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China Outlines Plans for Future Space Missions - 2003-10-16

Flush from the victory of having successfully completed its first manned space mission, China is outlining plans for its future space ambitions. Officials Thursday announced an eventual space station is in the works.

The announcement came only a few hours after the Shenzhou 5 capsule touched down in China's Inner Mongolia region with its lone crewmember, Taikonaut Yang Liwei, safely aboard.

The mission took Colonel Yang around the Earth 14 times in just over 20 hours - placing China third behind the United States and the former Soviet Union as the only nations who have put a human in orbit.

Showing new confidence following the success of the much-anticipated mission, leaders of China's space program on Thursday told reporters the manned Shenzhou Five launch was a first step toward the next goals of carrying out a space walk and developing docking procedures.

Space officials ruled out any plans to come up with a vehicle similar to the U.S. space shuttle. But they said China would eventually launch a space laboratory and then a space station. They gave no details of when this might happen.

Speaking through an interpreter, Xie Mingbao, director of the Manned Space Engineering Office, said the launch of the next spacecraft would occur in the not too distant future.

"I think that in one or two years' time Shenzhou 6 will be launched," he said.

China joins the club of space-faring nations four decades behind the rest and with technology that is largely based on the old Soviet Soyuz spacecraft.

A government-run newspaper on Thursday however, headlined news of the launch as a great leap skyward - one that shows China, with its rapidly developing economy, is quickly catching up. That is the image that the country's Communist leaders want to portray to their people, especially as pressure grows on the government to alleviate grinding poverty and rising unemployment that are resulting as China makes the transition to a market economy.

Xie Mingbao says the government hopes the success of Shenzhou 5 will boost national morale.

It will further enhance the overall national strength of China, and would encourage and inspire us to explore new frontiers and make fresh innovations in all fronts and will certainly encourage us to make even greater endeavors for the greater rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Taikonaut Yang Liwei - who was virtually unknown to most just one day before - returned to Beijing Thursday amid cheering crowds.

The 38-year-old Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel received congratulations from China's leaders, including President Hu Jintao.