By
NBC News producer

The history of China’s manned space effort began in the early 1990s with reports of Chinese-Russian cooperation, both in terms of training and equipment.

Overseas Chinese journalists who keep tabs on the secret program say Russian Space Agency chief Yuri Koptev visited China on April 25, 1996, and during that trip the two countries signed an agreement on space cooperation. No details about the agreement were revealed, but there were reports that China agreed to buy components of the Soyuz, the Russian space vehicle used for flights back and forth to Mir, including a navigation/docking subsystem.

Some also suggest the Chinese may need to use Russia’s tracking network for manned space flight.

“They bought components of the Soyuz,” space expert Phillip Clark said. “They bought the Soyuz survival package, the Soyuz pressure suit and the docking system.”

Clark added that the Russians also agreed to sell China the RD-120 rocket engine for a larger rocket the Chinese plan. The new rocket would be able to put a 50-ton space vehicle into low-Earth orbit. That rocket, he says, is about a decade away for its first launch.

China’s first two astronaut candidates - Wu Jie and Li Qinglong - were trained at the Russians’ Star City complex beginning in November 1996, returning to China in late 1997. Experts believe the two were most likely groomed to be instructors or testers, rather than actual astronauts. Indeed, said Clark, the two were accompanied by 15 other Chinese space scientists, who while not trained themselves did observe the training and had access to training technology.

“The Russians themselves believed that half of the 15 scientists were astronaut candidates themselves,” said Clark.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

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