September 26, 2005

China Space Mission Said Planned for October

SHANGHAI, China -- China's second manned space mission - and its first to carry two astronauts - is due to launch on Oct. 13, weather permitting, and return five days later, a state media report said.

The launch of Shenzhou VI is scheduled for 11 a.m. at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Base, in the Gobi desert in northern China, with the mission lasting 119 hours if all goes according to plan, the state-run China News Service reported on Sunday.

It said midday was chosen as the launch time to improve safety and allow launch personnel enough time for final preparations, unlike some past unmanned missions that pushed off in the night and pre-dawn hours.

"The main reason is to provide greater safety for the astronauts because these spaceships are manned spaceships," the report said.

Officials at the China National Space Administration and the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense both said they were not authorized to release any information about the launch.

They referred inquiries to the Science and Technology Department of the State Council, where phones were answered with an automatic message saying calls could not be answered.

The military-backed space program is a major prestige project for the communist government. China has announced plans to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010 as well as operate a space station.

China's first manned space flight in October 2003 made it the third country able to launch a human into space on its own, after Russia and the United States.

Col. Yang Liwei, a former fighter pilot, orbited the Earth for 21 1/2 hours aboard the Shenzhou V capsule before landing in China's northern grasslands.

Earlier reports said Yang would not be aboard this flight.

Instead, he is helping train former fighter pilots who are reportedly the candidates for Shenzhou VI. The initial group of 14 has been narrowed down to three pairs, or a total of six, the China News Service said.

It said Zhai Zhigang and Nie Haisheng, two alternates for Shenzhou V, were "the strongest group with the greatest confidence" for carrying out the mission.

Plans call for the capsule to carry two astronauts - or "taikonauts" for the Chinese word for space.

Beijing does not participate in the U.S.-led international space station project.

The Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," is based on the three-seat Russian Soyuz capsule, though with extensive modifications.

The report cited an unnamed researcher as saying that the new space capsule was not a duplicate of Shenzhou V due to more than 100 technological modifications that made it more conducive to scientific research.

During their voyage, the two astronauts will be able to take off their 22-pound space suits, travel between the re-entry capsule and the orbiter and conduct scientific experiments in the orbiter, the report said.

It said the astronauts would have sleeping bags, for greater comfort, and would be able to heat up their food, wash and take rests.

Yang's journey in Shenzhou V was much less comfortable since he was confined to the re-entry module with little space to move around.