China affirmed its place in one of the world's most exclusive clubs with the expected conclusion Monday of a second manned space flight.
More than four decades after the US and Soviet Union accomplished a similar feat, China can still lay claim to being only the third nation to put humans into orbit on its own.
But China's achievement is still more a statement of aspiration, tenacity, and prestige than of technological prowess. It's seen as a signal to other Asian powers that Beijing intends to claim the dominant position in what analysts predict will be the "Asian Century."
"There is implicitly a question of who is going to be the leading power in the 21st century in Asia," said Dean Cheng, senior Asia analyst the CNA Corp., a think tank in Alexandria, Va. "For China, this is a statement that Japan is not it."
Indeed Tokyo and New Dehli have not made human space flight a priority. Neither has launched a manned flight on their own. Japan's space program, according to a recent Rand Corp. report, has seen numerous failures and problems over the past decade and faces an uncertain future. India's relatively low-key space agency has the capability to launch large satellites and has announced plans for unmanned moon exploration by 2007.
At home, China's five-day mission is seen as an effort by the communist leadership to create national pride and blunt criticism over corruption and a widening gap between the poor majority and the country's wealthy elite who have benefited most from an economic boom.
Newspapers featured front page photos of Col. Fei Junlong turning somersaults in zero gravity. On Sunday evening, the state news agency reported that the "taikonauts" greeted all Chinese people, including Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan compatriots."
It was also reported that the two-man crew (both colonels in the People's Liberation Army) took notes on ocean pollution, the atmosphere, vegetation, and performed unspecified scientific experiments.
But anecdotal evidence suggests that taikonaut fervor among the Chinese public has dimmed somewhat since China sent Yang Liwei into space for a 21-hour flight two years ago.
China's long-term goals in space are reported to be to put men on the moon by 2010 and build a space station similar to the Russian Mir station.
There are some China watchers who say Chinese will step foot on the moon sooner than Beijing is saying. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an Alexandria, Va., consultancy that studies global military issues, says that he has little doubt China is intent on beating the United States back to the moon.
"If I was running their space program, that's what I would do," says Mr. Pike, who noted that Chinese Long March rockets can carry a capsule big enough to launch people into orbit around the moon. "It would sure take the US down a notch or two.
"Now that capitalism has been restored, they don't have Marxism, Leninism, or Mao Zedong thought too fall back on," says Pike. "For internal audiences, things that will bolster the image of the national government, things that will bolster national pride, we can spend some money on that, right?"
Beijing isn't saying. The big question, says Mr. Cheng, remains: "What are Chinese space scientists interested in garnering from their [space] exploration?"
In its annual report on Chinese military power, the Pentagon voiced concern over China's space program. Military capability and strategy "is likely one of the primary drivers behind Beijing's space endeavors and a critical component" of the country's financial investment in space, the July report said.
China says the Shenzhou program has cost $2 billion over 10 years (a number thought low by international experts, who question whether Beijing is revealing the full cost) at a time when many other key areas of government spending - including healthcare, education, and state factories - are moving toward privatization.
"Whatever the number is, it is a lot of money, it is a lot of brainpower, a lot of engineering expertise that is not being applied to laying down more pipelines" or building other crucial physical and social infrastructure, said Cheng. "That being said, I can see the Chinese would like ever-more prestige."
China's homegrown space effort is partly born out of necessity. While partnering with Russia on the international space station, the US has imposed restrictions on the export of US technology to China that could be "dual-use" - technology that is used in the space program and in China's ballistic missile program.
The rockets that can lift capsules carrying humans into orbit, say experts, can also be used to launch nuclear warheads or communications and spy satellites that can be used to guide missiles or direct warfare on the ground.
China's Shenzhou capsule is based on the Russian Soyuz design. China has also relied on Russia for spacesuits and other equipment, but Beijing insists that all of the systems are made in China.