Shenzhou-4 was unmanned when it went into orbit in December 2002. Credit: © AP

China's first manned spaceflight has launched successfully. It could be the curtain-raiser for a Chinese mission to the Moon.

Shenzhou-5, a spacecraft whose name means 'Divine Vessel', is carrying one astronaut into orbit. It blasted off from Jiuquan in Gansu province in northwestern China. The facility, located in the Gobi Desert, houses scientists and technicians in luxurious secrecy. The capsule will circle the globe 14 times before landing in a remote region of Inner Mongolia.

Only four previous prototypes of the Shenzhou craft have been tested - considerably fewer than the spacecraft used for the first Earth orbits by US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.

The stakes have been raised by the publicity devoted the launch in the past few weeks. The Beijing-based People's Daily newspaper wrote that "manned space technology is a symbol of the state's comprehensive national strength and prestige". The Chinese government apparently regards the mission as a demonstration of technological parity with Western nations.

A successful mission will herald further ambitious plans. Ouyang Ziyuan, a cosmochemist who heads China's lunar-exploration programme, said earlier this year that he hopes the country will launch an unmanned mission to the Moon before the end of 2005.

Other officials at the Chinese space administration say that they have plans for docking missions and for capsules that will accommodate astronauts on longer missions in orbit. Zhang Qingwei, deputy commander of the spaceflight programme, has even spoken about lunar bases and space tourism, although no official plan for a manned lunar mission has been announced.

Even if Shenzhou-5 is a success, the question remains of whether China will find the political, financial and public support for manned spaceflight any easier to sustain than the United States or the former Soviet Union have done.