December 22, 2004

China Offers Glimpse of Next Space Mission

BEIJING (AP) -- China gave a rare glimpse Wednesday of astronauts preparing for its second manned space mission, with state television showing trainees in simulated zero gravity doing somersaults and holding up the national flag.

"The training has been going very smoothly," said Col. Yang Liwei, who made history on Oct. 15, 2003, as China's first man in space. "We have had no problems at all."

China says its next flight will send two astronauts into orbit in late 2005, two years after Yang's flight.

State television showed would-be astronauts being spun blindfolded in a mock space capsule and doing somersaults in simulated weightlessness. A pair of toy stuffed panda bears floated past the camera while a trainee in a space helmet waved a Chinese flag.

The report didn't say where or when the session took place, but China has sent astronauts to Russia in the past to train aboard a plane that flies in huge arcs to simulate the weightlessness of space.

China attaches enormous national pride to its space program, and Yang has become a celebrity. Besides China, only Russia and the United States have sent humans into space on their own.

The mission next year aboard the Shenzhou 6 capsule is to last five days to a week, according to earlier reports.

State media say 14 astronauts - all military pilots - were in training for the flight.