View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Wednesday, October 08, 2003

No Sputnik

The AP is reporting that the Chinese intend to send a man into orbital flight next week. There are a few ways to look at this, but I can't say any of them give me a lot of comfort.

One way is to say that the Chinese have managed to do the easy part. While the parts are all made in China, they're not doing anything new, and have had the benefit of studying the US and Russian programs for a while. While the US was always a few months behind Russia, we were developing our program contemporaneously with them, breaking new ground at the same time they were. The Chinese are roughly where we were 40 years ago. This is the easy part.

The other way to look at it is that the Chinese have a plan to make space a part of their national strategy. Our military is highly dependent on communication satellites. Our smart bombs, our command and control, our heavy reliance on air power, all need space. A Chinese attempt to dominate space should be threatening - now. This view also suggests a more dynamic Chinese society, one that senses it has a future. What they'll do with that future, whether it will be freer than now, whether it will raise the standards for the world or lower them, is anyone's guess.

David Gelernter in 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, notes that we're still a very active society, it's just that "all this activity doesn't amount to much." We can't push forward the standard of living. We can't turn all this marvelous technology of the last 30 years into a revolution in living standards, they way the 30s did with household appliances and cars. We can't even agree on public toilets and public safety. The Chinese are not a model for how to organize society. Therefore, it's imperative that we not become the Greeks to their Romans.

Gelernter's argument is that the American religion, that claimed that utopia wasn't someplace perfect, just someplace better, fulfilled its promise in the middle 60s, and that from that time forward, our future disappeared. At that point, American civic religion died, because no religion can outlive reaching its promises. If he's right, we're largely coasting, creating toys, but not really going anywhere. Which is fine for a while, but neither the basis for a future, nor for confronting enemies who think they have one.

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