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Another Small Step
January 2003


To help ring in the New Year, China announced on January 2, 2003, that they intend to put a person into space later this year. If they are successful, they will join the United States and Russia as the only nations to have sent a person into space. Russia was the first in 1961, and the U.S. followed close behind in 1962.

China's announcement came on the heels of a successful launch, on December 30th, 2002, of an unmanned spacecraft. The Shenzhou IV spacecraft contained the complete system that would be needed for human space flight. Additionally, it ran experiments that would test whether it could sustain human life in orbit.

The Shenzhou IV flight was the 27th consecutive launch success from the Chinese space agency. This series of successful launches started in October 1996. The Shenzhou series started in 1999.

Shenzhou IV blasted off from the Gobi desert early on Monday morning and entered an orbit. It was tracked by Chinese ships in the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. According to China's Xinhua News Agency, the astronauts currently training for space flight will be "absolutely capable" of making a flight within the year.

The Shenzhou series of rockets have been designed after the successful Russian Soyuz rockets, which continue to take passengers into space. All of the Shenzhou missions have been designed to make a comfortable ride for astronauts into space. Shenzhou III even included a dummy in a space suit, and officials later declared that if it had been a human, the astronaut could have definitely survived.

This latest flight takes the Chinese one step closer to the Shenzhou V mission, which is scheduled for the second half of this year and will take human passengers. For the astronauts, China plans to use pilots they have recruited from the nation's air force. Already, at least two Chinese astronauts have been sent to Russia for training.

If China succeeds, it will mean that three nations have the ability to put people in orbit. Currently, the Americans and the Russians own space travel. The International Space Station, which is shared by Russian and American astronauts, is a joint effort between the countries.

China's new small steps and giant leaps into space bring a third nation to the table. This could be good and bad news for the Russians, who have been struggling to continue financing their International Space Station ventures.

One way the Russians have been able to continue their cash flow has been to sell visits to the space station to wealthy tourists. Last April, California-based investment fund manager Dennis Tito bought a trip along the Soyuz flights. More recently (and with more celebrity status), NSYNC member Lance Bass was attempting a tourist flight of his own but eventually was dropped from the program after his funding fell through.



Activity
Use the Internet to research the history of the space program. Design a timeline to be posted in class that details the development of space travel for the U.S., Russia, and China.

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