10/17/2005, 00.00
CHINA

Shenzhou VI returns; another space mission planned for 2007

Chinese leaders are making triumphant noises. Experts say the mission was partly intended to stimulate the "national pride" of a people worried about poverty, social problems and corruption.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Shenzhou VI returned to earth this morning at 4.32 local time after five days in space. Tang Xianming, director of China's Space Engineering Office announced another mission will take place by 2007, and it is set to include a "walk in space". The ultimate objective is the setting up of a permanent space station, and sending a team to the moon. The participation of "women astronauts" is scheduled "in the not too distant future": women have already been allowed in the upcoming selection for the next team. Official sources underline the "full success" of the mission which "will further improve the country's international status and national strength, and will help to mobilise its people to rally around the Communist Party and work harder for the future of the country", according to the National People's Congress chairman Wu Bangguo.

The mission took off on Wednesday 12 October, two years after the first Chinese astronaut went to space. The flight enjoyed full media coverage, with footage of the capsule's interior showing astronauts eating or busy at work; the previous mission in 2003, on the other hand, had been shrouded in secrecy. State television broadcast the landing of the capsule live, with parachutes touching down in the Gobi desert and the two astronauts making an appearance "in good health" and smiling. The television crew also had access to the Control Centre in Beijing, once among the most secret and closely guarded of places. Technicians were featured at work during the landing of the capsule. Observers say communist leaders hope to whip fervent patriotic fervour, to draw attention away from daily problems and widespread frustration caused by corruption, tension arising from economic changes and the growing gap between the poor and the rich. Shenzhou VI was in space for 115 hours and 32 minutes and it covered 3.25 million km. Chinese leaders defended the space programme from criticism that the country should be meeting more urgent needs, like widespread poverty and social problems. The authorities said the space mission will enhance economic growth and technical development. The government said that so far the space programme has cost 19 billion yuan (around 2.2 billion US dollars), much less than the United States budget. The Shenzhou VUI mission has cost 900 million yuan, around 100 million dollars.
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