Chen Dong, Liu Wang and Liu Yang talk with a team member during flight training at the center. (Feng Yongbin/China Daily)
More than 1,500 pilots applied, and after several rounds of stringent tests the number was whittled down to 14. In January 1998, they became the founding members of the PLA Astronaut Group, and in 2010, they were joined by seven new astronauts who were also experienced Air Force pilots.
On October 15, 2003, China carried out its first manned space mission, sending Yang Liwei on a 21-hour series of Earth orbits in Shenzhou V.
During his 600,000-kilometer expedition, 343 km above the planet, the then-38-year-old Yang simultaneously displayed the Chinese and UN flags to hundreds of millions of Chinese who were witnessing his feat on television, and said in both Chinese and English, "Make use of outer space peacefully and for the benefit of all humankind."
Now a major general and bearing the honorary title of "Space Hero", Yang is deputy director of the China Manned Space Agency.
In the 14 years since Yang's momentous journey, China has evolved from a second-tier player in the global space race into a great power.
In 2003, the country conducted just seven space missions, while Russia undertook 21 and the United States made 23; by comparison, this year, China will conduct at least 40 unmanned missions in an ambitious schedule that is likely to outnumber those of both the U.S. and Russia.
Moreover, since 2003, China's six manned spaceflights have totaled 68 days and orbited Earth 1,089 times, while the nation's astronauts have travelled more than 46 million km in space and conducted more than 100 experiments.
Chinese astronauts have also undertaken extravehicular activity, conducted several extended missions inside the Tiangong I and II space labs, and delivered a 40-minute lecture from space that was watched by more than 60 million students at about 80,000 schools.
Those accomplishments have become a source of pride and growing confidence in the nation, in addition to sparking patriotic sentiments in Chinese communities across the world.
Yang recalled that during a visit to New York in 2004, an 80-something Chinese-American held his hands and tearfully told him that for overseas Chinese, the nation's achievements in space reflected the fact that "our motherland has risen", which gave them renewed courage and strength.
In 2013, when Liu Yang, the first Chinese woman in space, attended a seminar at a middle school in Beijing, a student told her that he had been inspired by her story and wanted to become an astronaut.
He also gave Liu a photo that had been taken by his grandmother, a retired professor at the prestigious Beihang University in Beijing, at a ceremony held at the university several months before. On the back of the photo, the elderly women had written, "We salute those who contribute to our endeavors in space."
According to statistics provided by the manned space agency, the ratings for TV and radio programs about astronauts broadcast during manned missions are always extremely high, while books about China's manned space expeditions remain at the top of the best-seller lists for many years.