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China reveals first astronaut’s brush with death

China, which is launching a lunar exploration program this year, revealed how close the country’s first astronaut came to death on his return to Earth.
First Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei waves after landing on the Inner Mongolian grasslands of northern China Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 after 21 hours in orbit.
First Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei waves after landing on the Inner Mongolian grasslands of northern China Thursday, Oct. 16, 2003 after 21 hours in orbit.Xinhua via AP file
/ Source: Reuters

China, which is launching a lunar exploration program this year, revealed on Monday how close the country’s first astronaut came to death on his return to Earth.

China became only the third country to put a man in space after the former Soviet Union and the United States when Yang Liwei orbited the Earth in 2003 in what was a resounding success for its space program.

But Xinhua news agency said this was almost not so, quoting the Xian Satellite Monitor and Control Center's report on the dangers met by the Shenzhou V rocket.

“Yang lost every means to contact with the ground command and control headquarters as soon as entering in the aerosphere, which fell in the worst-case scenario prepared by the space mission team,” Xinhua quoted Dong Deyi, head of the Xian center, as saying in reference to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Communications are down when any spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, but in Li’s case, “even radar could not capture any signal from the returning module,” Dong was quoted as saying.

“After the Shenzhou V came out of the blackout area, the echo signals from the spaceship were still volatile which sufficiently threatened a safe landing of astronaut Yang.”

Mission control promptly ordered implementation of optical guiding and tracking instead of a communication-guided landing control, Dong was quoted as saying.

“Aerospace technologists used cinetheodolites (optical trackers) on the ground to measure the spacecraft’s position and record movement. Precise positioning of the spacecraft enabled officers to properly control the slow-down parachute which was vital to a soft landing.”

But the landing was 5.6 miles east of the planned site, Dong said.

Fifteen year program
China began its clandestine manned space program in 1992, since when it has spent at least $2.64 billion on the project and sent three astronauts into orbit.

The Xian center also said at least three of its orbiting satellites had malfunctioned but all were salvaged by experts.

China plans to chart every inch of the moon’s surface as part of its ambitious space program.

China, which plans to launch a lunar orbiter called ”Chang’e One” in the second half of 2007 to take 3D images, would aim to land an unmanned vehicle on its surface by 2010, official news portal Chinanews.com said on Friday.

China’s space exploration program has come far since late leader Mao Zedong lamented that China could not even launch a potato into space.

But its space plans have faced increasing international scrutiny amid fears about a potential space arms race with the United States and other powers since it blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January.