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Associated Press
Observers watch the launch of the Shenzhou 7 space craft at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China's Gansu province

Sept. 25—China launched its third manned spacecraft, Shenzhou VII, today on a mission that will involve the first space walk by a Chinese astronaut.

The spacecraft, carrying three astronauts, blasted off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern Gansu province at about 9:10 p.m. Beijing time, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

"Conducting the space walk will demonstrate to the world that China has high-tech capability" and show its rising power, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei and an adviser on Taiwan's annual defense report. "China is rising, and it wants the space program to prove its growing power."

China became the third nation after the Soviet Union and the U.S. to put a man into space in 2003 when its Shenzhou V spaceship carried astronaut Yang Liwei. China's economy has grown an average of 9.9 percent a year into the world's fourth-largest since former leader Deng Xiaoping ditched hard-line Communist policies and began moves toward a free market in 1978.

The Chinese space agency in October 2007 launched a lunar probe, the first step of a three-phase program that will culminate with the landing of an astronaut on the moon by 2020.

"The United States sees Chinese progress in space as potentially threatening," the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists said. "China sees U.S. security concerns as part of a conspiracy to blunt Chinese progress and justify U.S. steps toward space dominance."

Space Station

The U.S. excludes China from participation in the International Space Station project even with China's growing space program, the UCS, a non-profit organization, said in an e- mailed statement.

China said in October 2007 it wants to become the 17th member of the space station program. The 16 members of the project include the U.S., Canada and the 11 countries in the European Space Agency.

"Some in China see it as an attempt to deny China's 'seat at the table'—one of the concerns that led to China's decision to invest in the Shenzhou program," the UCS said.

Xinhua didn't reveal the length of the mission, saying the space center may shorten or change its duration, or even end it, if the space environment turns unfavorable, citing Gong Jiancun, director of the center.

The mission will last 68 hours, including a 30-minute space walk at about 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 27, Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily said on its Web site today.

The spacecraft is scheduled to land in the central area of Inner Mongolia after its mission is completed, Xinhua said.

Space Walk

The three astronauts on board, Zhai Zhigang, Liu Boming and Jing Haipeng, all aged 42, will wear space suits designed by China and Russia, said Wang. Xinhua didn't say who will do the walk.

China will deploy nine satellite ships and 30 planes to track the walk, Xinhua said yesterday. China carried out its second manned space mission from Jiuquan in October 2005, carrying astronauts Fei Junlong and Nie Haisheng.

Russia made the first spaceflight by a human in April 1961, with cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbiting aboard Vostok 1. Alan Shepard made the first American flight less than one month later, and John Glenn, later to become a U.S. senator, completed the first U.S. orbital mission in February 1962.

"Chinese leaders believe the capability to access space and use it for the same purposes as other space faring nations is essential to China's overall development," the UCS said. "They decided that a Chinese space station was important to ensure that other countries would recognize and respect Chinese interests in space."

China fired a missile into space in January 2007 to destroy one of its orbiting weather satellites. The U.S., the U.K. and Australia said debris from the destroyed craft may pose a danger to space installations.

The government in Beijing told the U.S. after the firing that the test wasn't meant as a threat or an attempt to start a military space race.