Project 921

Russia and the United States have held the inside tracks in the space race. In the stretch, here comes China.

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With that goal now clearly in sight, a sketchy picture of Beijing’s astronauts—called yuhangyuans, which means, roughly, “one who goes into space”—is slowly emerging from the shadows of official secrecy. The government won’t allow any of the flashy publicity that turned NASA’s Mercury astronauts into celebrities even before they flew. The China State Manned Aerospace Office in Beijing declined even to accept a written request for information for this article. But the authorities have stopped short of a total, Soviet-style information blackout. In a sign of growing official confidence, the state-controlled press has been divulging more details about the project since the third successful test of Shenzhou (pronounced “shun jo”), the astronauts’ bowl-shaped reentry capsule.

In that test, conducted last March, Shenzhou orbited Earth 108 times, then touched down in the grasslands of inner Mongolia. Afterward, state television showed jubilant mission control technicians in red jumpsuits leaping in the air and cheering as military officials nodded approvingly. The government proclaimed the seven-day test flight a success and said the reentry capsule, which had carried sensor-equipped, spacesuited mannequins into orbit, was “technically suitable for astronauts.” Another section of the spacecraft remained aloft; ground controllers have been using it to practice remote-controlled orbital maneuvering.

The yuhangyuans, picked from among some 2,000 military pilots in the People’s Liberation Army, are all around 30 years old, according to stories in the state-controlled press, which are useful, if unverifiable, sources of technical information. The official Xinhua News Agency has given the number of astronauts as 12, while other reports put the number at 14, perhaps counting trainer astronauts as well. In 1996, China paid Russia to put two pilots through its Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City on the outskirts of Moscow. It is unclear whether the two men—identified in Western reports as Li Qinglong and Wu Zi—were preparing for a Shenzhou flight themselves, or whether their role has been limited to training other Chinese astronauts back home. Either way, China is unlikely to continue relying on Russian help in this area. Most Western analysts agree with Phillip Clark, an independent aerospace consultant based in England, that Beijing is intent on building up its own space school. Clark’s specialty is Russia, but he has followed the China space program since the 1970s, in part for the challenge—“It’s too easy to get information on other countries,” he says.

Judging by the press accounts, Chinese trainers followed Russian tradition in selecting diminutive fliers to fit inside a cramped capsule. The first candidates average five-foot-seven and 110 pounds, small by the standards of today’s well-nourished Chinese youth. The state press says the government will announce their names after the fourth test flight, suggesting that Shenzhou 5 might be the first to carry a crew. By contrast, when Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space in 1961, Moscow didn’t reveal his identity until he was safely in orbit. And when program officials selected Gagarin for the flight, they withheld that information from him until a few days before launch. The Chinese will follow that practice, according to one Chinese report.

In an article last April, the weekly newspaper China Space News revealed new details about the yuhangyuans’ training. Members of the corps live Monday to Friday in a heavily guarded building at an “aerospace city” in Beijing. “Any outsiders who try to peek in or take pictures are politely asked to leave,” the report said. State newspapers have begun calling the building the Red Chamber. On weekends, according to China Space News, the astronauts return to their families, who live in ordinary apartments in the city. Many of the pilots’ wives work in the same facility, said the newspaper, and “as wives of astronauts, have a strong sense of secrecy.”

Additional glimpses of the program have come from other state media. An account last year in the Guangzhou Daily mentioned a four-story windowless building on Beijing’s west side that held a mockup of the Shenzhou reentry capsule. The story described white-robed technicians watching as a trainee in an orange spacesuit climbed into the capsule simulator.

The astronauts practice emergency launch pad escapes at the launch site in the Gobi Desert, according to the state newspaper Labor News. The base is near the remote northwest town of Jiuquan, a former oasis stop for camel trains on the ancient Silk Road. (China has two other launch sites, which so far have been used only for launching satellites—at Taiyuan in the central province of Shanxi and at Xichang in the southwest province of Sichuan.)

The program has a distinctly Chinese identity. The astronauts will conduct inflight experiments in traditional herbal medicine, according to capsule designer Su Shuangning, who gave a rare interview last April to the People’s Liberation Army Daily. The space cuisine will likewise have a native flavor. A research lab in Shanghai has developed a 21-meal menu, according to China Space News, whose reporter saw dozens of space-bound dishes at the Beijing training center—light on fish, meat, and bread and heavy on curried rice, shellfish, vegetables, and other dishes prepared by adding hot water. The diet will also include dried fruit. And “since Chinese love to drink tea, besides orange juice, there is iced tea and green tea,” the newspaper said.

Because the identities of the astronauts and engineers are largely unknown, the most visible figure in China’s nascent space program has been President Jiang Zemin. The 76-year-old leader, who also heads the Chinese communist party, is expected to start giving up his formal posts over the next two years, and is using the space program to polish his image as a leader who modernized China. The former engineer and Shanghai mayor, a surprise pick in 1989 to head the communist party after that year’s political upheaval, prides himself on having helped to spread the Internet and other modern technology to the masses. He was on hand at Jiuquan on March 25 for the third Shenzhou launch. State television devoted half of its 30-minute nationwide evening news that day to the event—focusing not on the flight itself but on Jiang. Dressed in a green military-style uniform, he was shown congratulating control room technicians and speaking against a backdrop of fireworks bursting over the Tiananmen Gate in central Beijing.

Under Jiang, the government has largely cast off leftist ideology in promoting economic reform. Instead, it appeals to Chinese cultural pride by advancing projects such as Beijing’s campaign to host the 2008 Olympics. When that bid proved successful, millions of people poured into the streets of the capital in spontaneous nighttime celebration, waving flags, singing the national anthem, and cheering themselves hoarse. The space program fits this nationalistic role perfectly. In contrast to revolution-era names—Long March rockets, East Is Red satellites—the more poetic Shenzhou——“Sacred Vessel”—harkens back to the glory days of classical China.

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