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China's great leap forward...in space

BEIJING – As if having 1.3 billion people on the planet weren't enough, China has sent three men into space.

In the country's most ambitious space mission yet, the Shenzhou 7 spacecraft launched on Thursday from China's Jiuquan space center in the remote northwestern province of Gansu. It was manned by the three astronauts – or "taikonauts," as they're called here – one of whom will attempt the country's first spacewalk ever. It would make China only the third country to attempt it, after the U.S. and Russia.

Image: China Launched The Shenzhou VII Spacecraft
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People watch the live broadcast of the launch of Shenzhou 7 spacecraft in the Cultural Square on Sept. 25 in Changchun, Jilin Province, China. 

It's also the second stage of a three-step space development strategy, following up on missions that put taikonauts into orbit in 2003 and 2005. The Chinese hope Shenzhou 7's spacewalk will help set the stage for building a space laboratory and, later, a space station.

But that's not all. Many Chinese officials – including Ouyang Ziyuan, the country's chief scientist for lunar exploration – reckon that now that they can send humans into space, it's time for them to push on with exploring the moon and eventually perhaps even Mars.

A long-term view 
Launching humans into space has ranked high among the dreams China as a nation has aspired to achieve – right up there with hosting an Olympics, building nuclear weapons, and mastering the Yangtze River. And so far, it looks like it's on track.

For years, the government here has focused on building sophisticated satellite hardware and training hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists. All this has been done with an eye to expand and strengthen China's economy, develop its resources and pursue other interests – through space technology – in decades to come. 

How much money the central government devotes to its space program is unclear. Much of it appears to be under the direction of the People's Liberation Army – making information that much harder to obtain, as the army's spending falls under the classified category of national security.

VIDEO: 3, 2, 1, liftoff! China launches space mission

At a press event in Beijing previewing the launch, several researchers from the China Manned Space Engineering Office – which boasts more than 110 institutes, academies and other bodies dedicated to space research and development – went through a tightly-controlled script, explaining the program's goals and detailing the Shenzhou 7's mission step by step. 

Special attention was paid to the debut of the "Feitian" spacesuit developed by Chinese scientists with some assistance from their Russian counterparts. But when journalists asked about the cost of the mission or the overall program, the researchers balked.

'Space race' 
China's space aspirations have aggravated suspicions and fears among neighbors like Japan and India, as well as others in the West. The headlines of Western media reports, in particular, tend to underscore the anxiety: "The New Space Race: China v. U.S.," "China Flexes Muscle in Space Race," and "The New Red Scare, Avoiding a Space Race with China." 

American national security experts maintain that U.S. space technology is still leagues ahead of China's, but they also urge against complacency. 

At a congressional hearing in May 2007, Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese from the Naval War College said, "Chinese human spaceflight activities have taken a slow, incremental approach and still managed to create the perception that China is 'beating' the U.S. in a new space race. While far from true, what China has that the U.S. does not is top-down political will."

China has bottom-up support, too. With wall-to-wall coverage of the Shenzhou 7 launch, the Chinese are riding the crest of a wave of patriotism and pride that gathered momentum all year leading up to the Summer Olympics.  And with the National Day holiday just days away, the spacewalk is just one more feather in their modern nation-state cap.

"Of course, I'll be watching tonight," said a Chinese friend.  "Getting a man up into space doesn't happen every day. It's really an achievement."

"The space story is really quite fun," enthused a fellow Western journalist. "It's something that happened in America 30 years ago, and yet here we are, about to witness an amazing historic event. It's like getting a second chance to witness history."

And it's certainly being treated as an historic event here. Amid great fanfare leading up to lift-off, local media devoted hours to the personal stories of the taikonauts: Zhai Zhigang, who will be walking in space; Liu Boming; and Jing Haipeng.  

Zhai, a 42-year old former fighter pilot from the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, was featured prominently in a documentary Wednesday evening.  A reporter from the state-run CCTV station could be seen interviewing the cosmonaut's elder brother and father. When asked what they hoped for Zhai, the answer was as modest as the nation's hopes have been ambitious. 

"I just want to see his space journey be safe and peaceful," said Zhai's father on camera.  "And, of course, for him to return smoothly."