Business, traffic and most social activities ground to a halt on October 12, when the Chinese nation gathered around every available TV screen to watch the live broadcast of the historic moment when the nation's first two-person space flight blasted off into space--the final frontier.
Astronauts Fei Junlong (40) and Nie Haisheng (41), were the focus of over a billion pairs of eyes as they stepped aboard the Shenzhou 6 spacecraft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the northwestern Gobi Desert.
At 9 a.m. sharp, the official launch time, Shenzhou 6 perched on its Long March 2 F carrier rocket was unleashed beneath an orange plume of flame, and a nation let out its collective breath.
At 9:15, astronauts reported to the control center on the ground for the first time. "I feel well," said Nie Haisheng.
At 9:21, Shenzhou 6 landed at the predetermined orbit.
At 9:39, chief commander of China's manned spaceflight program Chen Bingde declared the Shenzhou 6 launch a success and China was ecstatic.
New step on the Long March
China has never ceased its long cherished wish to explore outer space. While the dream of flying into space is as old as time itself in the country, as proved by countless mythical tales and mural paintings, the first physical effort was a 1970 launch of a satellite aboard a Long March rocket. This made China the fifth member of the world's most exclusive international club, able to launch a satellite into the Earth's orbit. This triumphant launch heralded the long string of successful Long March rocket flights, leading to the most recent launch of Shenzhou 6.
The first Chinese spacecraft built for manned flight, Shenzhou 1, went into orbit in 1999, with a dummy astronaut and fruit and crop seeds weighing 3 kg aboard. Over the next three years, another three spacecraft in the Shenzhou range were rocketed into space and successfully retrieved. A milestone was reached on October 15, 2003, when China became the third nation to independently launch an astronaut into orbit, after the former Soviet Union achieved the same feat almost half a century earlier.
According to Zhang Qingwei, vice chief director of China's manned spaceflight program, the launch of the Shenzhou 6 marks the 88th space mission in the Long March series, which had registered an unblemished flight safety record during the 45 consecutive successful missions since October 1996.
Spaceflight has always been a gamble with high stakes and China has taken a prudent approach towards the ultimate goal of manned spaceflight. In the process the country has made it clear it is not in a space race with any other nations.
We come in peace
China has reiterated on many occasions that it is opposed to deploying any weapons in outer space.
"We do not wish to see any form of weapons in outer space, so we reaffirm that our spaceflight program is an important element of mankind's peaceful utilization of outer space,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan at a regular news briefing one day ahead of the launch.
In his congratulatory speech one hour after the successful launch of Shenzhou 6, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated, "We launch Shenzhou 6 out of peaceful purposes."
Next goals: permanent space lab and moon
Mastering the technique of manned spaceflight is the first stage of China's "three-stage" plan of its manned space program. The experience of the previous space journeys will definitely prepare China for the next two steps in sending a space lab into orbit and then setting up a permanent space lab.
Manned spaceflights aside, preparation for unmanned missions to the moon is also in the grand picture. Named after a mythical beauty Chang'e, who flew to the moon to pursue a peaceful life, the moon-ascending project has attracted enormous attention since it was officially launched in March 2004. A schedule released last November by Ouyang Ziyuan, chief scientist of the moon exploration program, includes the launch of a moon orbiter in 2007, a lunar landing in 2012 and a third satellite designed to reach the moon and bring back soil samples for research in 2017.