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China Shoots The Moon

October 24th, 2007

291809582_3ec2b8873a_m.jpgHollywood will soon release In the Shadow of the Moon, a documentary presented by Ron Howard, the director of Apollo 13. The film will combine stunning footage from Apollo missions along with more recent astronaut interviews. The trailer suggests it will be an inspiring movie, but what struck me was how patriotism is downplayed. Discussing the world’s response to the achievement of landing on the moon, one astronaut reflected: “Instead of saying, ‘you Americans did it’, everywhere they said, ‘We did it, the human race.’”

Around the time this movie reaches theaters, China’s lunar probe will arrive at the moon. Far from a shared human experience, though, Beijing has made it clear – the purpose of the mission is to increase China’s prestige among nations. Back in the 1950s, Chairman Mao lamented that his country “couldn’t even launch a potato into space”. Not one to milk an opportunity, the Communist Party has invited citizens to request a song that might be broadcast from the moon. I always suspected that if the Chinese ever colonized space, it would somehow involve karaoke. Anyway, top choices include “My Motherland” and “Love Our China”, the sort of numbers meant to evoke deep nationalistic sentiments.

Re-imagined David Bowie lyrics might have been better…

This is ground control to Major Zhang
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

Coincidentally, this month it’s been fifty years since Sputnik, the event that kicked off our space race with the Soviets. The WSJ’s interpretation of the rocket launch is an odd twisting of perceptions - the paper has suggested China’s moon ambitions are directly related to an effort to settle its status relative to Japan. As if China were the sort of country to chase first runner-up prizes. No, I’m afraid the reason has everything to do with America, as some lesser publications have correctly hinted:

NASA’s top officials are clamoring about a new space race to help push the agency into the future. Their effort, expressed in speeches and interviews during the past several months, is fueled by a fear that unless something sparks a public outcry for an invigorated space-exploration program, the United States could lose its global leadership role in the quest for the stars.

China’s launch should be a wake-up call, but America will be hitting the snooze button. It may be a simple matter of “been there, done that”. We put men on the moon forty years ago already - and with less computing power than you’d find in a Sony PlayStation. About the only ones clamoring for a manned moon mission these days are conspiracy nuts who insist we never went to the moon in the first place [For a clip of Buzz Aldrin making his rebuttal, click here].

This week’s event is no Sputnik. A more like Sputnik might be seen at the China games, should China succeed in winning more gold medals than the United States. If China can pull it off – and there is every indication that they might – it would be a far more symbolic event than the broadcasting of some oversentimental serenades from deep space.

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