17 October 2003--Yang Liuwei, in the span of 21 hours and 14 orbits around the Earth, has become China's newest hero. As the country's first ”taikonaut,” the Chinese term for astronaut or cosmonaut, the 38-year-old man from northeastern China has quickly replaced basketball star Yao Ming as China's most valued homegrown talent. ”He's definitely China's most respected man,” says a Shanghai resident surnamed Xu. ”He's done what no other Chinese person has done before.”
Creating sentiments of national pride that residents like Xu have expressed in recent days is one of the goals of China's emerging space program. There is, of course, the goal of putting the country's fast-growing aerospace prowess to scientific use. China has already sent plant seeds into orbit to breed new varieties that have higher yields and better quality, according to the official Xinhua news agency. But the major point that China has proved with the 16 October space launch is that it is becoming a global power, as the third country to send a manned spacecraft to outer space.
Just as the world's first Earth satellite Sputnik delivered a clear message in 1957 that the Soviet Union now was in a position to send missiles across the globe, and therefore was a power to be reckoned with, China's entry into the elite manned-space club says that it, too, will have to be given a better seat at the tables that matter.
The launch went off basically without a hitch, suggesting considerable self-confidence on the part of the authorities--not only technical self-assurance, but political. There was a slight time delay between the actual launch, which took place in the barren deserts of central Gansu province, and its broadcast on national television the morning of October 16. But Chinese audiences have been glued to their television sets ever since.
Television broadcasters have been showing nonstop re-airings of the launch and footage of Yang in his cramped quarters in space. He reportedly dined on a Chinese version of space food and spoke to his wife and son via a satellite connection. ”I'm feeling very good in space and it looks extremely splendid around here,” Yang told his wife, according to the Shanghai Daily. At 6 am the next morning, Yang landed on the Inner Mongolian grasslands in Northern China. Back on the ground, Yang was hoisted into the air by his fellow astronauts-in-training to the sound of beating drums in the background.
With the success of the manned space flight, Chinese defense officials have said that the space programs plans to launch a research satellite into lunar orbit within the next three years, Hong Kong's Wen Wei Po newspaper reported.
”The mission proves that we're not a backwards country anymore,” says a Shanghai resident surnamed Lu. Just like the winning of the Beijing Olympics, to take place in 2008, and the Shanghai Expo, to take place in 2010, the space launch shows that the People's Republic is gaining a greater role in the world.
For more on the ambitious space plans the Chinese authorities announced, immediately upon completion of the manned orbit, see Weekly Newslog for the Web: http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/newslog/index.html#s1.