SHANGHAI — The Chinese Shenzhou VII spacecraft blasted off at 9:07 p.m. Thursday, carrying three Chinese astronauts into space on this country’s third manned space mission in five years. The launching of Shenzhou VII from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Gansu Province, which is in western China, was shown live on state television. At a ceremony before the launching, President Hu Jintao praised the space project’s effort. “You will definitely accomplish this glorious and sacred mission,” he told the astronauts before the launching. “The motherland and the people are looking forward to your triumphant return.” China sent into space three experienced fighter pilots, all of them 42-year-old men. One is expected to walk in space for 30 minutes on Friday or Saturday, according to the state media. The three taikonauts — the Chinese term for astronauts — plan to run tests in space and launch a small satellite monitoring station. They are carrying traditional Chinese medicine on board, in case of sickness, and their diet includes shredded pork sautéed with garlic and grilled beef with spicy sauce. One astronaut is wearing what the state-run news media has dubbed “the most complicated, advanced and expensive suit in the world,” a $4.4 million space suit designed and produced in China. The spacecraft was launched by what the Chinese space agency calls the Long March II-F carrier rocket, which took the spacecraft into a low orbit, about 210 miles above Earth. The mission, which is being covered extensively in the Chinese media, is another milestone for a country that got a late start in space exploration but is now aggressively launching commercial satellites, putting humans in space and even shooting down aging satellites. “They have joined a very exclusive club; only the U.S. and Russians are members,” said Roger D. Launius, a senior curator and expert on space history at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, referring generally to China’s space program. “It’s a great start, even though it’s nowhere near what the Russians and the U.S. have accomplished with space flight.” Russia and the United States conducted their first spacewalks in 1965, and in 1969 the United States became the first country to put a person on the moon. But Michael D. Griffin, the administrator of NASA, has repeatedly warned that despite the head start by other nations, the Chinese program is moving swiftly and could overtake American efforts to return to the moon by 2020. In testimony to the Senate last year, Mr. Griffin said it was likely that “China will be able to put people on the Moon before we will be able to get back.” He added: “I admire what they have done, but I am concerned that it will leave the United States in its wake.” The Chinese government also hopes the national space program will aid the nation economically by helping to create technological breakthroughs that may someday be applied to computers or other digital equipment. India and Japan are now aggressively developing their own space programs, creating some competition in Asia for space flight, and the Europeans have joined forces to explore space. But China says its space program is speeding along, often with Chinese technology, helping establish the country as a technological power and bringing another dose of pride to the nation after the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer. Because spaceflight requires large booster rockets and other sophisticated technology that often has military applications, national space programs are often veiled in secrecy, and cooperation among nations is complicated. Indeed, on Wednesday, the F.B.I. arrested a Chinese-born physicist in Newport News, Va., on charges of illegally exporting space launching technical data and services to China beginning in January 2003. The physicist, Shu Quan-Sheng, 68, was born in China but was a naturalized American citizen. He has a doctorate in physics. Mr. Shu was also accused of offering bribes to Chinese government officials in exchange for a business contract, according to an F.B.I. statement.
John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York.