HOW HE SEES IT Thank China for new U.S. goals in space

To get to space, you need a race.
That was the lesson of the first space race, in the '50s and '60s, and it will likely be the lesson of the second space race, which began in the '00s. President Bush put a light foot on the accelerator last week, announcing that the United States would return to the moon by 2020, and go to Mars sometime after that.
The first space race was between the United States and the Soviet Union. It began in 1957, when the U.S.S.R. put the Sputnik satellite into orbit. Four years later, in 1961, President Kennedy committed the United States to putting a man on the moon by the end of that decade. JFK's message was one-half exploration enthusiasm and one-half Cold War competition, and it worked: Neil Armstrong made that giant leap for mankind in 1969.
But even as America triumphed, the source of that triumph -- the desire to one-up the Russians -- was fading away. Moscow effectively abandoned the space race in the mid-'60s; after that, billion-dollar space expenditures became impossible to justify. The last American landed on the moon in 1972.
The military and space
Since then, the program as run by NASA has stagnated, although, in the comparative shadows, the Pentagon has turned out to be Uncle Sam's big space player. At the U.S. Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, it is generals who oversee everything from satellite-killers to next-gen lasers.
Other countries, too, see the military uses of space as a platform for observation, weapons, maybe even Starship Troopers. The European Union, Japan, Brazil, India, Israel and even Iran have made plans to militarize space. But the big player is China. In October, its first "taikonaut" orbited the Earth, and the Chinese have vast ambitions for a space-faring future. They plan to establish a permanent lunar base by 2010.
So now, the Bush administration, after mostly ignoring NASA for its first three years in office, is facing up to the reality of a new space race. Some say the whole idea of a race is just mindless macho posturing, proof of testosterone poisoning. But a look back at history shows that those nations that expand and explore have flourished, while those that do not have contracted.
In the 15th century, China was the leading seafaring nation in the world, sending nine-masted ships as far away as Africa. But then China decided to pull back from exploration. Over the coming centuries, China was encircled and nearly strangled by Portuguese, Russians, English, Japanese and, finally, Americans. Only in recent decades has the nation started to recover from this long slide.
Today, it may be hard to see how space exploration will pay strategic and economic dividends, but past efforts have spun off new technologies from GPS to solar panels to insulin pumps. Six centuries ago, it was equally hard to see the full benefits of national expansion, or the full costs of national contraction.
Bush spoke boldly last week of building "new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own." But such big talk notwithstanding, it's not clear that the administration really grasps the challenge, or the opportunity, that's been put before it. When JFK pledged to go to the moon by the end of the '60s, he was speaking of a timeline not much longer than his own presidency, had he lived to serve two terms. He was willing to shoulder responsibility for getting the mission completed on his own watch. By contrast, Bush, who will be out of office no later than 2009, has set target dates many years after his own presidency is over. And his proposal to increase funding by an additional $1 billion over five years is tokenism. Estimates for the cost of going back to the moon and then on to Mars start at $400 billion.
Still, the Chinese have done the United States a huge favor, by spurring Americans to do what they should have been doing all along, steadily, over the past five decades -- and should do, steadily, for the next five centuries. Bush has made a start, but the true laurels for the next wave of space pioneering will go to another president.
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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