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<i>Columbia</i> Disaster Affects Asian Space Programs - 2003-02-04

The demise of the U.S. space shuttle Columbia Saturday and its crew of seven is affecting Asian space programs in very different ways. China will press ahead, Japan is having second thoughts and India will continue to focus on unmanned missions.

An expert on China's secretive space program said the shuttle disaster makes Beijing more determined than ever to launch its first astronauts into space later this year.

Until now, only Russia and the United States have independently put people into orbit.

The author of a major book on China's space program, Joan Johnson-Freese, said investigations into the Columbia tragedy will mean the U.S. shuttles may still be grounded at the time of China's first piloted flight. She said that will give China's achievement even more prestige.

"The difficulty of space travel has now been highlighted to the world. If the U.S. has problems and the Chinese can successfully launch and recover an astronaut, or a taikonaut, that will certainly show in a very magnified way the difficulty and the achievement that they will have made by being able to do so," she explained.

She said China will probably time the launch for October, in time to commemorate the founding of the communist state.

Foreign space experts say Chinese officials are well aware of the propaganda value of successful space missions.

James Oberg is a former U.S. space agency engineer and author of many books on space issues. He said China's program is a well thought out effort that will yield scientific and technical benefits, as well as good public relations. "The Chinese approach to their Shenzhou spacecraft appears to be very methodical, very sound. They are doing a step-by-step development and testing of the technology," he said.

China has been working toward manned space flight for many years and recently flight-tested the fourth of a series of space capsules capable carrying people into orbit.

China's President Jiang Zemin is a strong supporter of the space effort. He was quick to send condolences to U.S. and Israeli leaders following the loss of astronauts from those nations aboard Columbia. He also said mankind must overcome this setback and move forward into space exploration.

Japan's space agency is taking a different approach, announcing that it will keep Japanese astronauts off shuttle flights until the spacecraft are determined to be safe.

A Japanese astronaut was scheduled to fly on the next shuttle mission on March 1, but all shuttle flights have been put on hold while the United States investigates the Columbiaaccident.

Ms. Johnson-Freese said the Columbia disaster is reinforcing Japan's customary caution. "It pushed them two steps back into their more comfortable risk-averse position, not wanting to go into the possibility of such a catastrophic failure for fear of what it would do to the Japanese public opinion and subsequent political support," she said.

Ms. Johnson-Freese said Japan has been debating the creation of a piloted space program for some time. She said it will be interesting to see if the caution inspired by the Columbia disaster is overcome by a sense of competition growing out of China's manned space efforts.

India is mourning the loss of astronaut Kalpana Chawla, who perished aboard Columbia. She was born in India and moved to the United States as a young adult, eventually taking U.S. citizenship and joining the space program. She is seen as a heroine in her native land.

India does not have a manned space program, but it can launch and operate satellites, and is working on sending a robot probe to the moon.

The painful loss of Ms. Chawla is likely to reinforce India's decision to focus on unmanned spacecraft, which are significantly less expensive to launch than manned craft.