China plans to put three men into space within the next two years as it looks ahead to an orbiting space station and a mission to the moon.
China last month had successfully completed its second manned space mission aboard the Shenzhou VI, and is now developing a series of new craft up to the Shenzhou X, two Beijing newspapers said.
The Shenzhou VII would carry three people and be launched within the next two years, the Beijing Morning Post said.
But the Shenzhou VIII and IX would only carry equipment for the planned orbiting space station, the newspaper said, quoting chief rocket designer Liu Zhusheng.
Shenzhou X would carry the people who will work in the space station, Liu told the newspaper, without giving a timeframe for its launch.
But he said once the space station project got under way, Shenzhou VIII, VI and X could be launched within a month of each other.
"Once one part has gone up, we need to immediately send up the next bit to connect it, so we'll carry out a series of quick launches in succession," Zhu said.
China is also designing a rocket that can carry a payload of 25 tonnes into space, up from a present limit of eight tonnes, the Beijing News said, though it would unlikely be ready for another six-and-a-half years.
Another objective is to put a man on the moon, but that plan could be complicated due to China's current inability to land and then recover a craft from the surface, the report said.
"Though we have already achieved a high level of successful technology, success does not necessarily mean the technology is mature," the newspaper quoted another rocket designer, Yang Hong, as saying.
China put its first man in space aboard Shenzhou V in October 2003, giving China membership in the exclusive club of countries that have put a man into space.
The former Soviet Union and the United States first sent men into orbit in 1961.
China has run its ambitious space program on a relative shoestring. State media has put the cost of developing the whole Shenzhou program at about US$2.3 billion, a fraction of the US$16 billion budget of NASA, the US space agency, for 2005 alone.
(China Daily November 3, 2005)