It's difficult to predict what it will take to shake our country
out of its billion-dollar-per-launch complacency and cause us to
reassert American pre-eminence in space. But the fact that China is
about to become the third country to launch a man into space just
might do it.
Blastoff is expected as early as next month. That will be the starting gun for a race among Asian countries to follow suit. India, Japan and South Korea are next in line, and all want to develop cheaper, more efficient ways to put humans in space.
As first off the mark, China is likely to set the pace in the early years. It already has successfully tested four space capsules. The Shenzhou (Divine Vessel) eventually will carry as many as three astronauts, known in Chinese as yuhangyuan.
The rocket that is launching the capsule will be the Long March, which has had 27 consecutive successful launches. China's ambitious program includes sending yuhangyuan to the moon and eventually establishing a base there.
A successful launch will add to China's trappings of a superpower: a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles and a manned space program.
On the day a Chinese yuhangyuan returns safely to Earth, the Asian tiger will become a dragon. Only China's underdeveloped and overregulated economy will keep it from attaining its superpower brass ring.
Rank-conscious Asians will applaud the success of their neighbor, but China's success will spur them to pursue programs of their own.
Aspirations coming to head
The contenders already are positioning themselves. This year India's prime minister announced that his country, already a member of the nuclear club, would send a man into space.
India's Space and Research Office plans to send a satellite to the moon by 2005 and to put an astronaut there by 2015. The agency thinks India's available rocketry can launch a probe into lunar orbit, but manned missions will require development of a more capable rocket.
Unlike its neighbors, Japan has worked closely with the United States in developing its space program. Because of that, Japan has sent astronauts on shuttle missions, and three astronauts are in training to visit the International Space Station.
But Japan's National Space Development Agency believes it already possesses the technology to launch an astronaut on its own within a few years. Japan's H-IIA rocket can launch 10 tons into low Earth orbit. That's enough to carry the 7.5-ton Soyuz spacecraft, the workhorse of the Russian space program, and the Japanese agency has a conceptual design for a domestically made space capsule that could be developed rapidly with existing technologies.
South Korea is perhaps the darkest horse on the field. In the mid-1990s Seoul was talking of launching its first satellite in 2010, despite having fired a military missile only about 6 miles. But after North Korea tried, unsuccessfully, to launch a satellite in 1998, the South accelerated its own space program.
In 1999 the United States agreed to lift all restrictions on commercial rocket development, and last month South Korean leaders broke ground on a space center. Facilities will include a control tower, rocket assembly line, space simulator and rocket launch site. Seoul now expects to launch its first indigenous satellite in 2005, five years ahead of schedule.
Although there are no plans yet for a manned space program, Rhee Shang Hi, a member of South Korea's National Assembly, founded a group called Young Astronauts Korea. Children attend space camps and read about Mars. The government is raising expectations of someday launching astronauts. In light of the Korean achievements on both sides of the 38th Parallel, South Korea's determination to succeed in the space race cannot be discounted.
Side benefits abound
National pride and international prestige are obvious benefits of a manned space program. But there are other benefits that help compensate for costly space programs: scientific research, the development of commercial satellite launch industries and the spinoff of money and technology to national aerospace industries. Another space race can spur economic development as well as scientific research for Asia and the rest of the world.
But there are clear military applications as well. A country that can launch a person into space can use the same technology to launch a nuclear weapon and hit targets on another continent.
Military competition is the key factor in each country. Beijing sees the U.S. as its rival. New Delhi frequently cites the Chinese threat. Seoul and Tokyo worry about North Korea. And missile proliferation across Asia worries the world.
Non-proliferation treaties were designed to limit access to potentially dangerous technology, but that premise no longer holds.
A gift of self-reliance
After India tested its nuclear weapons in 1998, Russia stopped selling it rocket-development technology, specifically in the area of cryogenic engines for the upper stage of rockets. Indians love to boast that Russia's action was the best thing to happen to them. They were forced to develop their own cryogenic engines, and now India is technologically self-sufficient.
Pakistan's and North Korea's development and export of missile technology, in the face of intense international disapproval, show the ineffective reach of current non-proliferation agreements.
During the first space race, the United States and the Soviet Union ended up creating bilateral stability. In the Asian space race, the U.S. must seek multilateral stability across the Asia-Pacific region. That includes measures such as the recent six-party talks with North Korea. The U.S. also must press on with missile defense development and encourage the participation of allied countries.
In the end, national pride and international prestige matter. The United States cannot keep wearing its 35-year-old Apollo laurels as a crown of human achievement. America's leadership and pre-eminent position as the world's sole superpower will be in serious doubt if Chinese tourists are taking pictures of Neil Armstrong's footprints on the moon and South Koreans are the first on Mars. It is time for the U.S. to restart human exploration of space.
Dana R. Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation
Appeared in The Chicago Tribune