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Timeline: China's space quest

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(CNN) The following is a rundown of key events in China's space program and the build up to its first manned space mission:

1955: Qian Xuesen, regarded as the father of both China's ballistic missile force and its space program, returns to China from the United States.

Trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in rocket research and a one-time colonel in the U.S. Air Force working on America's ballistic missile program, Qian returned to communist China amid charges he was a spy. He quickly becomes the leading scientist in China's own effort to develop ballistic missiles and other rockets.

1958: Qian presents plans for China's first satellite and the rocket to launch it to the communist party leadership.

April 24, 1970: China launches its first satellite using a modified CSS-3 intercontinental ballistic missile, later renamed the Long March 1 rocket. The satellite remains in orbit for 26 days transmitting the revolutionary song "The East Is Red."

1975: China successfully recovers a remote sensing satellite from orbit, a key step in developing a space vehicle capable of surviving re-entry and returning to Earth.

1979: Shanghai-based newspaper Wen Hui Bao publishes a photograph of a Chinese astronaut training in a space suit. These were soon followed by the release of more detailed photographs clearly showing Chinese astronauts undergoing training in a simulated space cabin.

Late 1980s: China announces ambitious space plans including the development of a small space shuttle system, a space station and a series of new launchers.

1986: China announces it is entering the commercial space launch market. The announcement is timely following the suspension of the U.S. shuttle program following the Challenger disaster and the failure of other American satellite luanch vehicles.

1989: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visits Beijing, restoring links between China and the Soviet Union. Process leads to improved cooperation in a number of areas, including Chinese access to Soviet space expertise.

1990: China launches and successfully recovers a "biosat" containing 60 animals and plants, including rats and guinea pigs.

1992: Project 921, the mission to put China's first man in space, gets the official go-ahead from the communist leadership.

April 25, 1996: Yuri Koptev, director-general of the Russian Space Agency, visits Beijing and signs an inter-government agreement on space cooperation. No details about the agreement have ever been revealed.

Later that year reports say two Chinese astronauts traveled to the Star City facility outside Moscow for training. The two men, both former air force pilots, later returned home to act as instructors for China's own astronaut training program.

November 20, 1999: China launches its first Shenzhou spacecraft on one-day flight from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, northwestern China.

The spacecraft returns the following day in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region of northern China, concluding what the official Xinhua news agency describes as a "major breakthrough in manned space flight technology."

January 9, 2001: Launch of Shenzhou II, the second test flight of China's space capsule.

The flight lasted eights days and orbited the Earth 108 times. On board were several unspecified research animals for a flight designed to test the spacecraft's suitability for carrying passengers and sustaining life.

Few details are released about the mission, leading to speculation that it was at best a partial success.

March 25, 2002: Shenzhou III, the third test flight, lifts off for further testing of life support systems. The flight comes more than a year after the previous test.

The flight lasts for seven days and completes more than 100 orbits. Among experiments carried on board were three fertilized chicken eggs which returned to Earth undamaged. The eggs, carrying one male and two female chicks, hatched shortly afterwards, state media reports.

December 29, 2002: Shenzhou IV, the fourth and final Shenzhou test, blasts off from the Jiuquan launch site.

The mission, a full-scale rehearsal for manned space flight, lasts six days and 18 hours and is hailed as a "complete success" by Xinhua. On board are test equipment and two dummy astronauts.

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