Monday, September 29, 2008

Where Will China's Walk in Space Take Us?

Over the weekend, three Chinese astronauts landed safely in Inner Mongolia after completing a 68-hour flight that included a 20-minute spacewalk. After the burst of patriotism from the Chinese people that the world witnessed during the Beijing Olympics, China now has even more to celebrate. As a successful demonstration that China has mastered the extreme engineering complexities of manned space flight, the exploit's message is unambiguous. But as with any technology, its ethical implications depend on how it is used and why.

It's no surprise that I obtained one of the more comprehensive news reports on the flight from New Delhi Television Limited's website. As China's nearest large neighbor to the south, India is more than a little interested in any signs that China's ability to throw complicated machinery a long distance has improved. The space race between the old U. S. S. R. and the United States was about many things, but at its core was the technology needed to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) halfway around the world. Just as war games provide a way for a country to show off its military might without actually fighting the enemy, the race to the moon provided the U. S. with a peaceful means of showing off the advanced state of our aerospace technology which, with relatively small modifications, was fully capable of blowing the U. S. S. R. to pieces.

Something similar is going on with China's space program, which has surprisingly long roots. As long ago as 1967, Chinese government officials announced their intentions to put a man in space. Unfortunately, a few things like the Great Cultural Revolution, Mao's demise, and the resultant governmental and social turmoil got in the way. It wasn't until 2003 that one Yang Liwei climbed aboard a rocket and became the first Chinese astronaut. But since then, the Chinese space program has made great strides. Considering that the U. S. took eight years to go from its first manned spaceflight in 1961 to the first moon landing in 1969, the Chinese program probably won't keep up quite that pace. But a moon landing is clearly in the works, as well as extensive Earth-orbiting doings such as a Chinese space station.

Unlike the International Space Station currently in orbit that involves astronauts and technology from numerous countries, China has chosen to go it alone almost completely in space. For many years the U. S. did the same, and it is tempting to lay out other parallels between the Chinese and U. S. space efforts. But they are different countries, and the reasons behind the Chinese space program may differ considerably from ours.

In a sense, space is the best of places and the worst of places. Some of the most idealistic and noble ambitions (and people, too) are directed toward the exploration of space, either for purely scientific reasons or for reasons of national prestige. The old Latin phrase ad astra ("to the stars") captures the quasi-religious feeling that many people have when they think about manned space exploration. At the same time, the worst kind of mass destruction that mankind is capable of inflicting in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would pass through the void of space on their way to vaporizing millions of people back on Earth. It is too early to tell what China will do with its new-found space capabilities. So far, all they've done is to perform the same kind of stunts that the U. S. and the U. S. S. R. did in the harmless but significant space race of the 1960s. That race, you will recall, did result in the dissolution of one of the two parties, although how much the Soviet Union's diversion of resources to its space effort contributed to its demise is a fight for the historians.

China is a different situation altogether. Although they have their own territorial ambitions, China is a much more homogeneous country than the U. S. S. R. ever was. And while I deplore dictatorships and Communist governments, from a technocratic point of view they can provide the long-range stability that tends to go away when you have a newly elected government every two to four years or so. Let's hope that China will put its efforts into showing how it can master the peaceful challenges of space instead of trying to pull some kind of international space blackmail on the rest of the world some day.

Sources: Wikipedia has a good article on the Chinese space program. An article on the recent Chinese spacewalk can be found at

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