China has announced it plans to launch its first manned spacecraft in the second half of this year to become only the third country to do so. The news comes as China's fourth unmanned space capsule orbits the earth.
Chinese state media Thursday quote a senior aerospace official, Yuan Jie, as saying that the Shenzhou 5 capsule will send a human being into space before the end of this year.
Mr. Yuan made his announcement upon his return from the launch of the unmanned Shenzhou 4 spacecraft.
State television carried footage of the space vehicle taking off Monday from a launch pad in the Gobi Desert.
The Shenzhou 4 capsule is now circling the earth once every 90 minutes, carrying all the systems needed for manned flight. The mission is expected to last seven days, and will test life-support capabilities in space, among other things.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin calls the latest rocket launch a great victory, and is urging all involved in the space program to "redouble their efforts, and work in a pioneering spirit to contribute more to the peaceful development of outer space."
Mr. Jiang's comments indicate the importance Beijing attaches to its secretive space program. China views its space launches, which are not announced in advance, as symbols of national pride and greatness. The Shenzhou 4 capsule is the second launched in a year.
China launched its first unmanned Shenzhou spacecraft, whose name means "Divine Ship," in 1999.
If successful, the planned manned flight would make China the third country, behind only Russia and the United States, to send people into space.