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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com
Boston Globe Online / Ideas
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The next space race

This fall, China will launch its first manned satellite into orbit. For the United States, this is a threat - and an opportunity.

By John J. Miller, 2/23/2003

"QUICK ALERT! " SHOUTED Air Force Captain Roger Cutshaw. "Secure all unclassified lines! "

An early-detection satellite had just spotted an unscheduled rocket launch inside China. Cutshaw was the ranking officer on duty at the space control center of the North American Aerospace Defense Command-better known as NORAD-inside Cheyenne Mountain. It was a few minutes before 10 o'clock in the morning, Colorado time, this past Dec. 29.

Six other people were in Cutshaw's small room. They scrambled to identify the unknown object and track its flight path, glaring at monitors and tapping at keyboards. If this were a missile, they would need to know its trajectory as soon as possible.

As it turned out, the rocket didn't lift a weapons payload. Instead, it boosted the Shenzhou 4-a final prototype for the manned orbiter China has committed itself to launching later this year.

''We had a good idea of what it was,'' says Cutshaw. ''But we treat every event seriously. This is what we train for. We did our job well.''

The Chinese appear to have done their job well, too. The Shenzhou 4 zipped around the planet more than a hundred times before dropping its re-entry capsule back to earth about a week later, on January 5. The Shenzhou 5 is slated for launch in October or November, and it will carry a human cargo.

Until now, only the United States and Russia have put people in orbit. Assuming the Shenzhou 5 succeeds, China will become the world's third spacefaring nation. There will be astronauts, cosmonauts-and taikonauts. This event, in turn, will mark China's emergence as a major space power, a prospect that is at once admirable and worrisome.

Any succesful trip into the black vacuum of the solar system is a human triumph, no matter whose country can claim credit. But spacefaring nations are likely to be military powers as well. The United States can project force around the globe because it maintains an unchallenged constellation of satellites that permit instant communications, robust surveillance, and precision targeting. The Pentagon has integrated these resources so thoroughly into its operations over the last decade that every American conflict is now necessarily a space war, even one fought in the wilderness of Afghanistan. With a new competitor, the United States will have to redouble its own efforts in order to preserve the lead in what may be the world's second great space race.

The satellites that give the United States its crucial edge in space currently orbit the planet without obstruction. Unlike high-flying U-2 planes, satellites don't violate international airspace once they soar above the atmosphere. They can float directly above enemy territory and not worry about getting shot down. Yet military planners have long anticipated the day when these space-based assets would face a direct challenge in the form of anti-satellite weaponry based on earth or put in orbit-and American pre-eminence in outer space would face a threat it hasn't known before.

The fact that China will put people in orbit does not in itself represent that threat. The Shenzhou 5 may be nothing more than an exercise in regime-boosting nationalism that actually diverts resources away from more menacing applications, such as space mines and anti-satellite lasers. Yet the orbiter does demonstrate an impressive technical capability with undeniable military potential. Civilians run NASA, but generals are in charge of China's space program. The United States must take their foray into space seriously-and also look for the hidden opportunities it provides.

It may seem as though China is arriving late to the space race. In truth, it may have been first at the starting line-in the year 1500. According to legend, the first rocket man was a Chinese fellow named Wan Hu, which roughly translates as ''Crazy Fox.'' His bizarre contraption consisted of a chair and 47 black-powder rockets. There was a blast-off and an explosion. ''If it really happened,'' writes space historian William E. Burrows, ''Wan Hu had the triple distinction of being the first person to ride a rocket, the first to fly on a self-propelled, heavier-than-air device, and the first rocket pilot to get killed during a test flight.'' Whether he existed or not, Wan Hu has a crater on the moon named after him.

China's modern space program began in 1970, when Beijing lofted a satellite that broadcast the Chinese communist anthem, ''The East is Red.'' The country might have advanced further but for the totalitarian paranoia of the Cultural Revolution, in which top engineers and scientists were purged from key positions. For more than a decade, China's space ambitions lay dormant. Then, in 1992, it began what it calls Project 921, the manned space effort.

The Chinese may be getting a late start, but their orbiter is much more advanced than John Glenn's was in 1962. It will carry three passengers, and it appears to have steering rockets that would give it the ability to dock at space stations. A few officials have announced grander goals. One said China would reach the moon by 2010-a deadline that strikes most Western experts as deliriously ambitious. There's also been talk about a manned mission to Mars.

It's not obvious that the Chinese have a clear plan beyond this fall, and getting through this period may be daunting enough. In 2001, the Shenzhou 2 suffered a re-entry failure that probably would have killed any human passengers. The government hasn't spent much time discussing what happened, except to confirm that there was a problem. Yet the Chinese are clearly confident about their odds. Before the announcement of Shenzhou 4, they had promised to put people in space by 2005. For years they've been making these kinds of pledges, only to delay them. This is perhaps the first time they've moved the timetable forward.

Sometime this fall-as with other Shenzhou launches, the date probably won't be announced in advance-we'll learn the news that taikonauts are soaring miles above us. It won't be a Sputnik moment that frightens and galvanizes the public, but it may make people uneasy. Americans have mixed views about China, with 45 percent holding a favorable opinion and 46 percent an unfavorable one, according to a new Gallup poll. Chinese spaceflight may not alter these numbers much, though it probably will convince people that the stakes are being raised.

As Americans debate our own space program in the wake of the Columbia disaster, we should regard the Shenzhou 4 as an opportunity. We should welcome the Chinese to space-they're coming anyway, so there's really no other option-and then accept their implicit challenge. Just as the Soviet Union pressured us into shooting for the moon in the 1960s, in what became a technological contest between competing ideologies with the whole world as an audience, the challenge from Beijing must prod us to maintain our superiority in space, if only for military reasons. This doesn't necessarily require resuscitating the shuttle program or continuing to put people in space, but it does demand an increased commitment to developing new technology.

''We're still in the Age of Sail,'' NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has said, and it's time that we aspired to the ''Age of Steam.'' That means taking bold steps toward nuclear-powered spacecraft. Many probes are already fueled by plutonium decay. Nuclear fission, however, is a separate matter entirely-and its additional power represents the difference between a manned spaceflight to Mars taking years or months. It would also have important military applications, such as giving a new generation of satellites the ability to withstand a conflict with another space power. When satellites achieve orbit now, their ability to move into new positions is very limited; nuclear-powered vessels, however, would have a much more robust capability to shift into more advantageous locations or dodge attacks. They wouldn't violate existing space treaties, either, which ban basing nuclear weapons in space but do not forbid the use of nuclear power altogether.

The Pentagon is already planning for space warfare. On Thursday, the largest space-oriented war game yet held was launched at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. (It concludes this Friday.) The scenario, set in the year 2017, has the blue team (the United States) squaring off against the red team, which is defined as a ''credible space opponent.'' During the Cold War, the red team was always based on the Soviet Union, even though officials would never say so publicly. Now the red team has a new model. And judging from the sketchy descriptions released to the public, it's China.

John J. Miller is a writer for National Review

For comments and suggestions, email ideas@globe.com

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 2/23/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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