China Learns From Columbia Disaster

Spacecraft over China flag
China has installed comprehensive safety systems allowing its "taikonauts" to escape their spacecraft if there is an emergency, state media said Monday.

China is planning its first space launch later this year and said the safety measures are meant to prevent a disaster similar to that which destroyed the space shuttle Columbia Feb. 1 as it re-entered the atmosphere. Seven astronauts were killed.

The safety systems are designed to rescue taikonauts from danger or mishaps at any time during their flight, according to an article on the Web site of the Communist Party's People's Daily.

Taikonauts can escape the pod before liftoff via cables, high-speed elevator or ejection seats, the article said. During orbit, they can exit the craft and be picked up by another spaceship.

Upon re-entry, the stage during which Columbia broke apart, taikonauts can escape by ejecting or reducing speed, said the article, entitled "Safety of Chinese Astronauts Guaranteed and Emergency Escape Assured."

Safety also is guaranteed by reliability of the ground control system, which will ensure the craft is placed into the proper orbit and re-enters along the correct route, the article said. The craft's shell also has been reinforced to withstand greater extremes of heat and vibration, it said.

"If these problems are not well solved then it is possible for the accident to happen as it did the US 'Columbia' spacecraft," the report said.

Following four successful unmanned flights of its Shenzhou-series spacecraft, China has said it will put one or more humans into space sometime in the second half of this year.

The space program has close ties to the secretive military and precise launch dates never are announced in advance.

If successful, the launch would make China the third nation in history — after Russia and the United States — to launch a manned spacecraft. China has been training a corps of taikonauts — based on the Chinese word for space — reportedly with Russian help.