ANCIENT LEGEND has it that around 1500 A.D. a Chinese official named Wan-Hu attempted a flight to the moon in a wicker chair. Wan-Hu sat expectantly as 47 torch-bearing assistants came forth to light the 47 rockets secured to the chair. There was a sudden blast, and clouds of smoke filled the air. When the smoke cleared, the man-made rocket chair and China's first rocket scientist were gone.
Chinese space technology has improved since Wan-Hu's time, but one thing remains the same: The Chinese still yearn to send a man to the moon. And according to Robert S. Walker, former chairman of President Bush's Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, they will do it within a decade.
In a May 29 op-ed for the Washington Times, Walker wrote, "The conclusion that the Chinese are engaged in an aggressive space program is my own, based upon the commission's findings, but not included in the panel's final report." Walker and his 12-member panel spent a year examining America's aerospace and aviation industries and their position in relation to the rest of the world. Walker writes that during the commission's visit to the Russian cosmonaut training facility at Star City, "we found a Chinese crew in residence. Since the Chinese space program seems to be basing its technology on Russian equipment, the presence of Chinese in Star City was not all that surprising. But where they were training was." Walker was astonished to find the Chinese occupying the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) building. "You do not train for EVAs if you are doing simple orbital missions," he writes. "EVAs are typically related to space-based construction work."
This fall, China plans to send its first astronauts into orbit on the Shenzhou V (pronounced shun jo) spacecraft, joining the United States and Russia as the only nations to have sent astronauts into orbit. Discussion of a moon voyage seems premature for a country that has not yet put a manned space shuttle into orbit, yet numerous reports state, just as Walker does, that China's aims go far beyond low-earth orbit. "They are headed for the moon," insists Walker.
Currently a Washington lobbyist for the aerospace industry, Walker could be overstating China's ambition for political effect. And he glosses over the more vital links between military defense weaponry and the missile, navigation, and tracking technologies derived from space missions, focusing instead on how a Chinese moon program would impact "the balance of power" and thus represent "a real challenge to our leadership role in space." A challenge or a threat?
"It's not a fear thing," Walker said in an interview. "[But] we need to recognize that these guys are serious." A trip to the moon "gives China an enormous amount of prestige and respect," he says. "As the second nation ever to land on an extraterrestrial body, [China] will have leapfrogged much of the rest of the world," he says, adding that, "the Chinese could potentially have the ability to [achieve] a moon program, and do it better than anyone else in the world."
Which isn't to say that the United States couldn't go back to the moon--or that it even needs to. In fact, Walker believes that our response to China's challenge should be not another moon program, but "the development of technologies that would give us the option of several different missions within a decade." "Building new propulsion systems, such as nuclear plasma engines, would provide us with the ability to go back to the moon, but also to go to Mars in a mission taking weeks rather than months," he writes.
Whether China's interest in moon exploration stems primarily from a military, civil, or scientific agenda, the very prospect should cause people to take notice. "The whole reason we send people into space is knowledge. We know so very little about space," Walker says. "We have to be at the forefront as well."
Erin Montgomery is a staff assistant at The Weekly Standard.