China’s Space Launch: ‘Wow’ or ‘Meh’?

China's latest launch of three astronauts puts the country on a firm space footing. That's impressive—and not.

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Liu Yang, Liu Wang, and Jing Haipeng, the three astronauts for the space voyage on the spacecraft Shenzhou-9, salute before their departure at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in Jiuquan in northwest China's Gansu province on June 16, 2012.

There are a lot of reasons to be both very impressed and very unimpressed by China’s announcement that it successfully launched a three-person crew into space today—a crew that included Liu Yang, 33, the country’s first female astronaut. Before 2003, China had never conducted any manned launch at all. That year they put one astronaut in orbit; in 2005 they lofted a two-man crew; in 2008 it was three men—plus a spacewalk. Last year they launched Tiangong-1, an unmanned space station, that the new crew will attempt to dock with this week. So just like that: the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs in four deft vaults. The Great Leap Forward was never like this.

But what about those Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs? China’s been in the manned space game for nine years now and has managed four successful launches. The U.S. flew six Mercury missions from 1961 to 1963; ten Geminis in the 20 months from March 1965 to November 1966; and eleven Apollos from 1968 to 1972. In the nine months from Oct. 1968 to July 1969 alone, we popped off the first five Apollos—including three visits to the moon and the first landing. The fact that China lofted a female astronaut so early in its space program is a very good thing—but that achievement comes a whopping 49 years after the U.S.S.R’s Valentina Tereshkova first made space travel a Title IX sport.

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Don’t lose sight either of the fact that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were inventing the systems and the flight techniques pretty much on the fly. It’s a familiar joke that before Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space in 1961, people didn’t know whether or not a human being’s eyeballs would explode in zero-g. But the fact is, people didn’t know whether or not a human being’s eyeballs would explode in zero-g. The spacecraft, the spacesuits, the ability to rendezvous, dock, walk in space, reenter safely—every bit of it was new.

China is standing on the shoulders of those long-ago giants—as is the U.S. private sector as it tries to crack open the space travel industry itself. You have every reason to be proud if you’re able to summit Mt. Everest, but don’t kid yourself: you ain’t Sir Edmund Hillary.

Much more important though than the fact that China is able to travel in space is the fact that it’s decided to. The most resonant phrase in Pres. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University committing the U.S. to a manned lunar landing before the end of the decade was, “We choose to go to the moon.” JFK speechwriter Ted Sorensen may have been—in the words of Bernard Malamud’s The Natural—”the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.” He knew the power of the carefully curated verb, and “choose” said everything. The U.S. has chosen to dither in space (at least in the manned portion of the program) for the better part of 40 years now. The Soviets chose to blow their entire social and political system up 20 years ago—an admittedly very good decision—and have been a bit too busy and a lot too poor for an ambitious space program since. That left a big void, and no other wealthy, technologically advanced nation chose to step into it. Props to China for having the spine to do it. But whether it will continue to reel off the successes is very much an open question.

(MORE: China Prepares to Send First Female Astronaut into Space)

Beijing has been—surprise!—secretive about the progress of its space program over the past few years, saying little until a launch was imminent, but the hardware and the flight manifests don’t lie. The long downtime between missions may suggest technological problems and even multiple failures of unmanned launches. Brand new rockets have a nasty habit of blowing up when you’re first test-launching them. The Tangong-1, meantime, is a little sprite of a station—no bigger than the long-ago Skylab and about a sixth of the size of the U.S.-led International Space Station, which is currently flying. Tellingly, Beijing appears to be trying to calibrate expectations in ways it hadn’t in the past—promising a larger and more permanent space outpost perhaps by 2020, and saying little about its earlier claims that it could have a person on the moon in the same time frame. Space flight is always even harder than you think it’s going to be—and perhaps China is learning that.

One thing you surely don’t have to worry about—or at least wonder about—is whether the success of the launch today could have military implications. The answer is: absolutely.  Today’s mission took off aboard a Long March-F/G, a family of boosters that began flying in 1970. It would have been naive in the extreme to believe that the boosters weren’t always built to do double-duty as both space and military machines. That’s the case too with virtually every rocket NASA and Russia have ever launched, with the exception of the space shuttle. The Saturn series that got us to the moon, designed by rocket legend Wernher von Braun, is often applauded for being the first major missile built solely for peace. But the Saturn’s design DNA runs back to von Braun’s old Redstone rocket, whose DNA, in turn, is sunk deep in von Braun’s V2. Remember the V2? Wartime London surely does. Yes, the Long March F/G may well represent more of a military threat than any Chinese rocket that came before, but China would have been building them all anyway, and much better that they’re pointing them to orbit, rather than across the Pacific.

So Godspeed Liu Yang and crewmates Jing Haipeng and Liu Wang. And kudos to China for choosing to make this latest trip—even if it’s one that others have made before. People in space and boots on the moon are always a very big thing—a lot bigger than just which flag is stitched to the shoulder of their space suits.

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