Posted: October 15, 2003

Over a decade in the making and four decades behind the Soviet Union and United States, China became only the third nation on the planet to mount a manned space mission Wednesday when a single crewman vaulted into space inside a capsule for a one-day flight.

  Shenzhou 5 launches
China's first human spaceflight gets underway with the successful launch of Shenzhou 5 atop a Long March 2F rocket.
The momentous time came when the clock struck 9 a.m. Wednesday in the Chinese captial of Beijing (0100 GMT; or 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday).

With engines firing to produce well over a million pounds of liftoff thrust, the two-stage Long March 2F rocket bolted away from its shadowy launch pad at the Jiuquan launch center, located near the border between the Gansu and Inner Mongolia provinces in northern China's Gobi desert.

Shrouded in official secrecy and a launch escape system in case something went catastrophically wrong, the nation's fifth Shenzhou vehicle -- meaning "divine vessel" -- had its first human passenger aboard, letting China gain significant national prestige and joining ranks with Russia and the United States.

Lying in a spacesuit worth the price of a luxury car was Chinese fighter pilot turned spacefarer Yang Liwei, a 38-year old from the northeastern part of the country, according to the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper.

Yang is the 431st person to traverse the final frontier since Yuri Gagarin first did so in 1961.

Two others were reportedly on the short list of three that was recently whittled down from the original 14 candidates for the coveted seat. A final psychological and physical examination determined that Yang would be the most suitable taikonaut -- or yuhangyuan -- to fly.

High-level Chinese government, military, and communist party officials were reportedly in attendance at Jiuquan, including President Hu Jintao, former leader Jiang Zemin who was responsible for a large part of the manned program's existence, and numerous military officers. Also present was a group of reporters, most of whom belong to state-supported Chinese news organizations.

The launch was to have been broadcast live on China's central television network CCTV, but the coverage was dropped Tuesday "after space experts suggested it do so," said the Lanzhou Morning Press and China Daily newspapers. Instead, a taped replay was scheduled to air.

The booster's celebrated Shenzhou 5 payload nestled into its orbit about ten minutes after launch -- with pre-launch predictions showing a high point of 350 kilometers, a low point of about 200 kilometers, and an inclination of 42.4 degrees, according to the the official Xinhua news agency. Like the previous two unmanned Shenzhou flights, it is expected that the craft will maneuver into a circular 343-kilometer orbit just under seven hours into the mission.

Little details have been released about the activities of Yang Liwei during the 21-hour, 14-orbit manned shakedown cruise of the Shenzhou spacecraft. Tests of systems, instruments, and a limited number experiments for the scientific community and the military are possible items on the itinerary.

With tremendous control over what is reported about the flight, the Chinese government has been increasing the number and content of news stories coming from state-run media outlets over the past week. A glaring absence has been details on the activities planned during the taikonaut's 21 hours in space.

Consisting of three modules, the 17,000-pound Shenzhou spacecraft features a pressurized volume slightly larger than that of the Russian Soyuz. On the forward end, the Shenzhou consists of a pressurized orbital module, which is connected by a passageway to the re-entry module, where Yang will be strapped in during launch and re-entry. The aft end is punctuated by a service module that contains supplies, fuel, and consumables during the stay in orbit.

Shenzhou 5's mission duration is projected to be around 21 hours, 25 minutes in length, which would call for a touchdown in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia about 1,000 kilometers from Jiuquan at around 2225 GMT, or 6:25 a.m. Beijing time (6:25 p.m. EDT).

The entry sequence calls first for the re-entry module and service module to separate from the orbital module, which will remain in space for several months on a solo mission. A de-orbit burn will then put the modules on course for return to Earth, followed by the separation of the entry and service modules. The re-entry module will then plummet through the atmosphere to make a parachuted touchdown.

Entry opportunities repeat for the normal landing zone about every two days, expert Ted Molczan told Spaceflight Now. "No doubt, provision has been made for emergency landings just about anywhere."

Molczan's predictions also indicate three orbital passes over the United States that could be visible to observers on the ground on Wednesday morning, U.S. time, shortly before sunrise. Four passes over mainland China are also expected to occur during the mission, not only allowing citizens to observe their indigenous spacecraft in orbit, but also perhaps to give controllers the opportunity to abort the mission should something go wrong.

Largely run by the military, the 11-year old Project 921 that was tasked to develop and exercise the capability to launch manned spaceflights has seen little publicity. Security at key facilities including the Jiuquan launch site has been strict leading up the mission.

Four unmanned test flights of the Shenzhou were conducted since 1999, all of which helped Chinese scientists and engineers to evaluate the craft's performance before committing lives on a manned flight.

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