China launched its second manned space mission Wednesday, sending two astronauts into orbit as it opened a new chapter in its ambitious drive to become a global space power.Maybe it loses something in the translation...
Shenzhou VI, based on Soviet Soyuz technology, lifted off on a Long March 2F carrier rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center at 9 am (0100 GMT) for a five-day mission carrying air force pilots Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.
It entered a fixed orbit 21 minutes later.
Having two crew on board is a departure from October 2003, when Yang Liwei spent 21 hours on a solo odyssey -- a mission that made China only the third country after the United States and former Soviet Union to achieve the feat.
Fei, 40, and Nie, 41, were seen off by Premier Wen Jiabao, who was at the launch pad to drum up nationalistic sentiment, saying he believed "the astronauts will accomplish the glorious and sacred mission".
"You will once again show that the Chinese people have the will, confidence and capability to mount scientific peaks ceaselessly," Wen said, adding that the whole country expects "their victorious return from the mission."
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.Not so amazing. The Chinese space programme has been remarkably well-managed, and their capsule design is very good indeed.
"Part of it is technical. 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.
"Part of its also too is prestige. Two people is harder than one person," she said.
Unlike Yang Liwei two years ago, the two astronauts will leave their capsule for lengthy experiments in the orbital module at the nose of the spacecraft, observers said.
"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 do they survive on longer missions."
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.
In Jiuquan city, several hours' drive away from the satellite launch center, a sense of local pride was clearly visible.
"Wishing a successful launch of Shenzhou VI," said a large red poster in front of one of the city's hotels, while billboards advertised special "Shenzhou Rice Wine."
"We're very happy about all this," said Ma Li, a teenage resident of Jiuquan city. "It's amazing that we Chinese gradually have the know-how to pull this kind of thing off," she said.
The Russians launched Gagarin in 12 April, 1961. It wasn't until 12 August 1964, over 3 years later, that they launched a multi-crew spacecraft, Voskhod 1.
The USA launched Glenn into orbit on 20 February, 1962. It wasn't until 23 March 1965, 3 years later, that they launched Gemini 3.
China launched Shenzhou 5 on 15th October, 2003. Shenzhou 6, their first multi-crew mission, is only 2 years later, with no intervening flights. The first one was a "proof of concept". This one is a test of the systems that will be used in future flights, rather than doing much useful scientific work other than learning by doing what works and what doesn't.
The Chinese aren't in any tearing hurry. They're not in a "Space Race". But they are slowly, surely, and methodically engaging in a crewed space programme, and that's something that no other country is doing at the moment. The USA has dreams, and money, but also it has Congress. And Con is to Pro as Congress is to Progress. The Russians have old but good hardware, but are strapped for cash.
I would not be at all surprised if the next person to step on the moon is Chinese.