Saturday, October 18, 2003

A Brand New Major Tom

By now you've probably heard that China's first Taikonaut, Yang Liwei landed safely after twenty one hours in orbit. Oddly, Washington has had little to say on the matter. We spent thirty years competing with the Russians, who by the way have the only other ongoing manned Space Program (now that ours is indefinitely grounded) yet they can't be bothered to stick their head out of their hermetically sealed echo chamber long enough even to say, "Hay guys, welcome to the club."

So I'll speak for Washington, or at least the few Americans who think a manned space program is still worth maintaining.

It's been 34 years since we first landed on the moon. Now their are those who say that a manned space program is too dangerous, that it serves only a symbolic purpose and that we should spend the money on other things like blowing up Syria or imposing our popular culture on every other country on the planet. And sure, robots can do a lot of the work in space but there is still much a manned program can accomplish, besides just exploration (as if stretching the boundaries of human knowledge isn't a noble enough cause in itself).

The Chinese Space Program is looking at another flight in two years, to work on the basics of walking in space, and docking with other ships. Their short-term goals include a manned space lab and a Space Station of their own. Beyond that, we don't really know. Maybe a base on the moon, maybe Mars. It's odd to think that the Chinese might be the new Masters of Space while we loose interest and squander our resources on the ancient and feeble wet dream of despots since the dawn of time, terrestrial empire building.

Bush is taking us to Ancient Rome while China is going to the Stars. Which side would like to be on?

For those of you who don't know it already, we're rapidly running out of oil. Conservative estimates range between 50 and 75 years worth of reserves left and that's assuming there's as much oil under Iraq as we think (And you still think the war isn't about oil?)

Sure, 75 years sounds like a long time. Even though in reality, itís more like 50 but thatís still scraping the bottom of the barrel. And keep in mind also that in only 35 to 40 years that oil way, way down there will be cost more to extract than it can be sold for which means that, even to the Darwinian Capitalistís in the white house, it wonít be worth it. But thatís not something we nee d to worry about since in only about 15 or 20 years, the price of oil will be so expensive that only the ultra wealthy will be able to afford to fill their SUVs and Hummers.

Solar and Wind power are useful alternatives but cannot hope to meet the energy needs of our ever-growing population. Hydrogen fuel cells might be able to meet the demand, if we can find enough hydrogen. It just so happens that there's an entire planet made of the stuff. Mining Saturn might be several years if not a decade or two off but it could be just one of the ways we're able to convert our civilization's driving resource and thus keep from sliding into a dark age when the oil runs out. Now who do you think will be in the forefront of this? It won't be the US, with our Grounded space program and the Russians are now the only ones who can get to the feeble pipe dream that currently is the International Space Station. But with their economic problems, they can't afford to go that often. That leaves the Chinese.

Personally, I think that we should have been working on moving most of our industrial production into orbit over the last twenty years, to take advantage of the industrial vacuum and the fact that if there were a toxic leak or nuclear reactor problem, it would be safer to have them Out There rather than Down Here. And if you think the pictures from the Hubble Telescope are spectacular, imagine what we could get with a telescope ten times the size based on the dark side of the moon.

My prediction is that the Chinese eminence in space will be used by Dick Cheney as an excuse to push through his ridiculous Missile Defense Shield. Which is the opposite direction we need to go with this. We need to be partners with China and Russia (and everyone) in Space and on Earth if we want to make it to the twenty-second century. Given China's new found confidence in the realm of space flight, I suggest we take the high road because the Chinese are determined to get there, with or without us. And these are the people who built the Great Wall. When they set their minds to something, they usually come through. This means we should go out of our way to welcome them to the Space Walkers club as friends. Either that or we all start learning Chinese.


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