Yuan Jiajun could never have dreamed 30 years ago while sitting on his father's shoulders star-gazing that he would grow up to become chief director of China's manned spacecraft system.
He no longer stared into the heavens looking for Dongfanghong -- the first Chinese-made satellite, which went into orbit in 1970 -- while singing The East is Red (whose Chinese title is also the name of the satellite).
Now, 40-year-old Yuan is busy preparing to blast China's first astronauts into space.
Yuan's preparations are on solid shoulders.
On January 5, Yuan and his colleagues successfully guided China's latest unmanned spacecraft -- Shenzhou IV -- to a safe landing in North China's Inner Mongolia.
It was the fourth consecutive triumph China had chalked up since 1999, when it catapulted its first unpiloted Shenzhou -- "Divine Vessel" in Chinese -- into space.
Yuan's boss, Hu Shixiang, a chief of China's manned space program, pointed out that Shenzhou IV was proof that China's expertise on manned flights had matured.
It is just a "matter of time" before the country stages manned missions, Hu said.
Many perceive the success to be symptomatic of China's progress after two decades of economic reform.
For Yuan, who graduated with a master's degree in aircraft design at the China Academy of Space Technology in 1987, the mission was just another step in China's push to become a space faring nation.
Quest for Space
Chinese people have long aspired to travel in space.
Many space museums throughout the world mention either Chinese legends about Chang'e, a young fairy who flew to the moon, or about Wan Hu, the first man believed to have blasted off 500 years ago by sitting on a chair rigged with two kites and 47 rockets.
China invented the gunpowder "rocket" -- the precursor of modern space rockets -- so it surely does not want to fall farther behind as space technology leaps forward in developed countries, according to Chinese space researchers.
"Space technology has opened up a new era for human exploration of outer space," Yuan said. "Humankind's activities in space will greatly promote social progress and profoundly influence society."
It was with such understanding and a public vow to contribute to the peaceful use of outer space, China began its space program.
It blasted its first artificial satellite -- Dongfanghong ("The East is Red") -- into orbit in 1970.
But it was not until 1992 that China formally embarked on its manned space program, said Yuan.
Between November 1999 and March 2002, the country launched three unmanned space flights.
By the time Shenzhou IV was launched on December 30 last year, China had developed the most complete system needed for a manned mission.
The Shenzhou IV craft embodied the country's most sophisticated and fullest preparations so far for getting Chinese astronauts into space, said Yuan.
To become familiar with the space vessel, China's would-be astronauts used the Shenzhou IV capsule for training for a week last April, Yuan revealed.
Before that, a corps of 14 astronauts picked from among hundreds of fighter pilots in China's air force had been training for years to ready themselves for the first trek into space.
They have been dubbed "taikonauts" -- the Chinese word for outer space being taikong -- and have each flown more than 1,000 hours in fighter jets. Two were sent to Russia's cosmonaut school.
The height and weight of the pilots, who are all around 30 years, would surprise many people.
They are 1.7 meters (5 feet 7 inches) tall and weigh 65 kilograms (143 pounds) on average.
In the limited room of a space vessel, shorter men can maneuver more flexibly and it is more cost-effective because they weigh less, Chinese space experts said.
Even with their extensive training, Yuan did not feel the pressure ease from his shoulders.
But he need not worry as hundreds of Chinese scientists involved in the mammoth manned space program have come to work alongside him.
In particular, they have focused on developing an innovative launch rocket and making Chinese spacecraft safe.
Yuan and his colleagues said that, when it comes to launching a piloted mission, absolute safety is critical.
In his meeting with the astronauts being trained, Premier Zhu Rongji was quoted as assuring them that China's spacecraft could send them to space safely and bring them back equally safely.
Liu Zhu-sheng, chief designer of China's Long March 2F rocket, said his team had made the most complex arrangements to ensure the booster was highly reliable.
Between October 1996 and the end of 2002, the Long March rocket series had made 27 consecutive successful launches -- including four for the unmanned Shenzhou flights, each time precisely lifting the payloads into pre-set orbits, Liu said.
But the previous achievements may not necessarily be a harbinger of subsequent triumph.
So, each time that the Long March 2F completed a mission, scientists would spare no effort to double-check major components and make improvements in safety and reliability.
Now, the rocket boasts 10 world-leading innovations and inventions, including the escape and fault-detecting and handling systems, which China independently developed to guarantee the safety of its astronauts, according to Liu.
For instance, at the top of the rocket is a kind of escape tower, which, in the event of an emergency, can lift the spacecraft below it in a split second to a safe landing field before the rocket explodes.
Rockets aside, when engineers design the spacecraft itself, they incorporate design features details to make astronauts safe and relatively comfortable during their flights.
For example, a special thermal protection shield is able to maintain a cool temperature inside the space vehicle.
The heat-resistant shield guarantees a temperature of below 30 degrees centigrade inside the capsule when the outside temperature soars to hundreds of degrees, scientists said.
The Shenzhou spacecraft being developed for manned flight will fly for at least one day in space, said Qi Faren, the 69-year-old general designer of the Shenzhou spacecraft.
Qi, who graduated from the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1957, said this will be longer than the first manned flight of the former Soviet Union, which lasted for 108 minutes.
The spacecraft will accommodate three people, he added.
After the re-entry module of China's spacecraft returns to Earth, the remaining part of the craft -- the orbital module -- will be able to keep working in space as an independent satellite carrying out tasks such as observation work.
In addition, China has so far managed to spend less money than the United States -- the second country after the former Soviet Union to put a human into space -- on its manned space industry.
"For the whole of the manned space industry, we have only spent 19 billion yuan (US$2.3 billion), while the United States spent US$8 billion on just one rocket system," said Zhang Qingwei, president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, without specifying.
Yuan has every reason to believe that the country's dream of manned space flight will soon become reality.
At the end of that dream, there will be others -- a space lab, space station and moon landing.
(China Daily January 16, 2003)