China's First Astronaut to Start Communist Party Branch in Space

China might not have a permanent presence in space yet, but the country's rocket men are already thinking about setting up a Communist Party branch in the great beyond.

Now 14-strong, the Chinese astronaut program more than meets the party's minimum requirement of at least three members per branch, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

China's space communists would "carry out the regular activities of a CPC branch in space in the way we do on earth," Xinhua quoted Yang Liwei, the dean of the Chinese astronaut corps was quoted as saying on the sidelines of a twice-a-decade national party congress in Beijing.

Yang orbited the earth for 21 1/2 hours in 2003 aboard the Shenzhou 5 spacecraft, making China only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to launch a person into space.

A two-man mission followed in 2005 and a third manned flight is scheduled for next year. China's lunar exploration program has proceeded in tandem, with plans for a lunar probe to be slung into orbit later this month.

Yang said a party branch would have to await the setting up of a permanent presence in space such as a space station, something China says it ultimately wants but is decades away from achieving.

But he said the Chinese program was interested in increased space cooperation with other countries, something that could shorten the wait. A government official said Tuesday China was interested in participating in the international space station project that already counts the U.S. and Russia as members.

"Like foreign astronauts having their beliefs, we believe in communism, which is also a spiritual power," said Yang, who also serves as deputy director of the China Astronaut Research and Training Center.

"We may not pray in the way our foreign counterparts do," Yang said. "But the common belief has made us more united in space, where there is no national boundary, to accomplish our missions."