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With Man In Space, China Seeks Prestige On Global Stage
JIUQUAN, China (AFP) Oct 15, 2003

People's Liberation Army Lieutenant Colonel Yang Liwei, 38, was at the controls Wednesday and reported 34 minutes into the flight that he "feels good" and that the craft was operating normally.
China's successful launch of a manned space flight Wednesday caps 11 years of a secretive program designed to tell the world the communist giant has arrived as a global leader.

When China's first satellite went into orbit in the middle of the Cultural Revolution 33 years ago, it blared the revolutionary tune "The East is Red" to all the countries it passed.

And more than a generation later, with astronaut Yang Jiwei orbiting the Earth, the nationalist pride remains.

"It's very much about saying 'We've arrived as a world leader. Look what we're capable of'," said David Baker, editor of Jane's Space Directory, a British publication.

President Hu Jintao wasted no time in tapping nationalistic sentiment Wednesday, hailing the mission as "an honor for our great motherland" and a "historic step for the Chinese people".

With the launch of Shenzhou V, China is only the third nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to join the exclusive club of nations capable of sending a man into space -- and willing to pay the price.

It has cost China an estimated 2.3 billion dollars to put a man into space, but it may have been worth every cent in terms of the global prestige that it generates, according to experts.

Scientifically, there is not much China can do with a man in space that could not have been done with an unmanned space program, but that is missing the point, they said.

China is craving for attention with all the earnestness of an emerging power.

China tried to leapfrog foreign space technology in the early 1970s, when it picked and started training a team of astronauts, but soon abandoned the premature attempt.

In the new post-Cold War world, China may have an even larger incentive than before to become a space power.

"Where at one time nations would want to acquire nuclear weapons to join the top table of nations, now China is doing a very smart thing," said Baker.

"Instead of brandishing an enormous nuclear capability, its acquiring something that's unwarlike and difficult to oppose."

The Chinese space program is hugely popular at home, and working for mission control is a dream job for many scientists, even if they could earn much higher salaries in the private sector.

Significantly, there has as of yet appeared no prominent voice arguing that the money could be put to better use elsewhere, and no top politician is likely to pull the plug.

"The program has enjoyed a good level of support over the past 20 years, and that's not going to change much," said Brian Harvey, author of "The Chinese Space Programme: From Conception to Future Capabilities."

With a man in space, the momentum will be there for China's program to move ahead at a brisk pace, according to observers.

As a result, by the time of the Summer Olympics in 2008, there might be two space stations in orbit, the International Space Station and China's own space station, they said.

"The world will be impressed that China is able to do something roughly comparable to (Russian space station) Mir," said Harvey. "The differences will be fairly technical, and the world won't notice."

Not all experts believe nationalist incentive is entirely behind China's space program.

"I think national pride will be the lowest on the list," said Robert Karniol, a Bangkok-based military analyst. "Military and commercial use will be higher on the list."

A similar mixture of commercial rewards and nationalist ambition seems to be behind China's long-term ambition of reaching the moon, initially using unmanned spacecraft.

"China should not drag its feet in exploring the moon," Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist at China's lunar exploration program, told the official weekly Beijing Review.

"Whoever gets there first will acquire the resources first ... and as a big country, China cannot stand by and watch."

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