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China's second manned space mission blasts off

Chinese space officials say they hope to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010 and launch a space station

SECOND MISSION: China's Shenzhou VI manned space mission carrying two astronauts, the country's second manned space flight, lifts off from the launch pad at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan, in China's Gansu province. — AFP

CHINA HAS spread its wings wider as a frontline space-faring power by successfully launching its second manned space flight on Wednesday.

Amid the high drama of this scientific feat, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, addressing its political significance, assured the international community that the spacecraft, Shenzhou-VI, was launched for a "peaceful purpose".

Call for non-militarisation

China has often called for the non-militarisation of the outer space. Being the only Asian country, as of now, to have embarked on the mission of manned space flights, China is in an elite club in this category. The U.S. and Russia are the only others who have succeeded in this still-rarefied zone of science and technology.

China's second manned space flight, also the second in two years, carried two astronauts — Col. Fei Junlong and Col. Nie Haisheng — into an orbit about 350 km. above the Earth.

Launch declared success

About 40 minutes after the lift-off from the Space Centre at Jiuquan, a remote city on the Gobi desert, at 9 A.M., the Chief Commander of China's Manned Space Programme declared the launch a "success," according to an official version in Beijing.

Looking for new horizons beyond the success of the first manned space flight, which sent Yang Liwei on a mission that lasted less than a day, the Chinese authorities announced that the current project would be of "multi-day" duration. There was no immediate and authoritative word on how long this new mission had been scheduled for.

Feel good factor

Soon after hitting the orbital path following the lift-off, the two astronauts reported "feeling good." In other messages to the ground-based tracking centres, the astronauts reported that all systems aboard the spacecraft were functioning "normally."

In a televised hook-up with the ground facilities, the two astronauts were seen removing the `face-shields' of their space suits and waved to the audience below in a visibly comfortable fashion. There were also TV images of the two reading flight-books inside what was a more spacious craft that was used for the first manned flight.

Select audience

China's first space hero was said to be among the select audience, which included the Prime Minister, who witnessed Wednesday's launch at the Gobi desert city. Mr. Yang had, during China's maiden manned space flight reported feeling a "tremor" shortly after the lift-off.

The "feel-good" factor, as reported by the latest astronauts, was such that the Chinese state media said that China had now proved that its multi-manned and multi-day project was "a mission possible."

A post-modern theory in international relations is that space-faring nations will be as important in global affairs in the future as sea-faring countries were in the past. With this, apparently in mind, China pointed out that its spending on the Shenzhou series had so far totalled about $2.3 billions, about ten per cent of the annual space-programme expenditure by the U.S.

Experimental work

AFP reports:

The fact that Wednesday's mission carried two astronauts reflects the twin purposes of China's space program, which aims for both scientific gains and kudos at home and abroad.

"If you are two people, you can do more complicated and more sophisticated types of work and experimentation," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the US Naval War College.

Shenzhou VI is expected to circle around the Earth for the next 119 hours, or nearly five days, before landing in the Inner Mongolian grasslands.

Unlike Yang two years ago, the two astronauts will leave their capsule for lengthy experiments in the orbital module at the nose of the spacecraft.

"They'll do quite a lot of medical tests, they'll take blood tests, urine tests, and they will also work out what kind of space food works for them," said Brian Harvey, the Dublin-based author of a book on China's space ambitions. "Because ultimately what they are planning is a space station... and to do that they will need to learn how to survive on longer missions."

Test of tracking

The flight of Shenzhou VI will also be a thorough and comprehensive test of China's tracking network, which includes tracking stations as far away as Namibia and four tracking ships placed around the oceans of the world.

P.S. Suryanarayana

in Singapore

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