When China's Long March 4 rocket capsule floated two smiling
human dummies safely to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia last month,
this nation was ecstatic. The event cleared the way for a Long March
5 launch next fall - China's first manned space flight, an orbital
mission expected to carry two or three astronauts for up to eight
China's string of four successful space launches since 1999 is a
major source of national and scientific pride here. If all goes
well, Long March 5 will place China as first among equals in a
nascent Asian manned space race that includes Japan and India. It
will rank Beijing as No. 3 in space capability behind the US and
Russia. And it will put China in a position to talk more credibly
about proposed space stations and moon missions in the next decade.
Yet with the Feb. 1 Columbia shuttle tragedy, a new sobriety has
arrived in the thinking about manned flight among both scientists
and party officials here.
To be sure, China's official reaction to the Columbia breakup -
something widely covered on TV, websites, and newspapers - was a
resolute affirmation of self-confidence, and a thumbs-up for China's
space plans next fall. China's space program is shrouded in mystery,
and efforts to contact civilian space officials were routinely
denied for this report. Still, sources say the Columbia event has
brought home to China's ruling elite the problems of a potential
tragedy in a high-profile program that has become synonymous with
China's emerging identity as a great world power.
"Of course they are a little worried," says one diplomat. "Unlike
the past, the Chinese have now gone public with their space program.
There's a lot of pride and face wrapped up with completing a
successful mission, which I hope they do."
Liang Si Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences offered in the
Beijing Youth Daily, "There is no direct influence on the Chinese
space program [from Columbia]. But the Columbia explosion taught us
a lesson: We need sufficient preparation of technology, materials,
and spirit, before launching a reusable spacecraft."
The scope and technical program of the Long March 5 is very
different from the NASA shuttle mission; Chinese engineers, working
with Russian scientists, have spent four years perfecting the
mission. Until last month, however, official media in China often
mentioned the low cost of their space program - some $3.2 billion
total. Since the Columbia event, low cost has not been stressed,
presumably while China reviews safety precautions and costs
associated with them.
China's space program dates to 1956, when Tsien Hsue-shen, a
Chinese-born physicist educated in the US - who later helped found
the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California - returned to China
after FBI harassment for alleged communist sympathies. Much of the
early Chinese planning, and the establishment of astronaut training
centers, originated with Mr. Tsien. Chinese space pioneers remember
trying to launch a satellite rocket in 1959 - unsuccessfully - by
using a bicycle pump to fuel the rocket. …