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China Reveals Information on 1st Manned Launch

After months of little mention of China's space program, its state owned media are beginning to inform the public of the country's first manned space launch.

There is no denying the enthusiasm with which Chinese nationals are celebrating news of their country's first manned space mission.

One man, a native of Guangxie province, said he is filled with pride. He said only the United States and the [former] USSR sent men into space in the past. It means China is growing stronger and stronger.

A woman from Hunan province said she knows little about the mission, but is pleased nonetheless.

During the past few months, China's state media has said little about its first manned space mission, so many Chinese are not even aware of the program.

This secrecy, says one European space expert, is not unusual.

Tim Stevenson, the chief engineer at the Space Research Center at the University of Leicester in Britain says China's space program was once closely linked to that of the former Soviet Union, and China has been influenced not only by Russian engineering and technology, but also its culture of secrecy.

"I am old enough to remember the early days of the Soviet program where there was a great deal of secrecy about the launch date, and the cynics would say the announcements were made only after successes had taken place," he said.

Many suggest fear of failure is behind China's secrecy. If the flight fails, the event might end in national embarrassment, an eventuality China appeared to acknowledge when it scrapped live broadcast plans just hours before the launch. Media reports in Hong Kong say a catastrophe would bring unwanted scrutiny. The mission will cost more than $1 billion, and many argue that the price is too high for a developing country where many people are mired in poverty.

Tim Stevenson says a disaster is unlikely because the spacecraft, named the Shenzhou 5, is built like the Russian "Soyuz A," a space module that has been used for more than 30 years.

"This is the world's most reliable space vehicle, so concerns about the reliability of the vehicle I think are minimal," said Mr. Stevenson.

Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, adds that that while China's space vehicle may resemble the Russian Soyuz, it is outfitted with modern technology.

"They have taken a very basic proven design [of the Soyuz]," said Ms. Johnson-Freese. "They have made it larger. ... They have added … to the experimental module that enables it to stay in orbit and potentially dock later."

China has not said much about the first taikonaut, either. Professor Johnson-Freese says this is a calculated move.

"The Chinese, although they started with this culture of secrecy they … actually built kind of a mystique around the taikonauts … and I think now what you are seeing is a real building hype," she added.

But perhaps the central reason for secrecy is because the program is run by the military.

Professor Johnson-Freese says technology needed for manned space travel is easily adapted to national defense.

"On orbit maneuvering, missions management, launch on demand, miniaturization - all those … advances will also have benefit to the military program," she said.

Some regional defense experts say China's space agency only gets financing from the government because its technology can serve China's defense program.