Great Leap Skyward

The countdown has begun. this fall, china will send a Long March 2F rocket hurtling into space from a remote launch facility near the Gobi Desert. The payload: Shenzhou, or "Divine Vessel," a capsule carrying China's first astronauts. The mission: enter a low Earth orbit for up to a week, then parachute back to a landing zone on the Mongolian steppe. The goal: elevate China into the exclusive ranks of spacefaring nations.

No one knows exactly when the historic launch will take place. China's secretive space commissars haven't divulged such tiny details as the blast-off date—it could be...

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