The Last Shuttle and the Rise of China

President Obama's budget will limit funding of NASA and effectively end America's manned space program. The president sees the exploration of space as either an unnecessary waste of money and resources or not compatible with budgetary constraints, such as they are, in his administration. NASA's budget is but a small fraction of government spending, but it falls under the administration's proposed spending freeze. 

Conservatives who are pleased with any federal belt-tightening might think twice in this instance. Beyond the issue of jobs and the broad technological advancements that historically are fruits of the space program, there is the larger question of American power and purpose. 

The space shuttle's last nighttime flight was on February 8, 2010. As matters currently stand, the last flight of the space shuttle will be sometime later this year. The next American astronaut, assuming there is one, will have to use a Russian or Chinese rocket to reach space -- that is, if either nation is still willing and able to give him or her a ride.

Historically, the message we are sending is telling.  In an age of China's rising power, we are ceding ground economically, militarily, morally, and philosophically. It is certainly ironic that this has come to pass. 

Nearly six hundred years ago, the situation was almost entirely reversed.  At the start of the 15th-century Ming Dynasty, China was the largest, most powerful, and most technologically advanced nation on earth. The Chinese had recently thrown off their Mongol conquerors, and under the first Ming Emperor Hongwu, they sought to reestablish Chinese cultural power and regional domination.

As befits a rising power, China's leadership was increasingly curious about the lands that lay beyond the horizon, with whom the Middle Kingdom had traded along the silk roads and sea lanes for centuries. But this trade had been mostly indirect and dominated by middlemen, who raised prices and the costs of trade. 

A succeeding Ming Emperor,Yongle, sought to assert Chinese domination of critical sea lanes and establish direct trade links to the profitable markets of the Indian Ocean basin. To facilitate this endeavor, China created a great fleet of ships, vessels that in size and technology dwarfed those of contemporary Europe. To command the fleet, Yongle selected the eunuch admiral Zheng He. A Muslim-born giant of a man, physically and otherwise, he supposedly kept his gelded parts in a silver case so that he would be reunited with them in the afterlife.

Zheng He led seven great voyages of exploration into the southern seas and the Indian Ocean, reaching the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the eastern African coasts. His fleet contained hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of seamen and soldiers. Claims (by the British writer Gavin Menzies and others) that Zheng He's fleets also reached the Americas, circumnavigated the world, and thereafter visited Western Europe are dubious, but reflect, at least in part, the capabilities and ambitions of this reconnaissance of the distant seas. 

By the 1430s, the rulers of Ming China not only presided over a wealthy and powerful nation, but had the best conception of the world around them of any government.  The time was ripe for China's global domination, and yet it never happened. In 1433, the Ming government recalled the fleets, allowing the great ships to rot in their harbors. Renewed threats from the Mongols and political turmoil were in part responsible for this decision, but it is also true that Ming rulers deliberately decided to turn inward. They rationalized that Zheng He had accomplished all he could and that there was little practical value in continuing the voyages of exploration. The wealthy, powerful, and technologically advanced Chinese rulers were confident that the Middle Kingdom had little to gain or learn from the vast world beyond its frontiers. It was a critical error. 

Within sixty years of the Chinese fleet's recall, European mariners discovered the Americas and reached the markets of India. European ships, using technology that was originally Chinese -- such as gunpowder weapons, stern post rudders, and magnetic compasses -- began to dominate the seas. While Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British galleons were smaller than the giant treasure junks, they were more seaworthy and maneuverable than comparable Chinese vessels and carried improved and modern cannon to boot.

For a century, China's retrenchment seemed to have little consequence. China under the Ming and later Qing dynasties remained prosperous and powerful. But by the late 18th century, China found itself at Europe's mercy. By the early 1800s, British warships plied Chinese rivers enforcing the opium trade, and eventually, other European powers carved out spheres of influence along China's coasts. 

Now we find ourselves in the position of the Ming so many centuries ago. Grand social programs, budget deficits, and foreign wars consume the attention of the governing classes and the current administration in particular. Meanwhile, a rich, powerful, and resurgent China is ramping up its own space program, with ambitions to send men to the moon and probably beyond. It's easy to view the Chinese interest in space as a waste of their time and resources while we concentrate on more immediate problems and "solutions" designed to bring earlier benefit to the nation. Such an outlook is terribly shortsighted. It literally cedes the high ground to China, our greatest rival, both in a military and philosophical sense. 

It was a shocking surprise to the 19th-century Chinese when the first British warships steamed up the Yangtze River, against the current, and forced the Qing into capitulation. How far they had fallen behind! Will we meet the same fate? In the long run, it is quite likely if indeed the Obama administration's policies truly reflect the goals and ambitions of this still-great nation. Let's hope they don't.