The New Space Race

Space power politics shift as China, long a wannabe, successfully launches a human being into orbit.

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China joined an elite club on October 14, becoming the third nation to put a human in space. Snug inside the Shenzhou 5 -- a Chinese spacecraft modeled after Russia's Soyuz -- 38-year-old Lt. Col. Yang Liwei orbited Earth 14 times in 21 hours before his entry capsule parachuted to the ground in Inner Mongolia.

Yang's accomplishment was not a mere repeat of missions conducted four decades earlier by the Soviet Union and the United States. Yang stayed in space much longer than Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and American astronaut Alan Shepard. And unlike the spacecraft flown by Yang's predecessors, Shenzhou 5 left behind an orbital module that is expected to continue circling Earth for several months. Powered by solar panels, the module may be carrying a high-resolution military camera.

In a fitting, if accidental, note, all three space-faring nations were in orbit during Yang's flight. Aboard the International Space Station, Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko and U.S. science officer Ed Lu sent congratulations and wishes for a safe journey.

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