BEIJING - China's first manned spacecraft could be launched "as early as next month" from a pad in the country's remote northwest and will probably contain one crew member, the official Communist Party newspaper reported Thursday.
People's Daily, in its online edition, gave no further details about a timetable for the Shenzhou 5, which the government has said will hurtle into space with a Chinese crew aboard by 2004. The flight will probably last 24 hours, the newspaper said.
The mention of the schedule in a lengthy general article about China's dreams of manned spaceflight was the most specific signal yet by the Chinese government that such a launch is imminent.
China's leaders have invested significant energy and resources in their secretive military-affiliated space program and have tried to stir nationalist sentiment about the project, much as the United States did in the space race of the 1960s against the Soviet Union.
Four decades later, only the Americans and the Russians have sent manned craft into space.
The publication of the article reflects the Chinese government's growing confidence in its ability to pull off a manned launch.
People's Daily said Shenzhou 5 would be carried into space by a Long March 2F rocket and would be launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in the northwestern province of Gansu. It would likely land, as its predecessor did, in Inner Mongolia.
People's Daily also outlined China's hopes for a future in space, saying: "Chinese space officials have hinted at a multipronged human spaceflight program, including space station construction, as well as eventual travel to the moon, all by 2020."