'We used a bicycle pump to bring fuel into the engine of the rocket and antennas to monitor the rocket in the sky, like children with a toy aircraft. We had no walkie-talkies and had to shout at each other,' recalls Li Dayao. It was 1958 in a field beside a river south of Shanghai. Mr Li was one of a group of Chinese scientists taking their first hesitant steps on the space programme. They were following the instructions of Chairman Mao Zedong, who earlier that year had announced China would launch a man-made satellite, an ambition then considered ridiculous around the world. At that time, the Soviet Union was the only country that had successfully launched a satellite, in 1957. 'It was the year of the Great Leap Forward,' said Mr Li, who retired in 2000 from a Beijing aerospace research institute. 'So we were set a very ambitious target of launching a satellite before National Day [October 1] in 1959.' The day finally came on April 24, 1970, when the 'East is Red No. 1' was launched on a Long March rocket, which became a symbol of the Mao era. 'As it was the Cultural Revolution, I had been sent to do hard labour on a state farm in the northeast,' Mr Li said. 'It was just after nine o'clock in the evening and a radiant light lit up the sky, like a giant star. It was a moment to move the hearts of men.' Now, 33 years later, China is within months of putting a manned capsule into orbit, to become only the third nation to do so after the Soviet Union and the United States. Yuan Jie, head of the Shanghai Aerospace Institute, said last week that Shenzhou V, to be launched later this year, would carry astronauts, all of whom were previously air force pilots. Shenzhou IV, launched at midnight last Monday from the Jiuquan space centre in the Gobi desert, returned to earth yesterday. It carried life-support equipment and other facilities needed for human passengers. Previous Shenzhou launches have carried a dog, a rabbit, snails and dummy astronauts into space. Mao launched the space programme, as well as the project to develop atomic weapons, primarily for military reasons, because he believed that China could rely on no one and must develop its own technologies if it was to survive. The Korean War had made the new communist state a sworn enemy of the US and by 1958 relations with the Soviet Union were deteriorating rapidly, leading to a formal split in 1960. 'We were sandwiched between the US and the Soviet Union and had no way out. We could afford not to have railway engines but could not afford not to have missiles and satellites,' recalled another space scientist. 'This was the reason the programme developed so fast. Because it was considered a matter of national defence, money was no object,' he said. So the space programme and the atomic weapons programme received generous funding while millions were dying of starvation during the great famine of 1959-1961. After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping modified the objectives of the programme. 'We do not take part in the space race and do not need to land a man on the moon. We will concentrate our efforts on the practical use of satellites,' he said. Accordingly, under the direction of General Zhang Aiping in the 1980s, the scientists test-fired the 'East is Red No. 2' rocket to carry telecommunications and weather-forecasting satellites, as well as developing long-range rockets. These satellites have played an important role in the growth of telecommunications in China. China continued investing heavily in satellites into the 1990s and became a commercial competitor to the US, Russia and Europe. It has sold satellite-launch services to Western companies over the past 10 years and launched more than 70 rockets. The first Shenzhou was launched in January 1999 and circled the earth 14 times. But not everything has gone smoothly. The Long March rockets have had about a dozen failures. A rocket with an American-made telecommunications satellite aboard exploded on launch in 1995, killing six people. In 1996, another rocket sent a US$120 million (HK$935 million) Chinese satellite into the wrong orbit, rendering it useless. The space programme remains largely a military operation. The media discloses little information about it and does not announce launch dates in advance. While defence remains a primary motive, so too are the commercial factors. Beijing is eager to earn money from the launches and to harness the programme as part of the nation's modernisation, for science, technology and weather-forecasting. It is also a symbol of national prestige and pride, enabling China to join the elite group of space nations.