With the launch of Shenzhou 1 e

ight years ago, the People’s Republic of China took its

first significant step toward establishing

a human spaceflight program.

The unmanned Shenzhou 1 capsule, which was lofted aboard a Long March 2F rocket from Jiuquan Satellite Center in the Gansu province, carried a test mannequin into Earth orbit

for 21 hours before landing

in Inner Mongolia.

Almost six years later, China would reach its goal when

Lt. Col. YngLWei of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was lofted

aboard Shenzhou 5

. Completing 14 Earth orbits in 21 hours, Wei’s flight

made China the third nation –

after the Soviet Union and the United States –

to independently send a human into orbit


With the Shenzhou launches

– there have been six thus


— China has announced its


as a world power, Joan Johnson-Freese,

chair of the National Security Decision Making Department

at the Naval War College in Providence, R.I., said

in a Nov. 13 phone interview. The country has

“leapfrogged” its Asian rivals

– notably India and Japan

– in space technology, she said.

One motivation for developing

a manned spaceflight program was the hope that China would see

a similar boost in high-tech jobs, technical education and national prestige that the United States experienced during the Apollo program

, Johnson-Freese said.

“The first flight basically proved out the launch vehicle, basic control and communication of the spacecraft in orbit and the recovery system,” Phillip Clark, a U.K.-based Russian and Chinese space capability specialist, told Space News


January 2001

following the launch of Shenzhou 2


Subsequent launches of the second, third and fourth Shenzhou missions – from January 2001 to December 2002 –

laid the foundation for China’s first manned spaceflight on

Oct. 15, 2003.

The Shenzhou vehicle is composed of an orbital module, a descent module and an instrument-propulsion module. Much of its hardware was provided by the Soviet Union


including an incomplete descent module from a Soyuz rocket.

In addition,

the Shenzhou looks like a larger version of the Russian Soyuz orbital capsule, which has led to the assertion that China borrowed the basic design for the Soyuz

But Johnson-Freese disagrees.

“A car looks like a car,” she said

. The Soviet technologies China

borrowed most heavily from were the life support system and the space suit, she said


Unlike the Soyuz, the approximately 7,800-kilogram Shenzhou has maneuvering engines on its orbital module and is able to remain in space long after the descent module has returned to Earth. On both the

unmanned and manned missions, Shenzhou 2, 4 and 5

, Chinese scientists used this capability to conduct zero-gravity experiments for up to six months after the descent module

returned to Earth.

The Shenzhou, which means “divine vessel,”

also contains two sets of solar panels

on its orbital and systems modules;

the Soyuz only has solar panels on its systems module.

With the successful launches of the one-person Shenzhou 5 and two-person-crewed Shenzhou 6 in October 2005, China has completed the first stage in its

three-phase human spaceflight plan.

The second phase, which Johnson-Freese believes will begin with an October 2008 launch

, involves conducting spacewalks, docking maneuvers and placing a space lab

– composed of Shenzhou orbital modules – in orbit. For the third and final stage, China plans to place a 20-ton space station in orbit, Johnson-Freese said


But China’s

heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket must be completed for that to happen, she said


The Long March 5 will not be ready until after 2012, Chinese National Space Administration spokesman PeiZhaoyu said in the Nov. 5 issue of the Xinhau News Agency.

While there is no official announcement of a manned lunar mission, Johnson-Freese says she does not doubt those

plans are in the works.