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Astronauts Arrive at China Launch Site - 2003-10-13

China has announced that three of its astronauts have arrived at the launch site for this week's first-ever manned space mission. People are getting excited despite little media coverage in the country.

The official Xinhua News Agency says the three so-called Taikonauts are undergoing tests at the launch site - suggesting only one would make the trip into space.

Many Chinese have been eagerly awaiting details of the country's first manned space launch, which officials now say will take place between Wednesday and Friday.

China's space program dates back more than three decades to 1970, when a Chinese-made rocket boosted the Mao 1 satellite into space. The launch of the Shenzhou 5 space capsule, however, will mark China's entry to an exclusive club. Only the United States and Russia have put a human in orbit.

The launch is widely seen as a bid by China to gain international prestige.

"This is probably going to have a much bigger impact inside China as an expression of national resolve and national pride, than it will in the outside world," said John Pike, director of the Washington-based Global Security. "I think that most of the rest of the world is going to shrug it off as being a political stunt that the Soviets and the Americans did four decades ago."

The Shenzhou ("Divine Vessel") 5 is the size of a small truck. Small, perhaps when compared to the U.S. space shuttle. But it is a dream come true for many Chinese.

"I have been waiting for this for more than 20 years," said Chen Lan, a software engineer in Shanghai who runs a popular website called Go Taikonauts. "I remember when I was a child, I watched China's first space flight. Since then, I have expected China to launch a man into space maybe … it will be a reality. Of course I am excited.

The demonstrations of pride and national unity are just what the ruling Communist Party is hoping for.

The launch will coincide with the conclusion of the annual gathering of party leaders in Beijing this week. Party leaders are expected to adopt a number of new economic and electoral reforms. Analysts say the changes are meant to portray the Communists as still relevant at a time when China is moving further away from the socialist model and becoming more of a full-fledged market economy.

Chinese state media say the launch will take place at the Jiuqian Space Center, in northwestern Gansu province. The capsule is expected to land after orbiting about the Earth 14 times during a 21-hour period.

The Shenzhou program, supported and run by the military, has been carried out under much secrecy. Most people got their first glimpse of the launch preparations on Monday, when Chinese state television began airing news stories and a documentary on the upcoming mission.