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Houston Chronicle October 12, 2005

China launches its second manned spaceflight mission

Secretive efforts keep outsiders in the dark about the program's goals

By Mark Carreau

A pair of military pilots embarked on China's second manned space flight early today, hurtling into orbit on a test mission that could span five days.

The crew of the Shenzhou VI spacecraft was identified as Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haishen, 41, by China's official news agency.

The successful launch from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China follows the solo flight of Yang Liwei in October 2003. His one-day mission vaulted his communist homeland into the elite circle of spacefaring nations — Russia and the United States — that can launch and sustain humans in space.

Most experts believe China intends to develop a small space station of its own over the next several years.

But they remain uncertain about whether China aims to beat the United States to the moon in its secretive space effort. President Bush has directed NASA to return to the moon by 2018 with a new generation of human explorers.

China's "is not a fly-by-night program," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on national security who follows space developments in the Asian nation at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

"They are not in any hurry. They want a program that will be a success," Johnson-Freese said. "They are not going to rush it, because they don't want it to be a budget buster. Economics will be a big determiner in the speed of their program."

China's overtures to join the U.S.-led effort to develop the 16-nation international space station have been thwarted for more than a decade over a range of issues, including the Asian country's human rights policies and worries it could acquire technologies that could pose a security threat.

The freeze thawed some after Yang's 2003 mission. China was among 30 nations invited to send a delegate to NASA-sponsored roundtable discussions on Bush's strategy to reach the moon with astronauts as the first step in the exploration of Mars and other-deep space destinations.

"We applaud China's space achievements," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Tuesday. "We wish them a successful return of their astronauts."

He stressed, however, that NASA would not follow this week's Chinese mission through formal channels.

At present, there are no plans for additional meetings with foreign powers to discuss the Bush exploration initiative or to extend an invitation to China to join the space station partnership, Beutel said.

The flight of Fei and Nie could mark the end of the opening chapter in a three-phase Chinese space initiative, Johnson-Freese said.

The first phase, she said, will demonstrate the capability of a multi-compartment spacecraft that will leave a test module in orbit when the two fliers return to Earth. The Chinese program's second phase will include spacewalks on future missions and demonstrations of docking and undocking techniques. The final phase will feature the assembly and operation of a longer-duration space lab.

At least one expert believes China's intentions might include a surprise attempt to circle the moon with astronauts before NASA's planned lunar return.

"The Americans would be wise to plan accordingly," said John E. Pike, director of the Alexandria, Va.-based GlobalSecurity.org, a small national security think tank.

"There is always the possibility they could jam us up, make us look like we are not numero uno," Pike said.

During the U.S. and Russian lunar race during the Cold War, NASA scored an early coup by circling the moon with the Apollo 8 crew over the 1968 Christmas holidays. As it turned out, the Soviets never made it to the moon.

"(China) could be the second country to do that," Pike said. "They would get in line in front of the Russians. And they would not have to land on the moon to take us down a notch."

Pike's concern is based on China's development of a new medium-lift rocket, the Long March V, and the construction of a new space launch complex on Hainan Island in the South China Sea.

The two developments, he said, could eventually enable China's space program to mature to the point that experts could assemble and launch from Earth's orbit a spacecraft capable of circling the moon with astronauts and returning home.


Copyright 2005, Houston Chronicle