Taking flight. China says that a human crew of "taikonauts" will be on board the next launch of its Shenzhou capsule, shown last week at liftoff.

China Eyes the Skies

BEIJING--China is poised to become the third country to launch humans into space, after the safe return of its latest craft.

The recovery of the Shenzhou 4 capsule, which touched down yesterday in northern China after a 7-day flight, sets the stage for a flight later this year by one or two members of China's 12-person corps of "taikonauts." Space officials said that the latest Shenzhou mission, which contained more than 50 experiments, also demonstrates China's determination to pursue microgravity and life-sciences research in space.

Guo Baozhu, deputy director of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Beijing, told an international space summit last week in India that, barring unforeseen problems, China will put at least one human being into space sometime before the end of the year. The space official said that China's human flight program, which has been managed by the military, "is quite expensive" but that its growing (and classified) budget "has not come at the cost of civilian space programs."

The decision to replace instrumented dummies with a live crew will shape which experiments receive priority on future missions. "I assume that the first [such] flight will mainly focus on the safety of astronauts," says Wang Guoqiang of the Shanghai Institutes of Biological Sciences, who had a payload on Shenzhou 4. "So my fellow scientists and I are not expecting more opportunities on the next flight."

One of the Shanghai institute's experiments monitored the effects of microgravity on the fusion of two cells, while another examined the isolation of proteins as a step in space-based drug manufacturing.

But human flight could be a boon for Hu Wenrui, a physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Mechanics in Beijing, who had an experiment aboard Shenzhou 4. He is studying how droplets of one fluid flow through a matrix of a different fluid in microgravity, behavior which he says is critical for space-based material processing. "I am looking forward to conducting more complicated experiments on future flights [with humans]," he says.

Xu Yansong, a senior CNSA official, says that China hopes the coming program will lead to new technologies and materials but readily admits that a string of successful missions also "will enhance national prestige."

With reporting by Pallava Bagla in Bangalore.