No one knows exactly when the historic launch will take place. China's secretive space commissars haven't divulged such tiny details as the blast-off date—it could be Oct. 1, China's National Day, or sometime in mid-October. Nor have they confirmed the number of astronauts on the mission, although it's likely to be no more than one or two. But with Russia's space program sputtering for lack of funds and America's paralyzed by an emotional debate in the wake of Columbia's disintegration, China's program looks set to become the world's most ambitious. Stated missions will send a satellite around the moon by 2006, land a robotic explorer several years later and, perhaps as soon as a decade from now, culminate in a moonwalk. After that, China wants to build a space station and "establish a base on the moon," the head of the lunar expedition program, Ouyang Ziyuan, has told state-run media. Ultimately, he even hopes China can colonize 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 wants to back 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, last week, leading the developing world to demand more benefits from the World Trade Organization. Now comes a space effort designed to unify the country and display national vigor. Along the way, Beijing will pick up military technologies 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 at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who has worked on altitude controls for the Shenzhou.
Despite the launch's national significance, China has so far released only a modicum of information about the manned maiden voyage. Unlike the seven U.S. astronauts on the pioneering Mercury mission, who became heroes before they even lofted skyward, the identity of only two of China's 14 taikongyuan, or "space pilots," has been released. All that ordinary Chinese know about them is they're each about 1.7 m tall, weigh 65 kg and served as jet-fighter test pilots who "are No. 1 in physical status and psychological quality," according to statements by senior space official Zhang Houying.
The secrecy surrounding Chinese astronauts may be due to the country's less-than-stellar space record so far. In the past the government announced test launches of Shenzhou spacecraft only after they returned, saving itself the embarrassment of having to explain failures. China's satellite-launch program suffered a string of disastrous explosions and aborted launches in the mid-1990s. Although all four unmanned Shenzhou craft have returned from orbit since the first test in 1999, not all were mission-accomplished. The Shenzhou II is widely believed to have suffered damage from a hard landing during a blizzard in 2001.
The Chinese have looked to the skies ever since Wan Hu, a 14th century carpenter, lashed 47 gunpowder rockets to a chair affixed with kites, ignited them and vanished in a plume of smoke, never to be heard from again. The modern program traces its roots to the 1950s, when the U.S. deported Qian Xuesen, one of its foremost rocket scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, for being a suspected red. Qian returned to China, helped reverse-engineer a Russian R-2 rocket (an improved version of the infamous German V-2) left behind by Soviet advisers and eventually oversaw the launch of China's first satellite, in 1970. The mission electrified millions of radicals in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, when the satellite broadcast the song The East Is Red back to Earth. Legend has it that technicians pressurized the fuel for those first rockets with a bicycle pump.
All that, however, assumes the thing actually works. In contrast to the Mercury program, which was tested more than a dozen times before Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961, China's Shenzhou has flown on only four occasions. The reason for China's rush may be a political imperative to blast off on-or near-the Oct. 1 National Day. A successful flight will likely stoke the country's growing patriotic fervor. The celebrations could rival those that accompanied Hong Kong's return to the motherland in 1997 or China's selection two years ago to host the 2008 Summer Olympics, when Beijingers thronged Tiananmen Square to celebrate their national ascendancy. "If it succeeds, expect a sudden propaganda campaign to instill feelings of patriotism and nationalism and unite the people around new national heroes," says political commentator Yu Jie.
In private, though, some Chinese scientists whisper that the country's stated goals-growing seeds in space or searching the moon for the isotope helium 3 for possible use in nuclear fusion reactors-could be accomplished more cheaply and easily with robotic explorers. Many predict that after the political goal of putting a man in space has been achieved, the program's timetables will stretch. Yet few Chinese scientists have dared to question the manned program openly. One who did, Wang Xiji, designed China's first recoverable satellites and argued in a technical journal last year that China "should not choose the moon and Mars" for a manned program because it "is not likely to make any military, economic or social benefits." He was followed last month by zero-gravity expert Hu Wenrui of the respected Chinese Academy of Sciences, who wrote that the project would prove to be a "scientific waste." Theirs are lone voices, however, even though similar debates have divided opinion over the U.S. manned space program since its inception.
Other observers question whether Beijing merely knocked off Russia's manned program. Indeed, China's first two astronauts received instruction at Star City, the space-training center outside Moscow. China purchased a Soyuz spacecraft from Russia as a model for Shenzhou'sairframe, plus life-support systems and a single pressurized space suit. The Shenzhou bears a resemblance to the Soyuz, but with substantial Chinese modifications. In a clear advance over the Soyuz, the Shenzhou III employed a forward orbital module with a solar panel that remained in space. Future flights could one day dock with the module to form a cheap space lab. Most experts say China deserves the credit for its program. "If someone sells you instructions to make a car and you build it, it's yours," says Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on China's space program at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.
China didn't adopt this go-it-alone approach by choice. It was left out of the 16-nation International Space Station project, which includes space neophytes such as Belgium. China's once lucrative satellite-launch industry has been devastated by U.S. sanctions preventing the country from launching commercial satellites that use American components. And last year, the U.S. refused to grant visas to some Chinese scientists invited to participate in the World Space Congress in Houston, even though several were slated to present papers there. Physicist Sun Huixian was so angry about the American cold shoulder that he ordered his staff to use European equipment instead. A scientist who designs data-transmission systems for Shenzhou's scientific experiments, Sun says the change in suppliers has "made our work harder, but we're afraid one day the U.S. might cut us off."
Meanwhile, China's new entrepreneurs are focusing, in true capitalist fashion, on how to exploit intergalactic travel for a quick buck. Stamps bearing the Shenzhou image have become collector's items, and the Jianlibao company promotes its sports drinks with pictures of an astronaut. Several companies have even applied to run their corporate logos on the side of the spacecraft for its first manned launch. "There are no such plans [to allow this] at present," state-run media responded. But when commerce and spaceships meet in China, the sky's the limit.