BEIJING -- China today became the third nation to send a man into space, launching a Long March rocket that carried a 38-year-old former fighter pilot on a journey to take him around the Earth 14 times, state media reported.
The Chinese space mission, which occurred 42 years after Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American Alan Shepard became the first men in space, was expected to last 21 hours. The capsule, containing the astronaut, known as a "taikonaut" or "yunhangyuan" in Chinese, is scheduled to orbit the Earth before touching down near the Jiuchuan launch station in the Gobi desert, 1,000 miles west of Beijing.
State media identified the taikonaut as Yang Liwei, from Manchuria. Yang was described as a former fighter pilot who has a son, likes swimming and skating, and has not seen his younger brother or elder sister in three years while he prepared to become China's first man in space.
If successful, the journey of the Long March 2F would mark a great step for China in its goal to become a major space explorer for both military and civilian purposes. The space program also underscores China's desire to become recognized as an emerging great power. Chinese scientists have pledged recently that the country would send a rocket to the moon, establish a space station, ring the globe with high-precision satellites, and explore the possibility of extracting the moon's mineral wealth, particularly helium-3, a potential energy source.
But in a sign of China's still fragile self-confidence, plans to broadcast the 9 a.m. liftoff live were canceled at the last minute, state-run media said. The launch was shown on China Central Television 40 minutes after it occurred. In 1995, six people died during the explosion of a Long March rocket, carrying an Apstar-2 satellite, in a failed liftoff shown live on Chinese television.
A smoky trail was visible against a bright, azure sky in northwest China, witnesses near the launch site reported. Weather in the region was clear, with slight winds and a high temperature of 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
President Hu Jintao was at the launch center to watch China's bid to realize a dream that has a long history. A crater on the moon is named after a mythical Chinese explorer, Wan Hu, who, according to legend, died after strapping 47 rockets to a chair in an ill-fated attempt to reach the heavens. China's program to reach the moon is code-named Chang'e, after a mythical fairy who traveled to the moon after mistakenly eating medicine that made her fly.
China began a manned space program in 1970 with the launch of a satellite that continues to broadcast a Maoist anthem, "The East is Red," to the heavens. That program was scratched because of lack of cash. Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, resumed the program in 1992.
Jiang resumed China's program in the early 1990s, partly as a way to promote nationalism in a country that was still reeling from aftershocks of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Jiang is believed to have given the rockets their name, Shenzhou, which means "divine vessel." Today's launch was Shenzhou 5; there have been four previous launches of unmanned capsules.
The Shenzhou capsule is generally modeled after the Russian Soyuz program. But it is 30 percent bigger and China uses the orbit capsule for continued scientific experiments after the recovery vehicle detaches and returns to Earth, according to Qi Faren, the general designer of the Shenzhou spaceship.
The space program, which is believed to have a budget of $2 billion a year, is run by the People's Liberation Army.