October 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei rides a Long March into orbit on 10/15/05. Godspeed.

Editorial License - The End of the World As We Know It, And "I Feel Good"
by Ernest Lilley

30 minutes into his flight, Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei reported "I feel good." He should, as the first Chinese astronaut and the vanguard of the third nation to put a human in space; in fact, he should be on top of the world.

I feel good too. I'm not sure that's what I'm supposed to feel, but I do. I hope I'm not letting anyone down by not feeling a sense of national outrage that anyone else would dare venture into space besides Americans, and communists no less...but in truth, I'm just happy for humanity that someone cares enough to light a rocket up and send humans into space.

Americans aren't really pioneers at heart, despite having "tamed" all that wilderness. We're really a pretty laid back and follow in other people's footsteps kind of nation. Unless we're at war. Even then, we tend to wait for the other guy to go first, despite our current adventure in Iraq. So, if the world was waiting for us to colonize space, they were waiting for the wrong horse to leave the gate. America, like Microsoft, knows a good thing when it sees one...and has a real talent for improving on it once the initial risks have been taken. So it is with space. We're much more suited to the commercialization of space that the exploration of it. I'm hoping that Chinese national pride drives them onward and outward, and it wouldn't hurt my pride at all if we bought a few seats on their first expedition to Mars. Just as long as we get to go along.

Of course, I donít want them to have a monopoly on space, whoever them is. Even if itís us.  If it was us, though, we might just get away with it, and Iíd hate to see that. Other countries may not love an American empire, but as long as it keeps pouring money into their infrastructures, or at least the pockets of their rulers, theyíre not all that inclined to rock the boat. So itís just as well that somebody else has reached orbit. Somebody not especially beholden to us.

One reason I feel good about the Chinese space program is that they've declared an intent to build infrastructure slowly outwards, just like the US space program intended before the Kennedy moon shot initiative. Between our drive to get there first and to fund the state of Texas with a really big project, we lost sight of the big picture. Since the Chinese have a ways to go before they can start claiming firsts, hopefully they'll pay attention to the details on the way and when they do start going where no man has gone before, maybe they'll be ready to stay for a while once they get there.

I am proud to think that if the Chinese achieve greatness in space, it will be in part because they stand on the shoulders of those who went before them, and some of those shoulders were ours. While I'm at it, I'll even take a minute to be proud of the visionary SF tradition that's encouraged people to dream about the high frontier, and perhaps to make dreams reality.

So, what happens next? In Larry Niven's "Ringworld" the core of the galaxy is known to be exploding, but interstellar distances being what they are, it won't be a problem for thousands of years. The cautious race of puppeteers start off towards the nearest galaxy right away, but they do it in the slowest starship imaginable, the Puppeteer home world itself. Still, they keep an eye on humanity and the other hot-blooded races of this galaxy, because, as they explain, though we may start second we'll wind up arriving first. It's in our nature to wait until the last minute, then to charge off full tilt. Are we puppeteers or humans? And in the end, does it matter?

At this writing, Yang Liwei is still in orbit, and as we once offered hopes for our own voyagers, I wish him Godspeed, and a safe return to the green hills of Earth.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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