Few Americans are even aware that the Chinese are preparing the launching of Shenzhou V. That it is likely to occur while the U.S. shuttle fleet is grounded will magnify how the United States and the world perceive China’s technological achievement. Certainly, some in Washington will react by claiming that the launching requires the United States to spend more money on space. In policy circles, its perceived strategic importance could also chill recently warmed U.S.-China relations. But will it also trigger a demand to reinvigorate the U.S. manned space program? At the moment, although an austere version of the International Space Station is in orbit, it has been a stepchild while military space has ascended in importance.
If China successfully launches a taikonaut into orbit, it is likely to “win” in all the ways the United States did during the Apollo series. If the launching is not a success, China will suffer and mourn just as the United States did after the loss of the Challenger and the Columbia, and then it will rethink whether to continue with the program. Success in the heavens is spectacular, but so too is failure.
The writer is chairwoman of the National Security Decision Making Department at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu).