BEIJING — At a "mission control launch site" located just off the Avenue of Eternal Peace in downtown Beijing, hundreds of eighth-graders in blue and red running suits learn to "count down" a rocket launch. They sit at a computer simulation in a "Fly to Space" exhibition at the Military Museum here.
Yet for the first time in the nation's history, the idea of Chinese spaceflight is not something merely fictional for these students. China's manned space ambitions are right now at T-minus days - and counting.
Sometime in the daylight hours in the next two weeks, from a remote pad in western Gansu Province, China will attempt to put a single astronaut into orbit for probably24 hours. The launch of a Shenzhou 5 capsule on top of a Long March 2F rocket is the next giant leap in a Chinese space program that, on paper, is every bit as ambitious as the US Apollo missions of the 1960s - with Beijing aiming later at a space station, the moon, and beyond.
If the Shenzhou 5 is successful, China enters an elite club of nations - including only the US and Russia - that has sent men and women into space.
The budding Chinese program is expected to galvanize national pride and unity. It also positions China to eventually develop a satellite and communications-based technology that is central to the kinds of military operations the US has been showcasing in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What's been unusual in recent weeks is the forthrightness displayed by Beijing about a program that is usually swathed in layers of military secrecy, experts say. China has twice officially announced its intentions to launch "at the soonest possible date" - though any possible combination of delays could take place. Space policy experts say that either the Chinese are extremely confident about the launch, or have decided to closely control the publicity on a program whose success or failure is highly sensitive.
To date, even after four launches of the Shenzhou ("divine vessel)") that has the capacity to carry at least three astronauts, there has never been confirmation of a sentient being on a Chinese craft surviving the reentry and recovery phase of the mission. Chinese Internet sites and semi- official media have described a monkey, rabbits, and a dog being sent into space; but no verification has followed. Usually, launches are confirmed after they successfully take place.
"By announcing this launch, the Chinese are certainly going much further out on a limb than they traditionally have," says Joan Johnson-Freese, chair of the Naval War College's National Security Decision Making Department in Newport, R.I. "They know once they launch, they can't hide it from the world. So they [will] hype this a bit, just as the US does for its program."
If this launch is not successful, moreover, "China is likely to have the same reaction the US did after the Challenger and the Columbia. They will pull themselves up and try again," says Ms. Johnson-Freese.
Technicians at the space exhibit this week in Beijing already seem to have thought through the possibility of a tragic glitch in the Shenzhou mission - but do not feel it needs to stop China's efforts.
"Everything is subject to failure and success. I think that if the rocket isn't successful this time, we will try it again." says one educator at the exhibition.
One confident young student from Middle School No. 20 in Beijing, who is standing next to a panel describing how China's innovations in gunpowder and fireworks rockets are an example of its early interests in space flight, tells a reporter: "I think a successful launch will first make the family of the astronaut happy. But it is also a big breakthrough for China. After this, there will be no problem going to the moon. The technology is ready. My mom works for the space program, and that's what she says."
The launch comes at a time when China is stepping out into the world community in directions far past any it has taken before. In recent years China has won the 2008 Olympics bid, become a member of the World Trade Organization, and has taken a leading position in negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program, something inconceivable a few years ago. Experts argue that China is positioning itself to be the dominant player in Asia - and that to be the third nation to put an astronaut in orbit is yet another indication of that ambition or desired status.
"This gives China a seat at the table," says a European scholar. "They don't want to lag behind."
Japan and India also have blueprints for full-scale space programs, though Japan has recently slowed down its manned launch ambitions.
China's program is reportedly quite pragmatic, and so far has not been rationalized by some of the arguments long associated with the US program: that space exploration is a virtue in and of itself, important as a symbol of man's reach to the stars, and for pure science.
China's leaders, by contrast, are looking at the kinds of military applications that have spun out of the US program, and that have been incorporated into programs like the Aegis system, which uses interlinking satellite and computer tracking to coordinate air-, sea-, and land-based military systems. While the amount of funding China devotes to space is debated and hard to track, experts say that Beijing's recent $269million payout to give it entree to the European Union's Galileo satellite system is evidence of China's long-term seriousness in space-based applications.
"[The Chinese] don't want to see the technology gap grow any further; they do not want to find themselves falling any further behind," says Johnson-Freese. "The manned program does contain elements that have military applications. There is tracking station technology, computational analysis, launch-on-demand capability, to name a few."
At the space exhibition, a Chinese woman who works in a park, and who took off early for the national holidays this week, says that the Shenzhou 5 astronaut mission makes her proud of China. But "I am happy because space travel will help us develop military and self-defense [applications] ... that protect the people's security and China's sovereignty. I'm sure that Taiwan will pay attention."
• A satellite monitoring system of Earth
• Self-run satellite communications
• A global positioning system (GPS)
• Improved rocket capability, including lift weight
• A manned space program
• Enhanced Earth-space communications
• Space exploration, starting with the moon
• Build and market new space technology
• Create a global system of satellites
• Complete a Chinese manned system
• Reach outside the solar system
Source: The exhibition 'Fly to Space' at the PRC Military Museum in Beijing