China prepares for moon launch with patriotic blast

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XICHANG, China, Oct 24 (Reuters) China readied to launch its first moon orbiter today accompanied by a blaze of patriotic propaganda celebrating the country's space ambitions and technological prowess.

Barring bad weather or technical problems, the Chang'e One orbiter will blast off from the southwest province of Sichuan and then spend more than a year surveying the moon's surface in preparation for an unmanned moon vehicle around 2010 and then a manned landing in future decades.

Even before the blast, state media celebrated Chang'e One, named after a mythical Chinese goddess who flew to the moon, as a display of the country's growing strength.

''Without a doubt, the launch of the Chang'e One will again show the world that Chinese people have the willpower, confidence and ability to constantly scale the heights of science and technology,'' said one commentator on the Sina Web site (news.sina.com.cn).

The patriotic upswell was echoed among the two thousand or so visitors who Xichang officials expect to crowd into the small city for a view of the nearby launch, paying 800 to 1,000 yuan (0-130) for the privilege.

''This is our first probe to the moon, and it will be a symbolic event,'' said one of the spectators, a woman surnamed Bian. ''I feel this is very important for us''.

Thousands of villagers in a 2.5 kilometre (1.6 mile) radius around the site were preparing to move out as technicians fuelled and readied the Long March 3A rocket that will lift up the orbiter, the China News Service reported.

Beijing's space plans have faced increasing international scrutiny. Fears of a potential space arms race with the United States and other powers have mounted since China blew up one of its own weather satellites using a ground-based missile in January.

China has stressed that its intentions are peaceful.

But officials also leave little doubt they want to show the world that their country's capacity for developing homegrown technology is rising along with its economy.

Chinese President Hu Jintao told a Communist Party Congress last week that encouraging ''homegrown innovation'' would be a focus of state policy in coming years.

China is jostling with neighbours Japan and India -- as well as longtime space powers the United States and Russia -- for a bigger presence in outer space.

In 2003, China became only the third country -- after the United States and the then Soviet Union -- to launch a man into space aboard its own rocket. In October 2005, it sent two men into orbit, and it plans a space walk by 2008.

Last month, Japan launched its first lunar probe. India is planning its first unmanned mission to orbit the moon in 2008, when the United States also plans to launch a lunar orbiter.

Scientists behind China's effort have been careful to leaven their confidence with warnings that space exploration has always been risky.

''We're convinced of our ability to successfully realise satellite exploration of the moon, but on the other hand there is this invisible pressure and anxiety, Ouyang Ziyuan, the project's chief scientist, told Outlook Weekly.

REUTERS ARB KP1125

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