TCS Daily


China Targets Space

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 26, 2005 12:00 AM

China's space program is, according to news reports, getting more ambitious:

"Two Chinese astronauts may be orbiting Earth as early as September, this time spending five days aloft in the nation's second manned venture into outer space, China's space agency chief confirmed yesterday.

"Sun Laiyan, who heads the China National Space Administration, also said the country expects to expand exchanges with the United States in space science and applications to further tap co-operative potential.

"Compared with (China's first astronaut) Yang Liwei's solo mission, Shenzhou-VI will carry two men to circle the globe for five to six days sometime in September or October, Sun told China Daily.

"'If the flight is successful, China's space programme will proceed to space walks and spaceship docking, with the earliest space walks scheduled for 2007,' the senior space official added."

Crews of two astronauts. Spacewalks. Docking. There are two responses to this.

One is dismissive: "Ho, hum. We did this with Gemini forty years ago. The Chinese are way behind the curve." The other is paranoid: "Oh, no -- the Chinese are going to take over outer space!"

Both are unjustified, though the first probably more than the second. Yes, China is playing catch-up, doing things we used to do that to them are new. It's easy to dismiss this sort of thing, I suppose, just as it was easy to make fun of the first wave of Japanese automobiles to hit American shores. They really weren't very good, compared to the American cars of the day. Yet, as Detroit learned, such amusement was temporary and expensive: the American cars stayed about the same, while the Japanese cars got steadily better. The same thing may be happening in space; at least, we shouldn't ignore the possibility that it is.

Although the Chinese are playing catch-up right now, they're likely to experience the second-mover's advantage. It's easier to catch up than to forge new ground. And although China is vastly poorer and weaker than the United States, in terms of absolute capabilities the gap between the China of today and the United States of 1965, say, is much closer, and with China ahead in quite a few capabilities. Plus, they know what's possible; we were trying to figure that out.

Then, too, the absence of any real forward progress since the 1970s on the part of the United States means that China doesn't have all that much catching up to do.

The bottom line: Our position is not so advanced that we can afford to look down on the Chinese. A determined China could leapfrog us in a variety of ways (here's one example) in a surprisingly short time. But that, of course, is no reason to be paranoid, either. While China could leapfrog us, there are a lot of reasons to think that competition between the United States and China would be a good thing.

First, as I've noted here before, there's good reason to believe that humanity won't survive over the long term (or even the not-so-terribly-long term) if we don't settle outer space. From that perspective, anything that jumpstarts the process again should be welcome. It's no coincidence that the United States' forward progress in space started to fade as soon as the contest with the Soviets ended. A new competition might encourage more effort -- and more focus -- on our part.

Second, the United States and China are, almost inevitably, going to begin competing more across a variety of fronts. Better that we should be competing in space than in some more dangerous arenas here on Earth. Many people believe, in fact, that the space race helped to defuse the tensions of the Cold War, and some think that this was part of JFK's purpose in setting out a lunar landing as a public goal (Jerome Wiesner, who served as an adviser to JFK, once told me that this was very much Kennedy's intent). So I don't think that paranoia is justified.

At least not fully. A space competition would be a good thing, and the Chinese won't "take over outer space" unless we let them, by doing nothing. I don't think we will. But, then again, I didn't think we'd sit on our lead, and fritter it away over thirty years, either . . .


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