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Space: China's great leap skyward

By Joe Havely for CNN

Yang Liwei became a national hero after his historic flight.
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April 24, 1970 -- China launches first satellite

1979 -- Existence of astronaut training program revealed

1989 -- Soviet Union and China restore ties, including cooperation in space technology

1992 -- Project 921, China's manned space program given official approval

November 20, 1999 -- First test flight of Shenzhou space vehicle

October 15, 2003 -- Yang Liwei becomes China's first astronaut aboard spacecraft Shenzhou V

• Satellite image: Launch site
• Explainer: The Shenzhou V
• Timeline: China's space program
• Special report: Space quest
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(CNN) -- In October 2003, China joined an exclusive club, becoming only the third nation in history capable of independently putting a human into space.

It was a dramatic statement about China's ambitions and its place in the international community, and captured headlines around the globe.

With his 24-hour flight, Yang Liwei was transformed from a little known fighter pilot into a national hero, plastered on billboards across the country.

On one night he even hosted the annual Chinese New Year variety show on state-run television.

Eighteen months on though, and Yang's daytrip to orbit remains the sum total of China's manned space program.

Was it all just a one-off?

"China's space program certainly hasn't stalled," says Professor Joan Johnson-Freese, a specialist on China's space efforts at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island.

Having successfully completed their first manned flight, the Chinese aren't in a race to prove anything, she says.

Nonetheless with America's manned space program grounded following the Columbia shuttle disaster, the stage would seem ideally set for China to show off the relative prowess of its own space capabilities.

Space successes bring an enormous amount of publicity and credibility, says Johnson-Freese. But, she notes, "as we saw with Columbia, space failures also have a very big impact."

Certainly China has had its own share of space-related disasters. In February 1996 for example, an unmanned Long March 3B rocket veered dramatically off course barely seconds after liftoff, plunging into the nearby town of Xichang.

Nearly two weeks later officials begrudgingly announced that six people had died. Photographs of the devastation and local witness reports suggest the toll was much higher.

Given that potential for spectacular failure, as well as success, China is approaching its next steps in space in an incremental way, says Johnson-Freese.

Stage one, actually proving it can be done, will be completed with the next flight scheduled for around October 2005, she says.

"After that, we move to stage two, when we begin to get space walks and the start of other experiments in space. Then stage three, where the stated aim is the deployment of a permanently manned space station."

It's an ambitious program and undoubtedly expensive. And with one cash-strapped space station in orbit already, perhaps it would make more sense for China to throw its lot in with Russia and the U.S.

"They have a limited budget and have to manage funds very carefully," says Brian Harvey, author of China's Space Program: From Conception to Manned Spaceflight.

Nonetheless, from his research, he says, the Chinese have given every indication they plan to have a space station in orbit by the time of the of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Johnson-Freese, however, sees China aiming for a different path.

"The 'gold ring' for China has been to be involved with the ISS (International Space Station)," she says. "As Beijing sees it, it would confer China's status in the international family of space-faring nations."

Perhaps even more significantly, she says, "it would boost domestic credibility and legitimacy for the government -- like getting the Olympics."

But for China to become a partner in the ISS it would have to jump several hurdles, not least deep American suspicions about Beijing's military intentions in space.

Manned space flight in itself is not necessarily any indication of military intent beyond Earth's gravity.

Indeed, quite the opposite.

Any future space-based weaponry is almost certain to be automated and operated remotely from Earth. Take, for example, the American Star Wars program.

"The only Chinese military use of the space for the foreseeable future are the Zi Yuan military observation satellites," says author Brian Harvey. "Other than that there are no signs the Chinese have any sinister military designs on space."

For Professor Joan Johnson-Freese at the U.S. Naval War College, the big issue is dual use technology.

"Ninety-five percent of all space technology is dual use," she says, "and that's very worrisome for the U.S."

So why does a country like China with so many economic and social challenges closer to Earth feel the need to spend billions of dollars on a space program?

Firstly, for much the same reasons that America launched itself on the Apollo moon effort in the 1960s.

"Part of it is what I call techno-nationalism," says Johnson-Freese. "Space travel and the technology you need to do it is an indication of power."

In much the same way that Washington fears the implications of Beijing getting its hands on advanced technology, useful for advancing its military power; China is increasingly concerned about the technology gap with the West, and, more importantly, its Asian neighbors.

Ultimately it's a question of asserting China's place in the region and the world, says Johnson-Freese.

"As one Chinese contact said to me after the last manned launch: 'This shows other countries we're able to do more than make shoes.'"

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