Image: Chan and Yang
Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei, center right, shares the stage and a song with Hong Kong action-movie star Jackie Chan during a gala at Hong Kong Stadium on Saturday.
updated 11/5/2003 5:51:31 AM ET 2003-11-05T10:51:31

With its first space explorer home safe and taking his victory lap, China unveiled plans Wednesday to give its second and third “taikonauts” their turns in orbit.

THE GOVERNMENT, its confidence in space travel soaring, said it would probably send two more astronauts into orbit within the next two years on the country’s second human space mission. It was the latest announcement in recent days from a space program that appears to be kicking into high gear.

“The scientists are busily involved in research to create an environment within the spaceship to accommodate more than one astronaut,” Wang Yongzhi, chief engineer of China’s manned space program, was paraphrased as saying by Xinhuanet, the government news agency’s Web site.

The announcement was the most detailed information yet on China’s plans for its next space launch aboard a ship called Shenzhou 6. The craft will be capable of flying for up to seven days. Wang said the next mission would probably be “at least 24 hours.”

The government did not identify the taikonauts — a term coined from “taikong,” the Chinese word for space — who would travel on the second mission.

However, pioneer astronaut Yang Liwei’s two alternates, Zhai Zhigang and Nie Haisheng, may be considered favorites. They have been included in many of the celebrations for Yang in recent days.

Wang’s comments, made Tuesday as space officials traveled to Hong Kong and Macau, came three weeks after Yang became China’s first man in space. Yang rode Shenzhou 5 into orbit on Oct. 15 and returned after 21½ hours.

InsertArt(2062267)Chinese aerospace officials said on Tuesday in Hong Kong that they planned to launch a space station within 10 years.

And on Monday, China sent up an experimental satellite from the same pad used to launch Shenzhou 5. Officials said the satellite would be used mostly for scientific research and mapping. The recoverable satellite will orbit for 18 days and is “technically much more advanced than the previous ones,” the government said.

The spate of fresh activities, plans and details — released as Yang and other space officials make a patriotism-drenched tour of Hong Kong and Macau — suggest that China’s confidence in its space program has solidified.

The military-linked manned space program has been extremely secretive for years.

And trappings of caution remain. The government on Wednesday night issued an odd dispatch solely to discredit a report in a western China newspaper, which said last week that Shenzhou 6 would send three astronauts on a seven-day mission.

The error happened after an official told the newspaper that Shenzhou 6 would have the capacity to carry three astronauts and fly for a week, then was “mistakenly quoted,” Xinhua said.

Wang said on Tuesday that China had no plans in place for a human moon landing, and that the nation would work at its own pace — in contrast with the frenzied space race between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1960s.

“It won’t be like the space feud between America and the Soviet Union,” Wang said.

Yang arrived with an entourage in Macau on Wednesday. Xinhua announced his arrival, calling him “a hero of the Chinese nation.”

Later, it paraphrased Yang as saying that the entire Chinese nation was responsible for his success. “Scientific exploration,” he was reported saying, is “not at all a one-man work.”

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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