China, inventor of the first primitive rocket but a late entrant to the space race, is working to send up its first astronaut.
And Chinese space scientists say that in the early 21st century, they aim to launch probes to the moon, to Mars, and beyond.
China's aim to match the US and Russia in shuttling travelers to orbital stations and lunar colonies would further advance the world's most populous country into a superpower, they say.
But space specialists disagree on when manned flights might begin.
"Right now, Chinese launchers have the capability to send scientific devices, but not humans, to the moon," says Zhang Qingwei, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology in Beijing.
Other experts agree. "In the 1970s, China successfully sent a dog into space, but designing a space capsule for man is much more complicated," says Yu Xianrong, a manager at Great Wall Industry Corp., the commercial arm of China's space program.
Astronauts must be protected from Earth's radiation belts and the extreme temperatures of outer space, and have continuous, real-time communication with ground control, he says
Mr. Yu says that "China is likely to begin its manned mission with a single orbit around Earth, and later launch its lunar quest."
Beijing began offering satellite launch services on the global market eight years ago, and its growing array of Long March rockets is providing a technological springboard for the dive into manned flights, say several Chinese scientists. "My personal estimate," says Professor Zhang, "is that it could take up to eight years to design a lunar spacecraft."
Yet another Chinese scientist startled an international gathering of space researchers in Beijing recently when he outlined a much shorter timetable. "China is striving to make breakthroughs in manned spaceflight technology at the end of this century or the beginning of the next century," said Ma Xingrui, a rising star in China's space industry. Mr. Ma was quoted in the state-run press as saying the program would be followed by a small lunar probe.
The gap in estimates for orbital and moon flights is probably due to the structure of China's state-run space industry, which is divided into diverse, isolated cells that are each covered by a cloud of secrecy. Under this setup, launch designers may have little information about parallel efforts to develop a lunar spacecraft or a mission control station until Beijing's leaders unveil their master blueprint for space, say Chinese and American experts.
An official at the ultrasecretive China Aerospace Corporation contacted by telephone said that no Chinese scientists attending the Beijing space conference three weeks ago had been authorized to disclose the state's space development program. Six Chinese specialists, who presented papers at the space meeting, sketched out details of future lunar or Mars missions, but several contacted later said Chinese authorities would not permit them to meet with reporters.
A decade ago, Beijing vowed to begin manned space missions by 2000, but that plan may have been slowed by a high-level debate over the goals of China's space program, says a space researcher who works for the government.
"Some leaders believe the space program must first and foremost serve the masses by using satellites to predict weather patterns, improve farming, and bring telephones and television to poor areas of the country," says the researcher, who asked not to be identified. "Other [Communist] Party officials back sending Chinese into space despite the high costs as a symbol of China's rise on the world stage," he adds.
Despite the "news brownout" on Beijing's slow-motion race into space, there are ample signs the country is building all the major elements of a manned program, says a Western official who monitors China's space industry. "China has already sent at least two astronauts for training at Russia's Star City," says the official.
A Chinese space official says many more astronauts have been enrolled in the Army-controlled Space Medical Engineering Institute in Beijing. The institute conducts experiments involving space simulation and tests life-support systems as part of a training program for China's would-be space explorers.
Meanwhile, engineers have begun feasibility studies on proposed trips to the moon and the Red Planet, and on deep space exploration, according to Chinese space expert Yuan Jiajun. Mr. Yuan, like every one of his compatriots at the Beijing space gathering, called for greater international cooperation in space and the lifting of an apparent freeze on China's participation in major joint projects.
"The Russian and American space programs were both founded during the intense competition of the cold war," says the government researcher. "But the end of the cold war and the current commercialization of space have opened the way for joint programs, and China wants to be part of that trend."
Several Chinese space scientists say they resent China's exclusion from the International Space Station, which is being built by the US, Russia, the European Space Agency, and Japan. Yet the Western official says the four space station builders are hesitant to admit China, which may have nuclear weapons targeted at each of the partners. "While China remains an unpredictable Communist state," he adds, "the advanced space powers are likely to maintain strict safeguards on technology that could be used in weapons programs."