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China lifts veil of space secrecy

Beijing, Oct. 10 (Reuters): China will launch its first manned spaceship next week, aiming to become the third country after the Soviet Union and the US to put a man in orbit.

The official Xinhua news agency said today the Shenzhou V would be launched between October 15 and 17 at an “appropriate time” from a launch pad in the Gobi desert in northwestern China and orbit the Earth 14 times. It was the first official confirmation of the launch window on a mission China has kept under tight wraps.

“The Shenzhou V spacecraft will carry out the first manned space mission and will lift off from the China Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre,” Xinhua quoted an official in charge of the country’s space programme as saying. “Now all preparatory work for the launch is progressing smoothly.”

Sources at two major state-run television stations and a tour operator said early this week the launch had been provisionally set for the morning of October 15, barring bad weather.

And Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper said the craft would fly for 21 hours, or 90 minutes per orbit, before floating back down to Earth the next morning.

It did not say how many astronauts would be taking part in the maiden voyage, but that a team had been trained for the mission. Qi Faren, chief designer of the vessel, was quoted by the China Daily as saying he and his colleagues were confident about the mission despite the fact China had so far conducted only four unmanned test flights due to “limited funds”.

China has kept a veil of secrecy on details of the launch, with scant details leaking in a few state newspapers and in Hong Kong. State media have said that up to three “taikonauts” could be aboard the craft, although the Shanghai-based Liberation Daily said yesterday a single astronaut would be chosen from 14 experienced fighter pilots.

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