WHEN the Shenzhou prototype spacecraft landed in Inner Mongolia a week ago after the official news agency Xinhua said it had orbited the Earth 14 times during a 21-hour flight, China had carried off its biggest and most successful scientific project of the decade. Project 921, which President Jiang Zemin launched in 1992, has provoked an outpouring of national pride: dressed in a military uniform and flanked by members of the Central Military Commission, Mr Jiang inspected the Shenzhou after it had been triumphantly paraded through Beijing. The national flag - which together with the new Macau SAR flag had been packed inside the tiny craft - is to be ceremonially raised in Tiananmen Square to mark the first day of the new millennium. Chinese media have hailed the inaugural flight as buying China membership in the exclusive club of great powers able to put an astronaut in space. A manned space flight is expected within a year or two and the newspapers have speculated the second person on the moon will be a Chinese. Some believe that within 15 years, China could be operating its own space station, and some papers have talked excitedly about a manned mission to Mars. The problem, as one commentator noted in the Beijing Youth Daily, is not getting there but getting back. Shocked Russians, who finished training two Chinese astronauts about two years ago at the Yuri Gagarin Space Centre outside Moscow, said they had no inkling of how advanced the Chinese space project was. 'I know nothing about any co-operation or Chinese space flight,' snapped Alexander Kolodiazhny, head of international co-operation at the Russian Aviation Space Agency, before slamming the phone down. 'Some people will . . . see it as another sign that the Reds are on the horizon - but more sober people will say this just shows they can shoot up the can without the spam,' said John Frankenstein, a US expert on the Chinese military. Americans who have seen their government pour billions of taxpayers' money into the US space programme are inevitably jaundiced about its usefulness beyond an exercise in flag-waving jingoism. They also see launching an empty craft as a long way short of being able to return a live person safely. China has begun hinting it now has the means to build its own Star Wars missile defence system if the US unilaterally rejects the Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence Treaty. Shenzhou's success and a viable commercial satellite business have proved Beijing is right to spend money on rocket science, some experts argue. 'Right after the first satellite launch, there was a debate,' said Qi Faren, who designed Shenzhou, in an interview last week. 'Most people believed the money could be better spent on a hydropower station or on chemical fertilisers.' Apart from saying more than 10,000 people are involved, Beijing has only said the whole project costs much less than the Russian and US programmes. 'It is hard to say. It involves large-scale co-operation with research institutes and factories all over China,' said Professor Xiao Yelun of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics who taught Mr Qi. The university has 10,000 students, most destined to join the space programme. But those like Professor Xiao, who spent their whole careers designing spaceships, are hard-pressed to explain why China is investing so much effort in this field when it has failed to build either its own commercial airliner or a defence fighter and instead must buy Russian, American and European planes. The Shenzhou reportedly carried a dozen types of crops and vegetables including wheat and rice, as well as 30 different Chinese medicines. Chinese scientists have long been convinced that seeds exposed to cosmic rays develop magical qualities. There are no visible commercial benefits, although a few hectares in Hunan grow 'Space Flight-1 rice' as well as a hybrid of rice and maize space seeds which have since mutated. China has rejected cheaper alternatives to putting a Chinese into orbit: Beijing turned down US president Ronald Reagan's 1984 invitation to launch the first Chinese into space on the US space shuttle and, later, a similar offer from Russian President Boris Yeltsin. China also rebuffed Russian entreaties this year to keep the Mir Space Station going. The Russians offered to lease the station to the Chinese for US$250 million (HK$1.9 billion). 'We Chinese want to walk our own way,' Professor Xiao said. 'If we send someone into orbit via the Russian spaceship, we can't really say we sent a Chinese into space.' However, the rapprochement between China and Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, enabled the Chinese to acquire equipment and training by Russian cosmonauts. The first group arrived at Zvezdny Gorodok, the Gagarin Star City outside Moscow, in July 1996. Within a few months Wu Jie and Li Qinglong had started the year-long training course to become 'taikongauts' ('tai kong' means cosmos in Chinese). The Cox report earlier this year alleging Chinese spying claimed that in 1996 Mr Yeltsin gave the Chinese a Soyuz spacecraft to copy. 'It is untrue,' Professor Xiao said. 'It [the Shenzhou] may look similar from the outside but it is much more advanced inside.' Since the first Soyuz craft was designed in the 1960s, the Chinese have profited from the development of new materials, avionics and computers. The Shenzhou is, for example, powered by two solar panels. However, like the Soyuz line, it is designed to carry three people. The astronauts can stay a maximum seven days in the space vehicle, which has a toilet but no living area. China began building a new launch centre in the Gobi desert after 1992 and constructed a 200-kilometre long railway from Jiuquan, the westernmost limit of the Great Wall. Nearby is a closely guarded astronaut training centre where 20 men, selected from 10,000 applicants, are undergoing preparations under the direction of Mr Wu and Mr Li following their return from Moscow. The Chinese debated then discarded the option of building a re-useable craft like the US space shuttle. 'Each has its pros and cons. A space shuttle can be used repeatedly but it is expensive to develop and maintain. When a shuttle returns to Earth, all the heatproof tiles have to be replaced. This is very expensive,' Professor Xiao said. 'The technology is also very difficult. The shuttle must land successfully at the first attempt since it can't pull up again. I believe we made the right decision to develop a spaceship. I am afraid even the Americans will have to go back to the spaceship since the shuttle costs too much.' Professor He Linshu, an expert on rocket launch design at the same university, refused to be drawn on whether Beijing had originally planned a manned flight to coincide with the PRC's 50th anniversary. 'We stopped doing this because it is not scientific,' he said. 'We need to conduct a series of experiments before we send anyone into space.' He pointed out that Russia conducted five experimental launches, often using animals, and the US eight, before either nation manned a ship. China might be able to shorten the time frame but its space programme faces a number of other obstacles. It needs a bigger rocket capable of lifting not five tonnes or eight tonnes - the Shenzhou's weight - but closer to 20 tonnes. A Long March 5 rocket is being developed at the Institute of Carrier Rocket Technology capable of lifting 20 tonnes into space. 'We must also develop more reliable carrier rockets,' Professor Xiao said. Four launches have exploded in the 1990s and a number of others have failed to lift their satellites into the correct orbit. Many rockets that exploded were the Long March launchers designed to carry heavier payloads. A Long March 2-E, big enough to carry a manned mission, exploded in 1996 killing and injuring dozens of people. 'The Long March 2-F which we used to launch the Shenzhou is more reliable than the 2-E edition. But the most important thing is the safety of the astronauts. We must make sure the astronauts can escape if anything goes wrong,' Professor He said. The Long March 2-F has four strap-on boosters and can carry a heavier payload, up to 10 tonnes. Professor Xiao said it had an emergency escape device should it malfunction. China is building a new rocket launch centre, the country's fourth, on Hainan Island because launches made closer to the Equator are shorter and therefore cheaper. Chinese scientists were particularly heartened by their technical prowess in tracking the Shenzhou in orbit and then guiding it back to Earth, to land as planned in Inner Mongolia. This required a flow of data transmissions from four tracking ships stationed in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and close co-ordination with the Beijing Aerospace Control and Command Centre. Even a male test dummy, who on photographs looked distinctly Russian, also survived intact, dressed up in an astronaut suit and tied to his seat by a rope.