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Columbia tempers mood of China's great leap in space

China hopes to launch a manned craft next fall, building on a string of successes.

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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."

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