BEIJING – The scientists and visionaries waging China's struggle to become Earth's third space-traveling nation have a message for a world contemplating the shuttle Columbia's destruction: We're still reaching for the sky.
As the Chinese government laments the demise of the American craft and crew of "real heroes," it is looking beyond the disaster and intimating that its own dreams of the stars remain undaunted -- including a first manned flight reportedly planned for later this year.
"The key is to learn lessons from this -- to do our own things better and smoothly fulfill the Chinese nation's dream of flying to space," said Tu Shou'e, a space technology expert at the China Science Academy, quoted Monday by the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily.
While Russia, the only other country that has launched humans into space, appears more directly affected by the Columbia disaster, China is watching events closely, knowing its endeavors will draw similar scrutiny when it launches a manned mission.
President Jiang Zemin, in his condolence message, predicted "further progress in space exploration." And on Monday, official Chinese news agencies and state-controlled newspapers were brimming with tributes to Columbia and its crew.
"The final moment: What on Earth happened?" the Beijing Youth Daily wondered in a headline atop picture-saturated coverage.
Articles about the doomed shuttle, however, were peppered with musings about Beijing's own space program, increasingly a symbol of national pride characterized by the government as evidence that China has become a world-class nation.
"Mankind will not give up the dream of space exploration. Facing setbacks, mankind needs to find the cause of the accident and make improvements," said Chen Maozhang, an aerospace engineer at the University of Aeronautic and Astronautic Science and Technology in Beijing.
Other scholars quoted in the tightly controlled state media expressed similar sentiments, suggesting the government has endorsed a robustly forward-focused reaction to the shuttle destruction.
"The eventual goal of all space programs in the world is to travel in space shuttles in the same way we now travel in airplanes," said Liang Sili, an adviser to China's space program, quoted in the Beijing Youth Daily.
"China hasn't made a ship that can be used repeatedly -- ours is only for one-time use," he said. "This accident provides lessons and experiences for our research and manufacturing work."
China's space program has been flush with optimism after two events that unfolded in quick succession last month -- the successful trip of its fourth unmanned spacecraft, Shenzhou IV, and the announcement that Shenzhou V, to be launched later this year, will be manned.
"The Columbia accident has no direct impact on our space cause," said Min Guirong, an expert at China's Space Technology Institute, also quoted in Beijing Youth Daily. Reusable spaceships are less economical and not part of China's immediate plans, Min said.
Fighter pilots in China's air force have been training for years to make the first flights as "taikonauts," a riff on the word "astronaut" that incorporates part of the Chinese word for space. Other nations' astronauts have been in space, though only by collaborating with Washington or Moscow; an Israeli astronaut died aboard Columbia.
While Beijing's space experiments are secretive and launches aren't announced in advance, heavy coverage in state media and enthusiastic comments by senior officials sound themes of self-reliance and progress.
Such talk recalls the high-octane space fever of the 1960s in the United States. Indeed, Buzz Aldrin, one of the three astronauts on the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969, said a "space race" still exists to some extent -- and China is part of it.
"There is still a competition," Aldrin said Sunday on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press." "I understand the Chinese will be putting up an astronaut, perhaps in October, and I think that they see themselves having a destiny of the next century."
It's a destiny China appears ready to pursue -- with whatever lessons the Columbia investigation eventually produces.
"Failure is the mother of success," said Qi Zaikang, an aircraft engineer at the Beijing University of Science and Engineering, quoted by the government's Xinhua News Agency. "The ultimate sacrifice made by the astronauts will have even more meaning if the failure provides some lessons."