Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What China's New Space Station Means For The World

China's new space station
China is launching its very own space station. Countries have achieved such a feat absent international cooperation only twice before--Russia's Salyut, in 1971, and the United States' Skylab, in 1973. After successful manned space flights and a robotic lunar lander, a space station would be a potent political symbol in an era when the U.S. has no means to get astronauts into space other than paying the Russians.

Because its space program is a subsidiary of the People's Liberation Army, some have concluded that China's designs on space are military, but thoughtful observers disagree: the association between the country's space exploration program and the PLA is about the past, not the future. Chinese lasers won't be raining down on us from space any time soon. The future of China's space program is not about weapons, it's about putting a Chinese man on the moon.

The thing about China--a nation led by engineers--is that through the vehicle of its 5-year plans, its government methodically pursues its stated goals. It's happened before in microchips, leading the Chinese government to develop a home-grown processor that may some day challenge Intel. And it's happening in space.

Human space exploration requires mastery of a succession of tasks: getting a human home from space safely. Spacewalks. Docking in orbit. Living in space for extended periods. The Chinese space program has accomplished all of these goals except the last; the space station completes the country's maturation as the world's current leading space power. The step beyond this program program would be the most public and visible demonstration imaginable of the country's ascendancy: it would mean reproducing the United States' most singular moment of scientific and military triumph, a boot-print on lunar soil.

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