China's spectacular feat of sending its first man into space in 2003, two years ahead of expectation, confirms the immense prestige space flight confers on countries that dare reach for the stars.
China's triumph is a triumph for Asia. In becoming only the third country after the United States and the Soviet Union to orbit a human being via its own space program, China also became the first Asian country and the only developing nation to have achieved this wonderful exploit.
We tend to forget that China remains a developing nation like the Philippines, India, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. China's spectacular accomplishments in business and trade and its huge market potential tend to becloud its status as a developing nation, albeit the largest in the world.
Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) 5 carrying fighter pilot Lt. Col. Yang Liwei was lifted into orbit on October 15, 2003 by a Chinese-made Long March II F carrier rocket. It completed 14 earth orbits before the re-entry module carrying Yang landed in Inner Mongolia. The first Shenzhou spacecraft flew into space in 1999.
Communists claim China's triumph is a victory for the communist way of government. Only a command economy like Communism, they say, can marshal the national resources and provide the iron will needed to push forward with a costly and dangerous project such as a space program.
The erstwhile Soviet Union, which sent the first man (Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) into space on April 12, 1961, was communist after all.
China's success in space did have much to do with competing ideologies and economic systems. The success of Shenzhou 5 can, after all, be traced to the technological one upmanship between communism and democracy that fueled the Cold War.
The late chairman Mao Zedong set China firmly on the road to space in 1956 when China opened its first missile and rocket research institute. In 1970, China became the fifth country to send a satellite into orbit.
I doubt whether China without communism could have sent a man into space as soon as it did. China was expected to carry out this feat by 2005, or by 2004 at the earliest, according to Western observers.
That China did so two years earlier than anticipated demonstrates China's unflagging commitment to a space program whose aim is to make it a world leader in space science and the exploration of outer space by 2020.
But I also do not doubt that a democratic China would have invariably sent a man into space. It probably would have taken several more decades to accomplish this, but this deed would have been done.
Why? Because great nations invariably turn to space to seal their greatness. Witness the United States and the Soviet Union. And Europe as a community of nations.
China's space program is now preoccupied prestige pursuits such as conducting the first Chinese spacewalk in 2007; beginning construction of a space station in 2009 and landing a probe on the Moon in 2010.
Its great Asian competitor is India. As it stands now, India is the likeliest candidate to become the fourth nation to send a man into space on its own.
India is also a great nation whose stated aim is to become only the second country to send humans to the Moon.
India hopes to achieve this feat by the second decade of this century, after it orbits its own space station. But India will first have to take the necessary step of first sending its astronauts into earth orbit before it can plan more grandiose designs.
India's space agency, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), however, has not announced a timetable for India's first manned space flight. ISRO's present efforts focus on ensuring the reliability of its launch vehicle, the massive Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) that is expected to carry India's first astronaut into space.
China's announced ambition after more manned space flights is to also build its own space station and a fleet of space shuttles. Should this come to pass, the world will soon witness a New Space Race pitting two Asian countries that once fought a bloody border war in 1962, and have remained uneasy neighbors since.
Nations without manned space programs have also basked in the glory of space travel. The first Indian, Rakesh Sharma, rocketed into space as a cosmonaut on board the Russian Salyut 7 spacecraft in April 1984. The first Japanese in space, Mamoru Mohri, flew into orbit as a passenger on the U.S. Space Shuttle Endeavor in September 1992.
On the reverse side of the coin is the danger facing space travelers. Two Asians, the Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, and the Indian-American woman astronaut, Dr. Kalpana Chawla, died in the re-entry disaster that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia in February 2003.
All astronauts, cosmonauts or yuhangyuans (Chinese for astronaut) are heroes to be exalted and emulated. These men and women are, after all, a special breed of hero-intelligent, tough and highly skilled-the pride of their countries.
The Philippines has the human material needed to produce astronauts that will bring glory to the Philippines. The task ahead for this government is to make sending the first Filipino into space by the next decade the single-minded aim of a united national effort.
I am not proposing that we embark on a trillion-peso space program. What I do suggest is that we launch a search to identify, train and finance a core group of astronauts, one of whom will be selected to become the first Filipino in space. This search can be a joint project of the government, business and interested institutions.
Our partner in this Great Endeavor can either be the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, the Chinese or even the Indians. Our astronaut will ride into orbit aboard the space vehicle of one of these countries.
He or she will also have to be trained in space flight by one of these countries. A joint mission involving Asian countries and astronauts would be ideal.
This Great Endeavor might even unite this nation as never before. Who would not want to see and hear a countryman in space greeting us in Filipino? This will be a day of great pride.
Our hope for greatness through national unity lies in space. Space is our Next Everest--and we will conquer it.
Who will be the first Filipino astronaut? This was a question I first asked the Philippines in 2002. What is her answer?