JIAYUGUAN, China – Two years after China became only the third nation to launch a human into orbit, a pair of astronauts blasted off Wednesday on a longer, riskier mission after receiving a farewell visit from Premier Wen Jiabao (search).
Wen said the "glorious and sacred mission" would demonstrate China's national confidence and ability.
A rocket carrying the Shenzhou 6 (search) capsule and the astronauts blasted off Wednesday from the remote base in China's northwest. In a break with the space agency's typical secrecy, the launch was shown live on Chinese state television.
The mission, reportedly due to last up to five days, is a key prestige project for China's communist leaders, who have justified the expense of a manned space program by saying that it will drive economic development. It will be more complicated than the first flight in 2003, which carried one astronaut and lasted just 211/2 hours.
Minutes after liftoff, mission control announced that the first stage booster had successfully separated from the rocket and that the flight had entered its preset orbit.
The official Xinhua News Agency (search) said the two astronauts, or "taikonauts," will take off their 22-pound spacesuits to travel back and forth between the two halves of their vessel — a re-entry capsule and an orbiter that will stay aloft after they land.
Earlier in the day, Xinhua announced the identities of the two taikonauts — Fei Junlong, 40, and Nie Haishen, 41. Previous reports said 14 former fighter pilots were training for the mission.
Images of Fei and Jun in their cockpit as the craft roared toward orbit were broadcast live to hundreds of millions of Chinese television viewers. None of the 2003 space flight was shown live by Chinese television.
"Feeling pretty good," Fei said in the first broadcast comment from the astronauts.
Xinhua said the crew was picked from a field of six finalists. Nie was one of three finalists for the 2003 mission, which made a national hero of Yang Liwei.
The two taikonauts will conduct experiments in orbit, Xinhua said without elaborating.
China, the third nation to put a man into orbit, insisted ahead of the launch that its aspirations in space were strictly peaceful and that it opposes deploying weapons there. Space officials say they hope to land an unmanned probe on the moon by 2010 and launch a space station.
"We do not wish to see any form of weapons in outer space, so we reaffirm that our space flight program is an important element of mankind's peaceful utilization of outer space," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan (search) said.
Foreign reporters were barred from the launch base. The handful of Chinese journalists allowed to attend the liftoff were warned they might be ordered to hand over any photos or video — a possible image-control measure in case of an accident.
The Shenzhou — or Divine Vessel — capsule is based on Russia's three-seat Soyuz, though with extensive modifications. Spacesuits, life-support systems and other equipment are based on technology purchased from Russia.
But space officials say all equipment launched into orbit is Chinese-made.
China has had a rocketry program since the 1950s and fired its first satellite into orbit in 1970. It regularly launches satellites for foreign clients aboard its giant Long March boosters.