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4th Unmanned Chinese Spacecraft Returns Safely to Earth - 2003-01-06

China's fourth unmanned spacecraft returns safely to earth. The success of this mission paves the way for China to send a human being into space before the end of the year.

Chinese state media say the Shenzhou IV space capsule landed on the Inner Mongolian grasslands Sunday evening after a week of orbiting the earth. The official Xinhua News Agency quotes officials in charge of China's space program as saying the return of the unmanned capsule "represents a complete success of the program's fourth test flight."

State television Monday shows aerospace officials in snow-covered Inner Mongolia using tracking equipment to locate the re-entry vehicle. Officials say the flight "lays a solid foundation" for manned space missions.

The Shenzhou IV aircraft, whose name means "Divine Vessel", blasted into space from a launch pad in the Gobi desert last Monday. Xinhua says it orbited the earth 108 times, carrying all the equipment needed for life support.

The capsule collected a large amount of test data, and the re-entry vehicle and contents will be sent to Beijing for analysis.

State media say the spacecraft is identical to manned capsules. Chinese officials said earlier that unless there were problems with this space mission, the next flight would be manned and would take place in the second half of this year.

Beijing sees its secretive space program as a symbol of prestige and national pride. A dozen or so Chinese astronauts, all of whom are former fighter pilots, have trained for years to make China's first manned space voyage.

A successful manned flight would make China the third country, behind Russia and the United States, to send a human being into space on its own.