China arrives late to space, but its success is real
It's been more than 40 years since the Soviet Union and the United States put men into orbit around the Earth, but that doesn't make China's late arrival at the launch pad any less significant.
On Wednesday, China became just the third nation to send a man into space. Yang Liwei, 38, completed 14 orbits in about 21 hours and landed safely in the Gobi Desert to become, as Russian and U.S. space travelers did before him, an instant national hero.
It would be easy to scoff at the Chinese space program, which took ore than a half century to accomplish what U.S. and Soviet programs did in a decade, but that would be a mistake. Forget that China started its space program in the 1950s, but did not have the wherewithal to pursue it. Forget that even today, China is allocating only about $2 billion a year to its program.
Now that the Chinese people have had a taste of success in space, it will be easy for the government to trade on the national pride that such successes engender and to allocate more resources to the program.
In many ways, the space program is a metaphor for the way China does business. It begs, it borrows and it steals technology from other countries and then tries to beat those nations at their own game.
If that sounds harsh, consider that China's Shenzhou spacecraft and Long March 2F launch vehicle are little more than knockoffs of Russia's Soyuz system. And while the hardware's pedigree is Russian, the software is basically made in America. Indeed, the U.S. State Department has accused three American aerospace firms of giving technology to China when China was getting into the business of launching satellites into space for itself and for foreign (American) contractors.
China will be pursuing its goal of becoming a major space explorer for both military and civilian purposes. And U.S. companies, eager to get a piece of what is almost invariably described as a potentially huge market, will sell the Chinese government whatever they can.
But China has no intention of becoming a consumer nation, buying more than it sells. It will buy only as much as it needs to become self sufficient in an industry -- be it trinkets, textiles and clothing, steel, appliances, computer chips or space exploration.
China's success in space today will have worldwide implications 10, 20 or 40 years from now. And other nations ignore that reality at their own risk.