Great Leap To Space

When China first started up a manned space program 11 years ago, the authorities were so keen on keeping a low profile that they didn't even bother to give it a name. Instead, they gave the program a number--Project 921--and kept a tight lid on every scrap of information. Launch dates, for instance, have been treated like state secrets. Chinese tourists are allowed to visit the launchpad, in the remote Gobi Desert, but never if there's a chance they might actually get a close look at one of the rockets going up. It's not that anybody would bother to spy on the technology, which is decades old. Rather, the secrecy has more to do with the vanity of China's authorities and the inherent risks of rocketry. No matter how proven the technology, there's always a chance that a rocket will blow up on the launchpad, to the great embarrassment of leaders in Beijing.

The first crack in this Great Wall of Secrecy appeared last week. It came from, of all places, a tourist agency. Chinese authorities informed Inner Mongolia's Alashan Tourist Company, which has for years organized launchpad tours for Chinese citizens, that it could take tourists to watch the next spacecraft, the Shenzhou V, ferry the first Chinese astronaut into space. "We're so excited," says manager Yang Chengzhang. "The tourists will be only a few hundred meters away from the Shenzhou V site on launch day." In the process, the tentative launch date--Oct. 15--slipped into the public domain.

The unprecedented advance notice is indicative of the excitement and confidence the program is generating among China's leadership and its citizens. China is now on the verge of joining that elite club of nations--currently including only Russia and the United States--that have mustered the technology and the political will to send their citizens into outer space. The achievement is rich in symbolic value. If the mission succeeds, China's leaders are hoping that it will cement Beijing's stature as a regional superpower--at the expense of Japan and India, which also have ambitions in space. It would also stand in marked contrast to the stumbling efforts of NASA and the International Space Station, which are plagued by the shuttle disaster and budget crises.

Over the next few decades, a successful manned space program could also begin to yield practical benefits: mainly advances in military technology, such as satellite intelligence gathering and missile defense. China's manned space efforts "almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 time frame," said a U.S. military report last July. It went on to quote a Chinese naval captain, Shen Zhongchang: "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory."

The lead-up to Shenzhou V isn't all such bluster and confidence, however; there's also plenty of ambivalence. There are a thousand ways that a space program--or this week's launch, for that matter--can go wrong. A few spectacular satellite launch failures in the '90s killed an unknown number of villagers near the Jiuquan launch base. Last Wednesday officials of government-run China Central Television leaked that they would broadcast this week's launch live. The next day, however, after much infighting, CCTV abruptly canceled the live broadcast "on instructions from the military," a CCTV source told NEWSWEEK.

Compared with the four unmanned launches in the past, which sent up flora and fauna and scientific equipment, this time the nation is awash in information. But despite official confirmation late last week of the impending launch, much about the mission remains shrouded in mystery. Shenzhou V is likely to carry a single "taikonaut" (from the Mandarin Chinese word taikong, or "space") for 21 hours, which is time enough to make 14 orbits. But authorities wouldn't say which lucky fighter jock has been picked to become China's first man in space.

State-run Web sites, including one for the party mouthpiece People's Daily, have issued reams of information on the current batch of taikonauts--among 2,000 applicants, 14 were chosen to receive advanced training and three were picked to prepare to fly on Shenzhou V. But which three? Chen Lan, a Shanghai software engineer and amateur space buff who's garnered a reputation over the years as a sponge for information about China's space program, thinks he knows. Chen suggests that one of the country's two most experienced trainees--Li Qinglong and Wu Jie, both of whom had trained in Russia's Star City--will get the nod.

Officials seem to be more interested in sowing propaganda, than in publicly confirming the names. Rocketry Department head Xie Guangxuan, seeking to rebut the widely held notion that Shenzhou V is derivative of Russia's Soyuz technology, maintains that China has adapted the technology extensively. "China's space technology has been created by China itself," he's quoted as saying on a popular Web site. Even China's space food, according to one Web site, "will be tastier than Western food: kung pao chicken and shredded pork with garlic sauce." After the meal Chinese green tea will "lift the astronaut's spirits."

When it comes to the long-term goals of the space program, China's vision sounds, to Western ears, downright naive. The nation plans to launch a lunar probe within three years. By 2020 it hopes to build its own space station. A lunar base may someday support a vast operation to mine helium-3, a rare material that could power nuclear reactors. "Many years from now, even space tourism could be a reality," says Chen, whose been fascinated with the heavens ever since childhood. Chen set up his Web site Go Taikonauts! in 1998, and it's already getting 10,000 hits a day. That thirst for information is sure to grow if this week's scheduled launch is successful. The real test of China's determination to explore space, though, will come when Project 921 runs up against the inevitable technical setbacks and ballooning expenditures. How starry-eyed will the Chinese be then?