Chinese scientists launched the country's first spacecraft designed to carry humans into orbit and guided it back to Earth today, making a key breakthrough in the government's seven-year effort to join the United States and Russia in the elite club of manned space flight.

The unmanned module--dubbed the Shenzhou, or Magic Vessel, by Chinese President Jiang Zemin--was thrust into space before dawn Saturday aboard a new version of China's Long March rocket, officials said. It orbited the Earth 14 times before hurtling back through the atmosphere and parachuting into a field in Inner Mongolia this morning, 21 hours after taking off.

"The successful launch of the Shenzhou has fulfilled a long-cherished dream of the Chinese people," the country's official New China News Agency said. "As early as 500 years ago, Chinese test-fired rockets into the sky in an attempt to realize the dream."

Decades after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the Earth and President John F. Kennedy vowed that the United States would put a man on the moon, Chinese leaders have taken a page from the playbooks of the former Cold War rivals as they seek to boost the country's national pride and international stature.

China began pursuing manned space flight in the late 1960s but abandoned the effort because Premier Zhou Enlai thought the program too costly. Jiang revived the effort in the early 1990s, after he was appointed the country's leader following the crackdown on democracy demonstrations in Beijing in 1989. The expressed goal was to achieve manned space flight by the end of the century. That deadline is now virtually impossible to meet, but analysts said China would likely be able to make it within a year or so.

China has been launching satellites into space since 1970, and telecommunications companies around the world have turned to China's cheap and relatively reliable launch services to put their satellites into orbit. But today's successful mission marked a big step forward for China's space program, analysts said. Designing and building a spaceship capable of safely carrying people into space and back is a much more difficult task, and one with much higher stakes.

"The fact that they were successful is a major step forward," said Charles Vick, an expert on space issues at the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists who said China could send an animal into space as early as next month and a person before the middle of next year. The Chinese tested "everything but having a man on board . . . The launch vehicle and the spacecraft worked together as they should."

The government said thousands of scientists have worked on the so-called 921 Program, but it gave no estimate of the costs. The government said it would conduct several more unmanned missions before trying to put humans into space. Chinese astronauts and technical personnel have trained at Russia's Star City space center since 1996.

The launch of the space module comes as China's leaders are facing a host of challenges at home, from unemployment to a loss of faith in the Communist system after 20 years of breakneck economic reforms.

At the same time, international developments--from this spring's NATO campaign against Yugoslavia and its bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade to tensions with the United States over Taiwan and China's alleged nuclear spying--have sparked nationalist sentiment, making leaders eager to offer clear examples of China's power.

"Launching space vehicles needs the most sophisticated technology and is a comprehensive demonstration of a country's political, economic, scientific and technical strength," said the official news agency, which emphasized that the rocket and spacecraft were designed and built independently by Chinese engineers. The effort will "boost the nation's sense of pride and cohesiveness [and] arouse the enthusiasm of all ethnic groups."

Wu Yan, a leading Chinese science fiction writer who has done extensive research on China's space program, said that even if China cannot surpass the world's leaders in space exploration, Chinese officials' decision to move ahead with the manned space program is a way to develop technology, inspire national confidence and leave a lasting mark.

"For now, China doesn't have any plan to try to compete with the United States or Russia. But China wants to be better than other countries like Japan and India," Wu said. "Although it's not number one, there aren't many countries in the world that can do it. It's still worth it."

Wu also said he hopes the successful mission and the eventual sight of a Chinese astronaut floating in zero gravity will awaken scientific curiosity and a sense of the fantastic among Chinese. Scientific knowledge is often handed down from on high to students in China, and teaching often de-emphasizes the importance of imagination in the process of discovery, he said.

Former astronaut and senator John Glenn, who became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, 10 months after Gagarin, suggested to national security officials several years ago that the United States provide China with technical assistance for its space program. Glenn argued that China would be in danger of sacrificing lives unnecessarily just to learn lessons already known by the United States.

The U.S. administration rejected the idea because of concerns about sensitive technology, among other things.

Vick said the craft launched this weekend was based on technology from the Russian Soyuz, as well as home-grown designs and openly available material about early U.S. space flights. The Chinese craft weighs 8.4 tons and is capable of carrying at least two people.

China has had a mixed record in space safety. A Long March rocket carrying a telecommunications satellite exploded after liftoff in 1995, killing six people. In February 1996, a rocket carrying an Intelsat 708 communications satellite exploded. Six months later, Chinese scientists put a $120 million Chinese satellite in the wrong orbit. But in the last three years, China has had 17 straight successful launches.

In a sign that even the government was not a hundred percent certain of the outcome of this weekend's mission, Chinese television--which has begun to broadcast more live events--showed only taped footage of the launch and pictures of the module on the ground after it landed. The broadcast was authorized by Chinese censors only after the spacecraft had arrived safely back on Earth.

CAPTION: A Chinese Long March rocket launches China's first spacecraft designed to carry humans. The unmanned module landed safely after 21 hours in space.