Two years, two big steps being made, and another Chinese move towards the moon is in the making.
The successful launch of China's second manned spacecraft at 9 AM this morning, almost two years after the country's maiden manned mission in 2003, has fuelled bigger dreams of space exploration.
Following the multiple days of space flight by the two astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng, China plans to stage space walks and the docking of capsule with space module in the years ahead, sources with the country's Manned Space Program Office said.
The earliest space walks are scheduled for 2007, Sun Laiyan, chief of the China National Space Administration, told China Daily earlier.
Based on breakthroughs in technology related to the efforts, China will move to send a space lab into orbit to be temporally attended by scientists. Accessory space engineering system will be also established for the purpose, the office said.
The efforts constitute the second stage of China's manned space program, which was formally kicked off in 1992.
In the first stage, China became the third nation, following Russia and the United States, to succeed in manned space flight when it launched the Shenzhou V in October 2003, carrying sole astronaut Yang Liwei around the earth 14 times in his one-day flight.
Four unmanned Shenzhou spaceships had been launched between November 1999 and December 2002 to precede Yang's space trip.
In the third stage, China plans to set up a permanent space lab, and build its space engineering system, which allows astronauts and scientists to shuttle between the Earth and space station to conduct large-scale scientific experiments, the space program office said in a statement.
"Completion of the `three-stage' plan of China's manned space program will enable Chinese astronauts and scientists to conduct space activities regularly, and lay a solid foundation for China to make peaceful use of space and explore space resources," the statement said.
Wang Yongzhi, chief general designer of China's Manned Space Program, said: "China will never be a superpower, but as the world's biggest developing country with 1.3 billion people, it should have a place in aerospace development and make due contributions."
Manned space flight, most complicated and difficult aerospace project, demonstrates a nation's scientific research and economic strength, he said.
"It's a major means to expand human living space and tap and use space resources."
The China Aerospace Science Corp (CASC), designer and manufacturer of Shenzhou spacecraft and "Long March" launch vehicles, said work has been already instigated to make breakthroughs in technology in relation to the country's unfolding space activities.
For example, the CASC has embarked on a new "long march" in upgrading launch rockets to meet demands for future spacecraft launches, including lift-off of a space station weighing more than 20 tons.
In a few years, the country's space program will be equipped with a new family of rockets, capable of covering a launch range of between 0.5 tons and 25 tons for near-earth orbits and 4-13 tons for geo-stationary transfer orbits, according to Jiang Yixian, a division director of the CASC.
Since October 1996, China's Long March rockets have been crowned with 46 consecutive triumphant launches, sending aloof application and research satellites, in addition to spacecraft.
The Long March carrier rockets have conducted five lift-offs so far this year.
Manned space flights aside, preparation for unmanned missions to the moon is also in the pipeline.
The country inaugurated a lunar exploration center in Beijing in August, to oversee the launch of a moon orbiter in 2007, a lunar lander in 2012 and a third satellite designed to reach the moon and bring back soil samples for research in 2017.
Ye Peijian, chief designer of the country's first lunar orbiter, said research and development of the satellite, coded Chang'e-I, has proceeded smoothly.
If all goes according to plan, the two-ton lunar orbiter will blast off in 2007 to conduct a one-year mission of mapping the moon's surface and studying its mineral content, according to Luan Enjie, commander-in-chief of the country's lunar exploration program.
(China Daily October 12, 2005)