WASHINGTON China joined Russia and the United States in manned space flight on Wednesday (Oct. 15) when it launched a single taikonaut into space for a scheduled 14-orbit flight.
A Long March 2F rocket carrying 38-year-old Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Yang Liwei roared off the launch pad located in China's Gobi Desert and achieved orbit at 9:10 a.m. local time. The first manned Chinese space flight was proceeding on schedule, according to official Chinese media reports, and Yang was expected to return to Earth 21 hours after launch.
Touchdown was expected near the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province, about 1,000 miles west of Beijing.
China's first manned mission, dubbed Shenzhou V, comes 42 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth. A U.S. suborbital flight followed several months later. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
The three-seat Shenzhou spacecraft, or "Heavenly Vessel," is generally modeled after the Russia's workhorse Soyuz spacecraft. According to Chinese media outlets, the spacecraft was jointly developed by the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Technology and the Shanghai Academy of Aerospace Technology. They are subsidiaries of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. Group.
The spacecraft consists of propulsion, orbit and return modules along with a launch-escape system.
The Shenzhou spacecraft was tested four times before Wednesday's successful manned launch. The flight marked the 71st launch of the Long March booster rocket, Chinese officials said.
Yang was among 13 People's Liberation Army officers selected for China's manned space program in 1998.
Beijing announced the successful launch approximately 10 minutes after liftoff. The launch was not shown live on state television.
Western observers differed over whether the international prestige gained through manned space flight will bear dividends for China. Some consider the manned program, estimated to cost about $2 billion annually, a waste of resources while others said the launch and a continuing Chinese manned program could boost Beijing's international standing.
Scholars of the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s concluded that the primary motivation for the manned space programs was prestige.
While the U.S. manned space program has not left Earth orbit since 1972, China has said it wants to explore and perhaps even mine the Moon.
Meanwhile, India is testing boosters that could eventually add it to the list of countries with manned space programs.