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A New Orbit for China

The nation that invented the kite has achieved a technical feat worthy of its rapid economic progress by launching a man into orbit from a site near the Great Wall (another historic feat), becoming only the third nation to do so.

The space flight was done with what its Communist leaders call "Chinese characteristics," which means for political and military reasons - and barely for the glory of space exploration.

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Such details matter to China. The astronaut is called yuhangyuan, or space traveler, and was fed freeze-dried shredded pork with garlic sauce and fried rice during the flight. In addition, Yang Liwei, a former military fighter pilot, was given knives and guns to defend himself in case he landed near wild beasts or sharks. And his capsule carried seeds of Chinese vegetables that were irradiated in space.

While his rocket, the Shenzhou V ("heavenly vessel"), is loosely based on Russia's Soyuz rocket, much of the technology is Chinese and useful in China's military rockets.

Beijing wants to distinguish this Johnny-come-lately achievement from the Soviet and American space successes of four decades ago in order to boost nationalist pride among a people who have little respect for the Communist Party.

The manned flight also puts a shine on China's reputation for commercial launches. It's already boosted at least 70 satellites into space over two decades.

As a developing nation, China seeks a new prestige in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It plans to put a man on the moon by then, a further feat that might set off another space race for the US.

But more than space feats, the US is worried about the spinoffs for China's military - which controls the space program. That's why the US kept China out of the International Space Station project and denies its space scientists entry into the US. A recent Defense Department report quotes a Chinese officer as saying, "The mastery of outer space will be a requisite for military victory, with outer space becoming the new commanding heights for combat."

Perhaps. Still, the Shenzhou was built to dock someday with either the US space shuttle or the space station.