Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: October 12, 2005
SHANGHAI, Wednesday, Oct. 12 – China’s second piloted spacecraft, the Shenzhou VI, blasted off Wednesday morning from the space center in the country’s northwest at 9 a.m., beginning a five-day mission orbiting the earth.
In a break from the past, in which launchings were shrouded in secrecy, perhaps as a hedge against embarrassment in case of failure, China broadcast the launching live on state television.
Shortly after takeoff, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was shown discussing the mission with flight engineers at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province. President Hu Jintao and other top leaders were also shown, sitting stiffly as they observed the flight in Beijing’s aerospace control center.
Forty minutes after the launching, in introducing China’s top leaders, a speaker in military uniform announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we now declare that China’s second manned space mission is a complete success.”
The Shenzhou VI is a slightly modified version of the craft used two years ago, when China launched its first astronaut into orbit.
Unlike that launching, which carried a single pilot for only one day, the current spacecraft carries two astronauts and will spend five days in low-earth orbit. China’s ultimate goal for the Shenzhou program is to launch three-man missions that can remain aloft for several days.
Although the live broadcast of the launching represented a significant move toward greater openness for China’s space program, many aspects of the Shenzhou VI launching were deliberately shrouded in ambiguity until the launching itself.
As late as Tuesday evening, for example, Chinese space officials were vague about the launching time, giving a window of Wednesday to Saturday rather than a specific takeoff time.
Similarly, the names of the astronauts were not released until shortly before the launching. The two men, Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, former fighter pilots, were said to have been chosen from among three teams of two astronauts, all of whom were on standby for possible selection for the launching.
In his official biography, Mr. Fei, 40, who was recruited for the space program when he was still in high school, is described as one of China’s top test pilots. He is said to have averted disaster during a trial flight in 1992, landing his plane safely as it ran out of fuel.
The 41-year-old co-pilot, Mr. Nie, is described as a cowboy from southern China and the sixth child of a family of eight children. Mr. Nie has also been praised for having averted disaster, parachuting out of a plane that lost control and entered a steep dive.
Commentators on state television maintained a lively discussion throughout the launching, providing technical details about the space program from the nature of the vessel to the limitations of the Long March rockets used for the launching. They also spoke of China’s future goals in space, starting with larger piloted orbital missions, piloted lunar missions and the construction of a space station.
The commentators also repeatedly sought to draw a contrast with the United States, with one of them speculating that “America’s strategy is to lure China into a space race, and to drain China’s resources so it will collapse, without a war.”
“This is not a competition,” one of the commentators answered. “There is great commercial potential on the moon.”
In his brief remarks, President Hu emphasized the same point.
“China’s space mission is solely based on peaceful purposes,” he said. “We are devoted to the peaceful use of space and are ready to extend out cooperation to other countries.”
Copyright The New York Times