The Chinese have long looked to the skies--at least since Wan Hu, a 16th century official, lashed 47 gunpowder rockets to a chair with kites attached to it, ignited the rockets and vanished in a plume of smoke, never to be heard from again. With technology having improved significantly since then, the Chinese are on the verge of sending a Long March 2F rocket hurtling into space from a secret launch facility near the Gobi Desert. The payload: Shenzhou (divine vessel), a capsule carrying China's first astronaut. The mission: enter a low Earth orbit, circle the globe 14 times, then parachute to a landing zone on the Mongolian steppe. The goal: elevate China into the exclusive ranks of spacefaring nations.
And that is just a start. With Russia's space program sputtering for lack of funds and the U.S.'s embroiled in an emotional debate over the future in the wake of Columbia's disintegration, China is looking to catch up to and even surpass its two rivals in the realm of space. Beijing hopes to send a satellite around the moon by 2006, land a robotic explorer there two years later and make a moon walk perhaps within a decade. After that, the Chinese want to build a space station and "establish a base on the moon," Ouyang Ziyuan, head of the lunar-expedition program, told state media. He doesn't rule out colonizing other planets, although he expects it will take "some 200 years to reconstruct Mars to make it suitable to sustain human life."
This is China's Great Leap Skyward. As an emergent Middle Kingdom increasingly struts its stuff on the international stage, Beijing seems to be backing up its claim to the mandate of heaven by going there. Of late, China has shown its global power by nudging North Korea into negotiations to end its nuclear-weapons program, attending a Group of Eight meeting of the world's capitalist powers and leading the developing world to demand more benefits from the World Trade Organization in September. Now comes a space effort designed to generate national pride and display the country's vigor. Along the way, Beijing will pick up military technology and, no doubt, some catchy consumer items to match the smoke detectors and cordless vacuum cleaners born of NASA. Above all, the piloted space program is good propaganda. "Just as England went to North America and made it British, China needs to stake its claim in space," says Xu Shijie, a spacecraft designer who has worked on the Shenzhou.
Of course, that assumes the thing works. China's space record is mixed. Beijing launched its first satellite in 1970--which broadcast back to Earth the Maoist anthem The East Is Red--but that program suffered a string of disastrous explosions in the mid-1990s. The Shenzhou has flown only four times in unmanned trials, in contrast with the Mercury program, which NASA tested more than a dozen times before Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961. All four Shenzhou craft returned from orbit, but not all accomplished their missions. The Shenzhou II is widely believed to have suffered damage from a hard landing during a blizzard two years ago.