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 days.
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. It was not until 1970 that China launched a satellite.
In 1980 Beijing was releasing grainy photos of "taikonauts" - Chinese astronauts - in flight training simulators. But very few Western scientists took the program seriously at that time.
It was not until the development of the Long March family of rockets in the late-1990s, and an agreement to cooperate with Moscow, that Beijing really began
a full-scale military and civilian pursuit of the heavens. The Chinese purchased a soyuz-style life-support system from the Russians, along with astronaut pressure suits and docking units that allow for larger multipart spacecraft. Beijing sent two astronauts to Moscow for training as well, according to Philip Clark of Jane's Space Directory, in London.
"Some Western reports say that the Chinese simply copied the Russian program, but this is a misunderstanding," argues Mr. Clark. "They observed how the Russians solved problems, but they built their own highly modified equipment."
The Chinese space capsule, for example, is larger and heavier than the soyuz. It also has a vastly larger parachute for reentry - a more than 13,000 square-foot chute, which is hand folded.
In the 1960s space race, it took the Soviet program less than a year to move from test rockets to a manned mission. It took the US 18 months to perfect its Mercury program for manned flight.
By contrast, the Chinese Long March family of rockets will - if successful - complete manned flight in something closer to four years. But if the Long March 5 mission takes a three-person crew aloft for a week or longer, it will in one flight have moved the Chinese far past the early record of either the Russian and American programs, which went through a four-year period of launching first one man, and then several, into orbit.
"The Chinese program is going painfully slowly," says Professor Clark. "But then the Chinese aren't racing anybody. If the Long March 5 goes for seven or eight days, the Chinese will have started their manned program at about the same level the US reached with Gemini 5."
On Jan. 4, shortly after the Long March 4 landed in Mongolia, India announced that it was developing a moon-landing program costing tens of billions of dollars. Some Western scientists are dubious, and others point out that the Chinese themselves announced in 2000 that they would be on the moon by 2005. Today's estimate in China for a manned moon landing is closer to between 2020 and 2030.
Currently, however, what separates the Chinese program from those of India or the Japan, is the size of the payload capability of the Long March family of rockets. Manned missions, whether for space stations or for lunar exploration, require ultraheavy payloads - of a type neither India or Japan have yet developed. The current Chinese Long March 4 rocket can send 14 tons into orbit. A new generation of Long March rockets, estimated to be finished in three years, is expected to carry 23 tons.