China is soon expected to launch its first manned space mission, possibly in the next few days, a feat accomplished by only two other nations: The United States and Russia. Chinese leaders hope the long-anticipated event will yield both political and military advantages.
China's plans for a manned space mission became clear early this year, when the Chinese space agency successfully launched the Shenzhou IV space capsule.
The spacecraft orbited the earth for a week before landing in the desert of China's northern Inner Mongolia region. Officials at the time said the mission, which carried food, sleeping bags, and all equipment necessary for sustaining life, laid a solid foundation for a manned space flight.
Since the January mission, scientists in Beijing have been studying data collected by Shenzhou IV and are now believed to be ready to launch a human into space.
As with the four other space missions that China has undertaken since 1999, preparations for the upcoming manned space flight have been carried out under heavy secrecy. Analysts say this is because the space program is supported and run by the military.
In addition, China has been stung by a string of failed satellite launches in the 1980s and '90s, prompting them to keep recent lift-offs quiet.
Through its space program, China hopes to bolster basic technological development that would translate into economic growth. But western analysts say the biggest reason why Beijing wants to put a human in space now is that it wants to enhance its military apparatus.
Charles Vick is space expert and senior fellow with the Washington-based Global Security. He says developing the space program will give the Chinese new skills and experience in setting up and managing large science and technology projects.
"When you look at the technology that they are acquiring, their management skills, capabilities, experience that they did not hitherto had available to practice on, military operations is the major area where they will benefit," he said.
Virtually nothing is known publicly about the more than a dozen astronauts who have been chosen for the mission. Officials have said only that they are from a pool of China's best fighter pilots who have been training for the space mission for several years.
Though faceless to most, the pilots are national heroes to people like one woman who is among the hundreds who visit the Beijing Museum of Science and Technology on any given day. Peering at a space exhibit, she recalls that China made many scientific achievements in the ancient past. She believes it is time for it to catch up and lead. "Of course it is a good thing that a Chinese person is going to space," she said. "If it is a success, it will be a great thing for China."
Some western space experts say the probability of the mission's success is good, considering the technology that China is employing has been tested for several generations. The new spacecraft - Shenzhou V - has been created by Chinese scientists in China but much of it is based on earlier, previously tested Soviet models.
Whether the mission is successful or not remains to be seen. What Chinese leaders have already attained is a rise in national pride at a time when the country is seeing both unprecedented economic growth and mounting concerns over an expanding gap between rich and poor.
Some analysts fear a failure would raise questions about the necessity of a space program in a country where 140 million people live in abject poverty.
Despite the income gap and high unemployment in some parts of the country, many Chinese - including very poor people - say they are proud that their nation is joining the United States and the former Soviet Union as the third nation to put a human in space.
Yang Ho Nian, is a man in his 40s who earns a living collecting trash in one of Beijing's poorest neighborhoods, says he supports the space program, regardless of how much it may be costing his country.
He said the space program makes him feel like China is now developed. He says it will deter foreign countries from invading. But he says it would be good if the government could also spend money on the poor, because, he said many are still without clean water and education.
It is not clear how much China is spending on its space program, but western experts estimate the figure is along the lines of more than $2 billion a year.
The government says the manned space mission is part of the China's overall plan to modernize, and insists its space technology will be put solely for peaceful use.
After the manned space flight, China will aim for the moon. Chinese scientists have been doing feasibility studies for a lunar mission which leaders hope to achieve by the year 2010.