Given the current American domination of space, many have forgotten that we were not the first to enter that black and silent realm. But some of us distinctly recall the night the Soviet Union put the world’s first satellite into orbit. Sputnik, the name the Soviets gave their tiny satellite, was like a star, only it was a star that moved across the night sky, reflecting the sun’s light down into the eyes of millions of paranoid Americans anxiously looking up. And from that moment on, our world was changed, and the “Space Race” with the Soviets was on.
At that time, the Russians, who had been our allies in the Second World War that ended only a decade before, were hated enemies. America’s fear of communism had already taken our country into the depths of McCarthyism, where Americans hunted and accused other Americans because their art, songs, or political affiliations were suspected of being sympathetic to the dreaded Soviets. As Americans looked into the heavens, that tiny little sparkling dot of a satellite told us that the Russians had beaten us into space and could now fly over our country at will.
The changes that overtook our country were astounding in the breadth of their effect and the speed of their implementation. As might have been expected, a scared-shitless Congress immediately approved more funds for America’s space effort. But the real changes took place in the schools, where a new generation, not yet dubbed the “Baby Boomers,” was being prepared for its role in the world. While this may sound strange to younger readers, at that time grade school students were told they could survive a nuclear attack by going out into the hall, kneeling against the wall, putting their heads down, and covering it with their hands. Just so we could get it right, we were forced to practice almost weekly. Even though the United States was the first and only nation ever to use nuclear weapons in war, we were told that the evil Russians sought nothing more than the obliteration of every American and the conquest of our country…and just look, there they were, up in space.
Now, the entire era seems unbelievable, but such was the agitated state of America’s suddenly threatened leadership that all school children were both indoctrinated to hate the Russians and groomed to defeat them. In an instant, the importance of studying literature, world history, art, music and the humanities gave way to science. Any student showing intellectual promise was immediately steered into a curriculum heavy on math, physics and engineering. A lot of happy childhoods came to an end as the homework was piled on so we could produce the weapons engineers to defeat the Red Threat before they obliterated us.
Shortly thereafter, the United States put up its own satellite and, as most people know, went on to put the first, and so far the only, men on the moon barely a decade later. Some two decades of insane military spending and nuclear sword rattling after that, the Soviet Union collapsed, coming apart at the seams faster than anyone could have predicted and devolving into separate member states. We had “won” the arms race, if you could call what we did to our own country and the rest of the polarized world in the process “winning.”
Part of what we did was militarize the space around our planet. No one in the general public knows for sure just how far we have gone with that militarization, because our own government (yes, the “open” government in the “land of the free”) won’t tell us. But suffice it to say we now have spy and “killer” satellites, orbiting weapons platforms and who knows what else.
But this week, if all goes as planned, China will rocket Shenzou V, the “Divine Ship,” containing its own astronaut, into space, becoming only the third nation to do so. For the 1.3 billion Chinese, this accomplishment in many ways will mark the technological progress they have made over the last half-century from an agrarian society to an industrialized, space-capable nation.
The director of the Chinese space program says they hope this is the first step toward tapping the industrial potential of space, but for now their goals are more earth-bound, and include producing new, higher-protein rice, improving satellite data services and weather forecasting. Plans for a future moon probe and landing, as well as a Chinese space station, are already being developed.
Nowadays there are so many satellites orbiting the earth that it will likely be impossible to discern the one containing China’s first astronaut. But he will be up there, and you can rest assured that Washington will be watching closely. Up until now, the U.S. has pretty much “owned” space. But, of course, no one “owns” space, and China has as much right as anyone to the heavens.
It will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts. While it is unlikely our grade school curriculums will revert to “duck and cover” drills, if the current administration follows its earth-bound pattern of international relationships, they will likely see China’s entry into space as a threat, just as they seem to see everything these days. China, the Earth’s most populous country, remains a communist nation—and for Bush and his coterie of Cold War-era advisers, it’s always in vogue to hate the Communists.
President Bush obviously believes he has the right to invade other sovereign nations and exercise control over the Earth. He is bankrupting our nation in Iraq with the endless and unwinnable “Global War on Terror,” while stoking the hatred of Muslims, the world’s most populous religion, toward the U.S. It would be a tragic mistake if Bush takes the same paranoid and aggressive attitude toward the heavens—and makes an enemy of the world’s most populous nation, too.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.