Shenzhou-9 landed safely on 29 June, bringing back to Earth three taikonauts, including the first female one. The taikonauts had spent thirteen days aboard Tiangong-1, the Chinese space station. The name means “Heavenly Palace”, which I must admit is a more poetic name than “International Space Station”. China plans to send up another module to their space station in 2013, and then further modules over several years. The finished space station will be smaller than the ISS, perhaps similar in size to the US Skylab of the 1970s.
While the US tries desperately hard to create some sort of libertarian commercial space capability, the Chinese are just cracking on with an ambitious government space programme. You can’t help but wonder if they’d been doing this thirty years ago, they’d have put a taikonaut on Mars by now.
CNSA, the China National Space Administration, clearly has ambitions, which is more than can be said for the US Administration, or indeed the ESA or Roscosmos. True, a number of private sector firms in the US have proposed expansive plans – SpaceX wants to go to Mars, Planetary Resources wants to mine near-Earth asteroids… But I’ve yet to be convinced that the profit motive is a powerful enough driver for the exploration and exploitation of the Solar System. In these days of “shareholder expectation management”, the only true motivation for business is generating sufficient EBITDA to keep investors and shareholders happy so they continue to keep the whole financial house of cards propped up. None of this money is going toward anything socially, technologically or scientifically useful. It requires government intervention for that to happen. Like in the Apollo programme; and the pre-Glasnost Soyuz programme; and the CNSA’s current Shenzhou launches.
Space is not the Wild West, it is not the Final Frontier. It may well be the future of the human race, given our present willingness to destroy our biosphere in the name of an economic system which plainly doesn’t work and is unsustainable. Sadly, there’s no running away from the mess we’re making. We can’t simply chuck our worldly goods into a Conestoga wagon and head out into the wild blue yonder. Space isn’t a survivable environment – technological assistance is an absolute necessity. Even on the shores of Earth, so to speak, in LEO, the safest off-Earth place in the universe – if you fall, you land on Earth; plus, you have the Earth’s magnetosphere to protect you from all the nasty radiation – even in LEO, it’s a constant battle to stay in place and survive. The ISS was originally intended to deorbit in 2016, though it’s likely it will last much longer. All those billions of dollars spent on something that won’t even last twenty years…
What’s needed is a steady and regular programme of small steps which will take us out to the other planets in the Solar System. A monolithic government agency is the only way this will happen. People may baulk at the cost… forgetting that the US put twelve men on the Moon for a cost of approximately $10 per year per taxpayers over a decade. How can that not be a useful and noble way to spend tax revenue? Instead, western nations would sooner spend trillions on military adventurism. How is that justifiable?
It seems to me the Chinese have got their priorities right. And if it’s a taikonaut who first lands on Mars, then don’t be surprised if you see me cheering along and waving the Wǔ Xīng Hóng Qí.