost the nation’s image abroad — and their standing at home among their own people.
The rocket carrying Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, a 38-year-old fighter pilot turned astronaut, streaked into a clear blue sky at precisely 9 a.m. (0100 GMT) from a Gobi Desert launch pad in China’s remote northwest. The government said the Shenzhou 5 space capsule entered orbit 10 minutes later.
China Central Television broke into its programming to announce the liftoff, and 28 minutes later broadcast the first gripping scenes of the rocket blasting off. CCTV, which ran stirring music that was strikingly similar to the “Star Wars” theme, said the flight would last 14 orbits and 21 hours, with a landing early today in China’s northern grasslands.
Yang hurtled around the planet for most of the day, making a planned orbit shift in mid-afternoon and stopping work only to rest and eat Chinese food designed especially for space travel.
Later, with his mission nearly half over, he spoke to ground control and his boss. “Don’t worry — I’m going to work hard to accomplish the task,” he told Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan.
Shenzhou 5 is scheduled to land on the Inner Mongolian grasslands of northern China at about 6 a.m. today (2200 GMT yesterday).
Chinese President Hu Jintao, at the launch base for the liftoff, called it “the glory of our great motherland,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
“The party and the people will never forget those who have set up the outstanding merit in the space industry for the motherland, the people and the nation,” Hu said.
State television showed Hu and a group of senior officials and military officers watching the launch from outdoor bleachers, craning their necks to follow the rocket toward space. The president, wearing large sunglasses, grinned once it became clear the launch was successful.
China’s leaders long ago replaced their leftist ideology with sweeping economic reform, and resort instead to flag-waving nationalistic appeals to bind their nation together — a strategy reflected in Beijing’s successful campaign for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Russia, which sent the first man into space more than 40 years ago, led congratulations yesterday for China’s first manned space mission which European officials predicted would open a new era of cooperation.
The flight comes four decades after the former Soviet Union and the United States pioneered manned spaceflight.
The United States also hailed the launch, while astronaut Buzz Aldrin, one of the first men on the moon, raised the prospect of a new space race.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe called the launch an important achievement.
“The Chinese people have a long and distinguished history of exploration,” he said in a statement. “NASA wishes China a continued safe human space flight program.”
Aldrin said the feat heralded a new age that could either result in greater competition or greater cooperation in space.
“I do believe that it opens up a decision to be made as to whether this will move toward a race in space, or a joining together of mutual beneficial assistance,” he said in Tokyo, where he was attending a conference. Along with Neil Armstrong, Aldrin took part in the first moon landing in 1969.
“We welcome this development and congratulate China for joining the club of space powers that have their own manned space programs,” ITAR-TASS quoted the first deputy of the Russian space agency Nikolai Moiseyev as saying.
European Space Agency (ESA) director general Jean-Jacques Dordain hailed it as an “outstanding achievement” which he said demonstrated the reliability of China’s aerospace technology. “This mission could open up a new era of wider cooperation in the worlds space community,” he said in a statement.
European experts also suggested that China’s manned orbital flight could help it muscle its way aboard the financially troubled International Space Station (ISS).
Scientists in India, China’s regional rival and apparently piqued by Beijing’s manned space mission, recently announced plans for an unmanned voyage to the moon in 2008.
But yesterday, they were full of praise. “It is absolutely fantastic. China needs to be congratulated as it has become the third nation to send a man to space,” said U.R. Rao, former chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Pakistan praised its long-term communist ally. “This is no doubt a very important milestone in the progress and advancement made by China in space technology,” President Pervez Musharraf wrote to his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao.
The launch “brings pride to China as to the Asian continent,” he said.
In Hong Kong, China’s success brought out a burst of nationalistic pride.
“I’m proud of being Chinese,” said retired businessman Cheung Man-hung, who watched images of the launch on a giant television screen outside a shopping mall in the city. “I’m happy to have lived to see the day the first Chinese astronaut made it into orbit.”
In Tokyo, the Japanese government congratulated China and said it hoped for a safe mission. However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda also said that Japan was not lagging China in its space efforts. “I don’t think we are necessarily behind. There are many things that can be achieved with unmanned missions. Japan has its way of doing things.”
South Korean officials were also hoping China’s launch would give a boost to the country’s own space program.
Bangladesh said the flight brought pride and inspiration for the third world countries. “(The launch) “proves that countries with limited resources can reach the height of success in science and technology when they attach appropriate importance to this,” said Minister for Science and Technology Abdul Moyeen Khan.
China kept details of its launch secret, announcing only that it would take place between Wednesday and Friday. Yang’s identity wasn’t officially disclosed until one minute after liftoff, though Chinese and Hong Kong media had reported it earlier.
CCTV canceled plans to show the launch live, suggesting that Chinese leaders might be worried about the possible political impact if anything went wrong. China used to broadcast satellite launches, but stopped after a rocket blew following liftoff in 1995, reportedly killing six people on the ground.
CCTV showed Yang being cheered by space workers at an outdoor predawn ceremony at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, some 280 km northeast of the city of Jiuquan. Dressed in his space suit with the visor up, he waved to the crowd and saluted other officers.
“You carry the dreams of our nation into space with you,” Hu told Yang before the launch. The taikonaut (TYE’-koh-nawt) replied, “Thanks to you, and thanks to the people, for putting confidence in me.”
Taikonaut is an English nickname based on the Chinese word for space, “taikong.”
Once in orbit, Xinhua said, Yang was “reading a flight manual in the capsule of the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft and looked composed and at ease.”
“I feel good,” Yang radioed back from space after a half-hour in flight, according to Xinhua. At midday, Yang had a lunch of diced chicken and rice with dates and nuts, and then took a nap.
Yang, an astronaut since 1998, was picked for the flight from three finalists. They have trained for years, and the field was narrowed from 14 in recent weeks.
The launch comes after four test flights, beginning in 1999, of unmanned Shenzhou capsules.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s. It launched a manned space program in the 1970s amid the political upheaval of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution but later abandoned it. The program was relaunched in 1992 under the codename Project 921.