updated 12/4/2008 9:46:49 AM ET 2008-12-04T14:46:49

China's military-backed space program will send scientists on future manned missions as its demand for technical expertise rises, state media reported Friday.

Plans call for the program to begin setting up space laboratories after 2012, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

Scientists picked for the job could include those from the former British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau that reverted to Chinese control in the late 1990s, Xinhua said.

China's space program is staffed mainly by military officers. The six astronauts that have traveled aboard China's three manned missions have all been air force pilots.

Three more manned missions are planned before 2012 to prepare for the rendezvous and docking tasks required for constructing a space station.

China staged its first manned mission in 2003, becoming only the third country after Russia and the United States to launch a person into space. This year it claimed a new landmark with its first space walk. Future ambitions including building a permanent orbiting space station and landing a man on the moon.

The program enjoys broad popularity at home and is portrayed by the communist leadership as a symbol of the country's rising technological sophistication and global influence.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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