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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Gambling on Manned Space Flight

BEIJING -- Chinese legend holds that a Ming dynasty man named Wan Hu aimed for the stars by holding kites in each hand and strapping himself to a chair as 47 servants lit 47 gunpowder-packed bamboo tubes tied to his seat.

A roar followed. After the smoke dissipated, the chair was gone, along with Wan Hu. It was unclear if what was purported to be the world's first manned rocket ever made it to the skies.

Today, China is counting down the days to its first manned space launch and hoping to avoid the same fate as Wan Hu, thanks to advanced space technology.

China, long mired in poverty but growing fast after more than two decades of market reforms, is eager for the prestige that would come with being just the third country capable of putting people into space.

"With the launch of the Shenzhou spacecraft, China lifts its technological image into the heavens, bypassing the rest of the advanced-engineering nations," said Anthony Curtis, editor of Space Today Online.

Yu Maochun of the U.S. Naval Academy said, "The manned space program is an essential part of the Communist Party's near fanatical quest for international respect and dignity, which [in] itself is a normal phenomenon among many rising powers in history."

A successful launch on the heels of Beijing winning a bid to host the 2008 Olympics could fuel nationalism and boost the Communist Party's credibility as China seeks a place on the world stage alongside great powers.

A failure would be a loss of face and would raise questions about the necessity of a space program in a country where 140 million people live in abject poverty or on less than $1 a day.

"For China, as with all perilous endeavors, the chance of a deadly public failure looms large. By linking national pride and CCP [Chinese Communist Party] credibility, Beijing is jeopardizing both," Joshua Eisenman, a fellow at the New American Foundation, a public policy think tank in Washington, wrote in Singapore's Straits Times.

China has cloaked its space program in secrecy, ostensibly to avoid embarrassment in the event of failure.

Stung by a string of failed satellite launches in the 1980s and '90s, China has kept recent lift-offs quiet, announcing them only after success was confirmed.

The date of the launch of the next Shenzhou -- meaning "Divine Ship" -- is a state secret but is expected around National Day, Oct. 1. Repeated requests to interview space officials have been rejected.

China's first astronauts -- dubbed "taikonauts" from "taikong," the Chinese word for space -- are faceless. China has yet to tell the world who they are, other than that they were plucked from the ranks of top fighter pilots.

The launch by China is going ahead despite the loss of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated in February while re-entering the atmosphere. Seven astronauts died.

Experts said China's space program had no big technology breakthroughs but would incrementally improve existing space technologies. They also said its late entry could trigger a space race in Northeast Asia with Japan and even South Korea.