Shuttle crash won't hit China's space dreams
HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- China has paid tribute to the Columbia shuttle crew but says Saturday's tragedy will not delay its own space ambitions, with officials looking to launch the country's first manned rocket later this year.
In his own message of condolence to the American people, Chinese President Jiang Zemin said despite the disaster "humanity should continue and make further progress in space exploration."
His comments were echoed by the official China News Service which said Monday that "Chinese authorities have stressed they will not give up their aeronautic dream and their confidence in conquering space will not be shaken."
State media has given huge coverage to the Columbia tragedy, paying tribute to the dead crew and speculating on the causes of the disaster.
Several have also quoted Chinese space experts saying that given the high-risk nature of space travel, setbacks of one kind or another were inevitable.
"Mankind will not give up the dream of space exploration," the official Xinhua news agency quoted Chen Maozhang, a professor at the University of Aeronautic and Astronautic Science and Technology as saying.
"Facing the setbacks, mankind needs to find out the cause of the accident and make improvements," he said.
Another aeronautical engineer, Qi Zaikang of the Beijing University of Science and Engineering, told Xinhua the Columbia disaster could provide important lessons for future space missions.
"Failure is the mother of success," he was quoted as saying.
"The ultimate sacrifice made by the astronauts will have even more meaning if the failure provides some lessons."
China is working feverishly to develop its own human space flight capability, training a team of astronauts and conducting a series of test launches.
The most recent launch of the Shenzhou IV capsule took place at the end of last year, with the spacecraft orbiting the Earth 108 times as scientists tested its maneuverability and life-support systems.
If successful China would become only the third nation in the world after the U.S. and Russia to be capable of launching humans into space.
The space program itself is clouded in secrecy, largely because of its close ties with the military.
The identity of the astronauts is a closely guarded secret, as is the timing of launches.
Some believe the tight secrecy is part of an official effort to keep a lid on bad publicity in the event of an accident along the lines of that which befell Columbia or the Challenger shuttle in 1986.
However, despite the tight controls on information, the space program has become a major focus of national pride with each new advance loudly trumpeted by the Chinese media.
A growing number of reports have speculated that China's first manned space mission has been slated for around the time of National Day celebrations on October 1.
It is expected to carry between one and three astronauts on a short orbital mission lasting a day at most.
In the longer term China's leaders are thought to be looking at a manned mission to the moon.
However, critics have said the space program is using up millions of dollars of government funds that could be better used providing much-needed health care and improved schools in rural China.
-- CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam contributed to this report