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China readies its first space flight

BEIJING -- After 11 years of planning, China's first manned space flight could come down to this: one man, a two-pound sack of seeds, and a single 90-minute loop around the planet.

Giving the firmest signs yet that China is about to blast a "taikonaut" into orbit, news reports yesterday said it would take place Oct. 15 and be shown live on television. In Indonesia, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the Shenzhou 5 craft would take off with a human crew "soon, very soon."

A successful launch would make China only the third nation capable of manned space flight. The Communist Party, its image battered by corruption scandals, could boost its public approval in the reflected glory of a nationalistic triumph.

The Oct. 15 date was reported by Sina.com, a mainland website. It quoted Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster that is led by a former Chinese military officer and has close ties to Beijing.

A launch then would come a day after the closing of a meeting of Communist Party leaders. Coming shortly after the Oct. 1 anniversary of 54 years of communist rule, that would heighten the public link between the space program and the party.

Sina.com said the Shenzhou 5 capsule, whose name means "Divine Vessel," would carry a single astronaut and orbit Earth once for 90 minutes before landing.

The capsule is to carry plant seeds for research but no other scientific equipment "to ensure the astronaut has space," Sina.com said, citing Xie Guangxuan, director of the government's rocket design department.

"China's space technology has been created by China itself. We may have started later than Russia and the United States, but it's amazing how fast we've been able to do this," Xie was quoted as saying.

The government hasn't announced a launch date, said how many astronauts the flight would carry, or how long it will last. Xie also didn't say how many would make the first flight.

But the sudden rush of information in state-run newspapers and on websites after months of official silence suggests the government's confidence is growing.

The Shenzhou is based on Russia's three-seat Soyuz, though with extensive modifications. The Chinese capsule is even bigger than the Soyuz, giving Beijing room aboard to send up more than one astronaut right from the start.

In addition, four previous unmanned Shenzhou capsules have spent nearly a week in orbit and circled Earth more than 100 times before landing by parachute on China's northern grasslands.

But Xie, cited by Sina.com, noted that Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, in 1961, spent only 90 minutes aloft and made one orbit. That suggested China might want to match his record without taking extra risks.

Sina.com said Xie was "full of confidence" about the launch and said the beginning of the mission would be carried live by China Central Television, the government broadcaster that reaches nearly 1 billion Chinese.

The launch base is near Jiuquan, a former Gobi Desert oasis town on the ancient Silk Road in Gansu province, 900 miles west of Beijing.

The 14 members of China's astronaut corps have gathered at a hotel in Gansu, the Beijing newspaper Star Daily reported, quoting unidentified officials. It said three taikonauts would be picked as finalists for the first flight.

The candidates are all military pilots picked from among 2,000 applicants, according to earlier reports. Their identities have not been announced, though space enthusiasts have posted a list of names and a photo said to show two of them on the Internet.

All 14 passed psychological tests "with honors," the Star Daily said.

"I can guarantee you that most of the astronauts can fulfill their assignment successfully," an official was quoted as saying in another newspaper, the Express News of Guangzhou.

Beijing has nurtured the dream of manned space flight since at least the early 1970s, when its first program was scrapped during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The current effort began in 1992 under the code name Project 921.

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