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Chinese astronauts set for launch

China plans to launch two astronauts into orbit Wednesday for a mission lasting several days that is meant to seal its status as an emerging space power.
Chinese astronauts Fei Junlong, left, and Nie Haisheng wave before they walk to the launch tower in Jiayuguan, China on Wednesday.Zhao Jianwei / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two years after China became only the third nation to launch a human into orbit, a pair of astronauts were preparing Wednesday to blast off on a longer, riskier mission after receiving a farewell visit from Premier Wen Jiabao.

Wen said the “glorious and sacred mission” would demonstrate China’s national confidence and ability.

A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 6 capsule and the astronauts was to blast off sometime Wednesday from the remote base in China’s northwest, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

In a break with the space agency’s typical secrecy, Xinhua said a live broadcast of the entire flight would be provided to foreign media.

The mission, reportedly due to last as long as five days, is a key prestige project for communist leaders, who have justified the expense of a manned space program by saying it will drive economic development.

It also will be more complicated than the 2003 flight, which lasted just 21 1/2 hours. Xinhua said the two astronauts, or “taikonauts,” will take off their 22-pound spacesuits to travel back and forth between the two halves of their vessel — a re-entry capsule and an orbiter that will stay aloft after they land.

Just hours before liftoff, Xinhua announced the identities of the two taikonauts — Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haishen, 41. Previous reports said 14 former fighter pilots were training for the mission.

Xinhua said the crew was picked from a field of six finalists. Nie was one of three finalists for the 2003 mission, which made a national hero of Yang Liwei.

The two taikonauts will conduct experiments in orbit, Xinhua said without elaborating.

China, the third nation to put a man into orbit, insisted ahead of the launch that its aspirations in space were strictly peaceful and that it opposes deploying weapons there. Space officials say they hope to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010 and launch a space station.

“We do not wish to see any form of weapons in outer space, so we reaffirm that our space flight program is an important element of mankind’s peaceful utilization of outer space,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.

Live coverage of the mission from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center began at about 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, with commentators discussing the final preparations for launch. Earlier reports said the liftoff and spaceflight would be shown on Chinese television with a brief delay, possibly to allow authorities to cut the signal if anything goes wrong.

None of the 2003 spaceflight was shown live by Chinese television.

Foreign reporters were barred from the launch base. A handful of Chinese journalists were to be on hand for the liftoff but were warned they might be ordered to hand over any photos or video — a possible image-control measure in case of an accident.

The Shenzhou — or Divine Vessel — capsule is based on Russia’s three-seat Soyuz, though with extensive modifications. Spacesuits, life-support systems and other equipment are based on technology purchased from Russia.

But space officials say all equipment launched into orbit is Chinese-made.

China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s and fired its first satellite into orbit in 1970. It regularly launches satellites for foreign clients aboard its giant Long March boosters.