SHANGHAI — There are a dozen or so candidates, all stellar pilots with the Chinese air force who average about 5 feet 7 inches in height and 142 pounds in weight. Most have been in training for years and, though their names and much else about their project remains an official secret, soon one or more of them is likely to climb aboard the Shenzhou 5, a rocket ship whose names means "divine vessel," and blast into orbit.
China appears to be on the verge of becoming just the third nation to send a human into outer space, and even though such an achievement would come a little more than 40 years after the former Soviet Union and then the United States did so, Chinese officials are laying the groundwork for a major celebration and what they clearly hope would bolster national pride and prestige.
Such a flight, in a craft that is loosely modeled on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, would come after at least 11 years of planning and test flights with four unmanned space vehicles in recent years. It also would come as the U.S. shuttle fleet remains grounded after the Columbia disaster in February killed seven astronauts.
Although no launch date has been set, a string of recent announcements from top Chinese officials indicates that preparations are intensifying and that blastoff -- from the Jiuquan Space Center, near the Gobi Desert in northern China -- could come within weeks, perhaps after the national holiday week in early October that commemorates the founding of the Communist People's Republic.
Science and Technology Minister Xu Guanhua told the official Chinese press recently that arrangements for Shenzhou 5's launch were proceeding "extremely smoothly," and last week a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Kong Quan, smiled as he said of the mission: "We hope we can realize that goal, sending a man into space, as soon as possible."
Run by the military and shrouded in secrecy, China's space program does appear to be on the verge of a milestone, one that could pave the way for a Chinese space station and perhaps a lunar mission, which the Chinese government has periodically described as a long-range goal of its space program.
Although a successful mission would be a domestic propaganda coup, its international significance is a matter of considerable debate, with few clear indications yet of whether the Chinese mission would break new ground in research or, perhaps, in military applications such as satellite surveillance.
"It's the big question," said Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on the Chinese space program who heads the National Security Decision Making Department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
"You will hear that this is huge, that China is developing all kinds of technological prowess that the United States needs to be concerned about," said Johnson-Freese. "You will hear the other end of the spectrum, that they've basically bought a lot of existing Russian technology, and this is not that important at all, they're not up to anything new. I think the answer is somewhere in between."
A recent Pentagon report on Chinese military capabilities concluded that one goal of the country's space program is to develop improved satellite systems, both for conducting its own monitoring and for potentially jamming or intercepting satellites used by other nations.
"While one of the strongest immediate motivations for this program appears to be political prestige, China's manned space efforts almost certainly will contribute to improved military space systems in the 2010-2020 time frame," the report said.
The United States has plenty of its own military space systems, so the broader question is whether Chinese advances could set off a "space race" between the two nations over warfare equipment such as space-based missiles. For now, though, most experts seem to agree that the Chinese would have a long way to go to match current U.S. capabilities -- but that they also could move rapidly to catch up.
"The primary issue is the integration between Chinese military and civil space activities," said James Oberg, who spent 22 years as a space engineer with the shuttle program and is now a Houston-based consultant on space issues. "They do not have any kind of division or barrier, so that technologies developed for one side of the coin quickly augment the capabilities of the other.
"At the same time," Oberg added, "the history of the space age has shown that competition is generally a win-win for all parties, for the whole world. It becomes a fundamentally constructive competition of research and discovery."
Indeed, China probably will carry out various zero-gravity experiments and perhaps test the space-based breeding of crop seeds, which could result in larger, hardier or quicker-bearing varieties of fruits and vegetables. Chinese space scientists have sent about 60 varieties of crops and seeds on at least seven unmanned Chinese space missions, dating to the late 1980s, according to Chinese media reports.