Twelve fighter pilots have been shortlisted to become China's first astronauts, it was reported yesterday. The 12 were chosen from more than 2,000 fighter pilots because of their 'psychological quality', Qin Wenbo, a senior engineer of China's space programme was quoted by the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po as saying yesterday. Su Shuangning, chief engineer, said the candidates were in the final stages of their training. Earlier reports said the astronauts were being trained in Russia. China has announced plans to join the United States and Russia and become the third country capable of manned space exploration. On Monday, Shenzhou III - China's third unmanned spacecraft - completed a week-long mission and landed in Inner Mongolia. Earlier reports said China would launch another unmanned spacecraft - Shenzhou IV - later this year and predicted manned spaceflight would take place within two years. All 12 candidates have degrees and are middle-ranking officers of the air force, the newspaper said. They have all had experience flying China-made Jian fighter jets, it said. 'Among these 12, two or three will become China's first batch of astronauts,' Mr Qin was quoted by the paper as saying. The report, however, said the astronauts would not be chosen until the eve of the actual launch to 'lessen their burden'. The 12 took part in a celebration on Tuesday at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in Gansu province marking the Shenzhou III's safe return to Earth. According to Mr Qin, the candidates were also briefed on the results of some of the experiments conducted on the Shenzhou III as well as the spacecraft's escape system. Some of the specimens, including living cells, used in experiments aboard the spacecraft were taken to Beijing for examination, Xinhua reported. According to the report, the Shenzhou III is equipped with an escape capsule for the astronauts although the spacecraft was this time just manned with a dummy to test 'human' reactions. The escape capsule - when tested on the ground - could be activated within five seconds. The Shenzhou III spacecraft is also equipped with an automatic inspection system which would warn astronauts if any equipment failed to function properly. China has also developed several types of 'space food', which can be swallowed in one gulp. According to engineers, manned spaceflight is just one step in China's space programme. They indicated China was planning to establish a permanent docking station equipped with space laboratories.