Monday, April 24, 2006

Red Sky At Morning, Spacers Take Warning?

It's been said that every historical analogy is a lie. While such analogies can be misleading there are lessons to be learned from history. One of those lessons involves colonization or settlement of new worlds.

The American colonies after Columbus evolved differently. The key to the differences seems to depend on who was the mother country. The American colonies of Britain evolved into prosperous and free democracies. The American colonies of Spain have a long history of authoritarian government and poverty.

Today there are three countries with manned space programs: The US, China, and Russia. Among the three China's movement into space has generated no small amount of controversy between those who are concerned about China's ambitions in space and those who are more sanguine.

Transterrestrial Musings scores a point on the sanguine side with a comment on China's very slow pace of human spaceflights. (Here.) China's capabilities in space clearly have not yet matured much. The program is hardly a threat in the near term. China's government is a threat, however, and in the longer term, is it really a good thing that China is extending her influence into space?

As with all our futures, China's future is unknown. Since space settlement is not a near-term endeavor, whether China will be a positive or negative force in space is unknown and unknowable. What we know of China's past is that it swings back and forth between unity and disunity, and that its political culture has a long history of authoritarian rule.

What we know of China's present is not reassuring. China remains a communist country with a government that oppresses its people. That government relies more and more on nationalism to hold the country together, it is making strategic moves around the world to expand its political and military influence, and, although not technically an enemy of the United States, it is a "strategic rival." On the other hand, authoritarianism need not be a characteristic of Chinese society; Taiwan has a strong democracy alongside a healthy economy.

So, who knows? Maybe China will be democratic by the time humans get around to settling the Solar System. Maybe China will have fallen into another of its periods of disunity by then. Or maybe China will remain united, nationalistic, and unfree at the time.

The historical lesson for space settlement from America's colonization is obvious. It makes a difference to future space settlers who is the mother country. That's the most important reason why the US, still free so far and with its history of freedom, should remain a leader in space exploration. It's also why it's not necessarily a good thing that a presently and historically unfree China has a manned space program.


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