This Friday marks the 25th anniversary of China's first aeronautics breakthrough. The Long March 1 carried the country's first satellite, Red East 1, into orbit on April 24, 1973 to the joy of Chinese around the world. To date, however, the mainland media have been unusually quiet about this week's milestone event. One theory circulating within the international space exploration community is that Beijing wants to remain discreet, as it is gearing up for another surprise to coincide with its 50th National Day - a manned space mission. If this is realised, China will then be admitted into the exclusive league of space superpower, on the heels of the United States and Russia. Over the past 25 years, the Long March series of rockets has evolved into its latest generation 3B model. There have been a total of nine different designs under the Long March label. Despite occasional setbacks, the Chinese rockets have so far completed 50 launches - the latest on March 25 last year, which saw two American satellites entering into orbit. China is confident that the status of its rocket technology is on a par with those of its American, Russian and European counterparts. At least 20 other Chinese and foreign satellites are now queueing to be lifted by the Long March rockets by the year 2000. The launch of the Red East satellite, which broadcast a revolutionary song of the same title to the world in praise of helmsman Chairman Mao Zedong , was considered as uplifting for the People's Republic as its admission into the United Nations in 1972. After all, the solid-propellant rocket was invented by the Chinese in the early 13th century. It was almost five centuries later that British officer William Congreve had converted the fireworks rocket into a long-range device used as a weapon in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. The first media report on China's ambitious manned space programme did not come from its domestic press. Instead, it originated from a dispatch by the Telegraph Agency Russian Federation on March 27. Quoting a senior expert from the Russian Space Research and Development Institute, the agency said two Chinese officers had already gone through their astronaut-training programme with flying colours late last year. Among the skills they had learned was how to pilot a spaceship. According to the Russian expert, the two Chinese graduates had revealed that they would in turn become trainers for their own astronaut programmes. This news item was immediately picked up by the Sankei Shimbun's bureau in the Russian capital. The Japanese newspaper went a step farther and asked for confirmation from the Chinese embassy in Moscow. The Chinese replied by saying only that they had noticed the original report. On April 12, the Yangcheng Evening News carried in its Sunday edition a terse report that China was training astronauts for its maiden manned space mission some time in the next two years. The Guangzhou-based popular daily cited anonymous sources in the government-run space industry. It also quoted an official of the Space Technology Research Institute as confirming that China had been striving for a breakthrough on manned space flight technology before the year 2000. The paper gave no details. But the report was rehashed by the Associated Press the following day, before it was further amplified by CNN and other news media. Foreign specialists were given a glimpse of China's aspirations in space exploration last month at an aeronautics seminar hosted by Beijing. While officiating at the opening of the conference, the Chinese institute's deputy director Yuan Jiajun gave his guests a vague description of China's targets for a manned space assignment. He said China would try hard to achieve a breakthrough in this area either by the end of this century or at the dawn of the next one. A small probe will also be mounted to survey the moon, he asserted, 'when the time is ripe'. He was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying: 'China will develop new models of satellites and spaceships to meet domestic demands, as well as contributing to the advancement of the global economy and technology.' Another deputy director, Ma Xingrui, noted that the science community aimed to put humans on the moon again to build a permanent base there. These hopes have been heightened by the recent discovery that Earth's natural satellite has abundant reserves of water, thus drastically reducing the costs of establishing a stable workstation there. This, Mr Ma surmised, could be achieved between 2011 and 2030. The gathering was accompanied by an aeronautics industrial show, which ended on March 23. What China had put on display was a design of a space base equipped with two laboratories, connected with a cabin. The structure is similar to earlier Russian devices. Even sci-fi writers have expectations of the Chinese. Arthur C Clarke, for instance, has incorporated a Chinese angle in a sequel to his Space Odyssey series. In his 3001: The Final Odyssey, it is a Chinese spacecraft that is the first to land on Europa, a frozen moon of Mars, where the first human encounter with extraterrestrial beings takes place. It remains to be seen whether Beijing can celebrate its national birthday on October 1 with a manned space mission.However, it seems reasonably likely that the Chinese will have their space dream come true as a consolation prize to their lost bid to host the next Olympics, to herald the beginning of a new millennium.