What are the implications of China’s latest spacewalk?China explores the final frontier.
On September 25, 2008, China’s Shenzhou 7 space module took off from Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Inner Mongolia and two days later, on the afternoon of the 27th, Zhai Zhigang made history by becoming the first Chinese man to perform a spacewalk and the first human being to wave a miniature Chinese flag in space. China is now the third country, after the Soviet Union and the United States, to perform an extra-vehicular activity. Today, with the taikonauts back safe and sound, gilded replicas of the Shenzhou 7 are being sold in the Xidan bookstore.
What are the implications of China’s space program and the latest spacewalk? Is it a waste of money or the start of a new space race? Here are our thoughts.
Why is China pursuing space development? The answer is simple: space exploration is the sole domain of the superpowers. As in the Olympics, only the United States and the Soviet Union have made it to the top of the leader board in recent memory, and not coincidentally they are the only nations to have successfully launched human beings into space, and only the U.S. has landed a man on the moon. But these days Russia’s space program is limping along, catering mainly to space tourists; while the beleaguered U.S. has relegated its space program to an afterthought when it is not beset by tragedy. This is another opportunity for China to shine on the world stage, another venue that offers prestige without threat, another way for China to show it has the infrastructure and drive to achieve what few other nations on the planet can do.
Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. It is almost disingenuous to label funding of space exploration as wasted money, especially when the same nations barely bat an eye when they maintain million-man armies and enough nuclear weapons to lay waste to the globe. The same people who fail to see the benefit of space exploration would have belittled the discovery of the structure of the atom in the early 20th century. Space research has paid handsome dividends in terms of propulsion technology, material sciences, and advanced communications.
The Chinese push into space is a good thing, if only to give the space programs of the world—the U.S. especially—a kick in the pants. Like Sputnik’s clarion call back in the fifties, maybe it’ll take a Chinese flag planted on the rock that has only known American footsteps to remind people: looking into space is worth the trouble.
It’s easy to blow off the spacewalk as, “Yeah, the U.S. did that several decades ago,” but to do so would miss the bigger picture. China is playing the tortoise to the West’s hare, as it is slowly but surely catching up to the West in technological prowess.
The spacewalk highlights China’s capability of self-sufficiency apart from the West in new initiatives. This theme, which can be seen in Russia’s brazen invasion of Georgia, and its brushing aside of Western criticism, this could be the modus operandi of the two countries for the future.
The Communist Party is willing to do anything that makes the Party and motherland appear strong and this most recent mission to space is no exception. The thinking in Beijing is rather simple: If the Party demonstrates that it is making China a strong country and returning it to its central place in world affairs, then the people will accept its hold on political power. If the Party thinks that landing a man on the moon will further legitimatize its hold on power, then it will spare no expense to do so. If the Party thought that proving the man on the moon is Chinese would place them more squarely in the hearts of the people, it’d take steps to do that as well
There are certain imagined criterion for entrance into the fraternity of first world powers: becoming a nuclear power, developing a massive economy, having a destructive military force, and catapulting men in little capsules out of the stratosphere. In many ways (sewage, average standard of living, customer service, hair styles), China is still a third world country. Thus the development of the space program is designed both to demonstrate that China can match the U.S. step for step on every technological feat and to create a sense of accomplishment, hope and national pride that is extremely, extremely effective propaganda.
Did you notice that Li Ning’s run around the rim of the Bird Nest during the Olympic opening ceremony’s final act looked suspiciously similar to walking on the moon? Not a coincidence.