China gets starry-eyed for ‘taikonauts’

China sends people into space - what's next?

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Technology changes the course of nations. That was true in the Classical Age, when seafaring Athenians found they had to give a voting voice to their lowly rowers, sparking democracy. It was true when the gun democratized battlefields. And it was true for the U.S. during the Space Race. No less is it true now, as China successfully sent its first astronauts (the Chinese call them taikonauts) to live in outer space, firing off its Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which carried three astronauts to connect with Tiangong 1, a pilot module for a Chinese space station, for a 13-day orbit around the Earth.

Liu Yang was all smiles before launchtime on June 16. (Reuters/Jason Lee )

The U.S. space effort spawned much of the American sense of technology dominance, making it safe for the tech-savvy to wear pocket protectors, and eventually a t-shirt or a hoodie, to work. The near hysteria of the U.S. public’s adoration for astronauts, as chronicled by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff, seems like a fantasy today with NASA funding in decline.

That fantasy is very real in China. The Shenzou-9 launch does several things. Not least is the obvious symbolism of breaking free from the Earth’s surface. Until now, only the U.S. and Russia have sent people into space, putting China into a rare club.

Woman in space

Like any good technology, space exploration also builds myths. Much attention has been paid to one of the three astronauts, Liu Yang, China’s first female taikonaut. One profile noted that she was from a good working family and had become a taikonaut despite having a father who repaired bicycles to make ends meet.

China has little opportunity for people to advance between social classes. Liu Yang’s story has been seized upon to show what happens when a worker sticks to the cause, as reported initially in China Daily: “As the only child, she was not spoiled by her parents but modest and obedient, relatives and neighbors frequently pointed out.”

One person was quoted as praising Liu Yang’s smile despite adversity. “Though wearing simple clothes, she always had a bright smile to greet us and liked to play badminton with her father in the community yard….Though we haven’t met for years, the deepest impression on me is her big smile when she was with her parents.”

An uneasy eye from overseas

Other media added to the aura around the taikonauts. One profile noted that China’s state media was calling the taikonauts “superbeings” who might eventually travel to Mars.

“They face discipline that civilian astronauts in the West would find unacceptable,” reported The Australian. “One astronaut, Li Qinglong, told how he was taken to a remote location in Russia and dumped outside in subzero temperatures for 48 hours, wearing only a thin coat and allowed to eat only a piece of biscuit every few hours.”

Two worlds, one country

While much of the Chinese press gushed with pride and hounded her relatives looking for story tidbits, the blog Tea Leaf Nation pointed out that people on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, were posting about the difference between Liu Yang and Feng Jianmei, the Chinese woman who was recently forced to have an abortion.

Tea Leaf Nation highlighted posts like this one:

“The stark contrast between the fates of two women, 33-year-old Liu Yang and 22-year-old [sic] Feng Jianmei, is the clearest illustration of the torn state of this nation. Glory and dreams illuminate disgrace and despair, cutting-edge technology exists alongside the shameless trampling of the people.”

Tea Leaf was clear on one thing:

“As Liu Yang makes history, she will to some extent represent all of China’s women, many of whom will never leave their provinces, let alone this earth. To certain observers, this is a waste of taxpayer money; to others, a feat that will inspire millions of young Chinese girls. Whatever the final resolution, such open debate can only be good for China, not to mention the rest of our little planet.”

The politics of space

China's Long March II-F rocket heads to outer space, carrying the Shenzhou-9 spacecraft with three astronauts on it. (Reuters/Jason Lee)

China, as Reuters notes, is far from catching up to either the U.S. or Russia when it comes to space exploration, even as NASA shifts resources to commercial space operators — the agency isn’t scheduled to have any new rockets until 2017 — and Russia is scaling down its space industry.

The British magazine New Scientist noted that the U.S.’s X37B, a space drone, is far more advanced than China’s space ship. The blog phys.org noted that China was probably going to need a decade to catch up to the U.S. Yet the blog also raised the specter that the Chinese space program might be aimed at achieving military parity with the U.S. There is already speculation that China will build a base on the moon and claim sovereignty over the earth’s satellite.

But the Russians, Canadians and European nations are calling for cooperation with China to build a permanent structure on the moon. If the U.S. can join in, perhaps the Chinese push to Mars will spark a new course not just for a nation, but for the planet.