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Space flight in service of science

Updated: 2011-09-30 08:17

China Daily

Tiangong-1 (or Heavenly Palace) space module is the first step toward China's plan to build a space station around 2020. Its launch by China has unnerved some countries, which are asking why China did not add on to the International Space Station that has been in place since 1998. After all, the Americans, Russians, Europeans and Japanese are using one platform to experiment in space.

Questions have also been asked about China's ultimate purpose in space and hints made that there is something as diabolical as the theme in a James Bond movie, in which Chinese-looking enemies were at the root of some evil plot to control the world.

Chinese don't see themselves that way, and never in history have they been flag-planting colonialists. Most Westerners are schooled in the exploits of the great European explorers, headed by Christopher Columbus and James Cook, and followed closely by the legions of culture egotists with a mix of guns, gold and the gospel in their hands.

In contrast, Zheng He, the great Chinese navigator, took fleets to Africa and the Middle East to promote goodwill, with gifts of chinaware and art. No flags claiming possession of distant colonies. But this is alien to Western society.

In this century, it is clear space cannot be claimed by one nation. Yet superiority of technology in space does seem to be on some minds. Former US president Ronald Reagan caused consternation with his ambitious Star Wars program. So when China shot down its own satellite as a test in January 2010 there were jitters in the West about Star Wars-like scenario becoming reality in the near future.

To understand why China is about to launch its own space station, we need look no farther than to American astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad, who said: "The Skylab flight is near and dear to my heart. Some people don't understand it means more to me than going to the moon."

Certainly walking on the moon is a unique experience, but Pete's team on Skylab observed the Earth, sun and the heavens for extended experiences and relayed breathtaking information back to scientists for analysis and understanding. China is about to share Pete's romance with space.

Seeing the Earth from space is, shall we say, a "world-shattering" experience. Kenneth Boulding didn't go up there, but he indulged in the first photographs taken of the planet as a whole during the Apollo (pre-moon) program in 1966 and penned the exquisite essay, Spaceship Earth.

We, 6.4 billion of us, are on a spaceship, and we have finite resources of fuel and water. We have to learn to live with this fact. Chinese leaders and decision-makers won't go into space, but observations from space, from Tiangong-1, will temper their judgments.

China's independent initiative will leapfrog technical, financial and legal difficulties that have hampered the International Space Station. Russia maintains niggling sovereignty over its bits of the station, and other countries have been in and out depending on budgets. The United States is without transport, and relies on Russia for shuttle service.

China has learnt from others' experiences and starts afresh with state of the art hardware that had not been invented when the International Space Station was designed. This brings us to the answer to "The Needham Question".

Joseph Needham was an accomplished British biochemist who by some fate was sent to China, where he was mesmerized by what China had achieved in science and technology, including invention of paper, moveable type, gunpowder, chinaware and the compass.

After uncovering and telling the West about China's amazing advances, Needham posed the obvious question, embarrassingly glaring in the days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)'s disintegration, warlordism, Japanese aggression and civil war: "How come, if the Chinese are so smart, they didn't start the Industrial Revolution, but tiny puny England did?" This became "The Needham Question", not answered in his lifetime.

In the 21st century, Needham gets his answer. By 2000, China was two decades into annual 10 percent growth. In the next few years, it hosted the most extravagant Olympic Games, World Expo and became home to the world's fastest and best trains, super computers, and other bests.

Pentagon analysts are turning up their nose at China for buying a second-hand aircraft carrier, although the US has 11 and even some smaller countries have one or two each. Distressed at China's modernization of its military technology, these analysts have just issued a report. They may have read something sinister into Tiangong-1, too.

With their own cinema at the office, they can either go back to watching Chinese baddies in James Bond flicks, or take in the BBC documentary on The Planets, in which Charles "Pete" Conrad waxes lyrical on the romance of working in a space station for the advancement of science.

The author is an Australian researcher collaborating with Chinese academic and commercial institutions.

(China Daily 09/30/2011 page9)