Who cares about Chinese astronauts? I do. But not for the same reasons I may have cared many years ago.
When I was a kid, I was passionately interested in space travel. I read everything about the topic I could get my hands on at the Bexley Public Library in Bexley, Ohio. (For a list of the books I remember so fondly, go to this wonderful web site titled Dreams of Space.) And I read all the available space travel themed science fiction books I could get my hands on, as well. Novels in the Heinlein “juvenile series” were among my favorites, especially The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit — Will Travel, and Podkayne of Mars.
But space travel is no longer science fiction. I was reminded of this a couple of years ago when my daughter asked me to define “science fiction.” The definition I gave her contained references to “space ships” and “space travel.” I well remember how she rolled her eyes and responded sarcastically, “Dad, what are you talking about? Space ships aren’t science fiction any more!”
The recent orbital flight by two Chinese astronauts passed by with relatively few notices here in the West. Granted, anyone with Web access can glean tons of news about this momentous flight. To me, this flight is more significant for its symbolism than for its scientific advancement or sense of adventure.
From a world politics viewpoint, it is sad to realize that the Chinese are not now part of the team represented on the International Space Station. It’s also my understanding they will be going it alone in developing their own space station and Lunar flights. (I assume they may beat the West to Mars, too, but that’s speculation on my part.)
Space travel, in my admittedly naive view, is an area of human endeavor that we can all unite behind and claim as something that all humanity can be proud of. It’s a very very expensive endeavor, one that clams both lives and money. It would be A Good Thing if all nations could work together, for example, to create the first permanent Lunar colony or to accomplish the first landing on Mars.
I doubt that these will happen. We have political diversity to think of, as well as the growing realization that, in our perpetual attempt to have both guns and butter, we now have to cut back on both.
Maybe the Chinese “go it alone” attitude makes a lot of sense. Why would they want to be held back by the political and economic problems of a social order that is wracked by the inability to protect its own people from natural calamities and terrorist attacks?
The more significant fact about the Chinese space program is that it sends a message of technical and scientific challenge at a time when the dumbing-down of American science and math education is proceeding at an increasing pace. “Intelligent design” advocates, with their narrowly limited views of what God is capable of, are winning battles to hobble the teaching of science in American schools. This will inevitably translate, down the road, into a reduction of American competitiveness.
Perhaps when the Chinese team sets foot on Mars there will be a call to re-invigorate U.S. science and math teaching. But by then, it will be too late.
Meanwhile, I continue to encourage my daughter to learn Mandarin.