BEIJING — After a decade of preparation and months of speculation, China made a concrete commitment Friday to human space travel, announcing plans to launch a manned capsule into orbit next week.
A successful launch would make China only the third country to put a person into space on its own. The Shenzhou 5 craft is to make 14 orbits after launch sometime between Wednesday and Friday.
The announcement by the government's New China News Agency confirmed a time frame that many state-controlled Chinese newspapers had been leaking for days. So common has the knowledge become that travel agencies were organizing tours to the northwestern province of Gansu, where the Jiuquan launch center is located.
"All preparatory work for the launch is progressing smoothly," the news agency quoted an unidentified space program official as saying. The military-linked program is highly secretive, and access to its officials is difficult.
The former Soviet Union pioneered manned space flight in April 1961 when it sent up Yuri A. Gagarin; the United States launched Alan B. Shepard Jr. less than a month later. Any Chinese astronaut is certain to become an immediate hero at home, both through the natural admiration of a fiercely patriotic nation and through the state propaganda machine that has been showcasing space exploration as evidence of a proud, robust China.
The news agency did not say how many astronauts -- dubbed taikonauts after the Chinese word for space, taikong -- the craft would contain.
On Friday, the Sina.com Web site reported that handguns, knives and other "defensive weapons" would be stored aboard the capsule as a precaution against landing in hostile environs. Astronauts "will be able to deal with wild beasts, sharks and other dangerous animals or enemies," it reported.