In Outer Space We Trust

Before space-shuttle launches were suspended early this year, even the most routine missions would attract diehard fans, who gathered along Route 1 in Titusville, Florida, in the wee hours to peer over the water at Cape Canaveral. Last week China, the world's most populous country, put on a show more exciting than anything NASA has in decades, and yet only a handful of ordinary tourists came to witness the historic launch. It wasn't for lack of enthusiasm; being a space groupie in China isn't easy. The launchpad in Space City is in the middle of nowhere. To get there, you first fly to Yinchuan City and then drive 11 hours through the Gobi Desert and a gantlet of military checkpoints. The 20,000 or so people who showed up were VIPs, soldiers, scientists, official media, security officials and, of course, the ground crew of technicians and engineers. Most of the onlookers sitting outside on carefully arranged stools in the early morning of Wednesday, Oct. 15, were in military uniform.

For 21 hours the world's eyes were on China--specifically on Yang Liwei, the 38-year-old former MiG pilot whose 600,000- kilometer voyage won him the adulation of millions of Chinese citizens. But China's moment in the limelight really belonged to its engineers--not just the ones who managed the nuts and bolts of the launch itself, but the ones who run the country. Their ranks include China's new President Hu Jintao, a hydroelectric engineer who graduated from prestigious Tsinghua University--China's MIT--and six of nine people on the powerful Politiburo Standing Committee. They are joined by electrical engineer Jiang Zemin, who as president kick-started the manned space program 11 years ago. For decades, China's leaders have maintained an unwavering faith in the power of technology to propel the country beyond its myriad problems. For them, putting a man in space was the climax of decades of progress and a defining moment of China's communist leadership.

In a country rife with urgent problems, from AIDS to a widening gap between rich and poor, a manned space program would seem to be an unnecessary indulgence--a vanity program for China's leaders and a massive public-relations ploy to improve China's image abroad. Remarkably, Beijing seems to be motivated by more than the symbolic and military payoffs. China's leaders have long insisted that space research holds the key to practical benefits that can spread throughout Chinese society. They claim it will hold back expanding deserts, save endangered species and improve the lot of hardscrabble farmers.

Last week's brief Shenzhou V flight carried a symbolic cargo of seeds--tea from Taiwan, of all places. But earlier unmanned launches carried aloft seeds and seedlings from grapes, orchids, American plums, garden vegetables and dozens of other plants. Chinese scientists say that micro-gravity, Earth's magnetic fields and cosmic rays unfiltered by the atmosphere trigger big changes in plants--some grow bigger, hardier or faster, and others contain more nutrients. They claim to have grown football-size eggplants, monster tomatoes and meter-long cucumbers. "Our tomatoes have 20 percent more vitamins than normal ones," says Tong Yichao, head of the Great Eagle Green Life Food Co. "We're using the space environment to [help] solve problems on Earth, especially the plight of poor Chinese farmers." Tong says he's bred space vegetables through four or five generations, but won't say when they'll be ready for commercialization.

Because China doesn't publish this research in the open literature, it's difficult to verify the findings. But there's no doubting the devotion of China's leaders to the notion of technology as salvation. At the turn of the century citizens were exhorted to learn from the technology of the West, if not its culture. The modern cult of engineering got its start 50 years ago, soon after the communists took power. When Russia launched the Sputnik in 1957, Mao Zedong declared that China would follow suit, leading to Beijing's first satellite launch in 1970. Although the program went dormant after Mao's death several years later, his successor Deng Xiaoping revived it in the mid-1980s as part of his modernization program, shifting the emphasis from national security to economic and technological progress. In 1992, Jiang Zemin put the manned space program into high gear, and since then Beijing's made up for lost time.

Putting a man in space seems appropriate for a country with the highest ratio of science to humanities grads of any major nation since the 1950s. If Beijing can boast of the biggest dam (Three Gorges), the longest high-altitude railway (Tibet) and the fastest-growing major national economy, then why not build the first colony on the moon? Don't laugh. Last week Chinese space official Zhang Qingwei confirmed for the first time that Beijing plans eventually to launch a space station "to prepare China for further exploration of outer space."

Not everybody thinks big technology is an all-purpose fix. Although most Chinese citizens who knew about the launch (many didn't) seemed to be enthralled, some dissenting voices could be heard. "Ask poor farmers what's more important, earning a buck or sending up a spacecraft," sniped one Internet chat-room participant. "It's a good thing to send men into space, but what about us?" quipped another. Intellectuals criticize the Soviet-style schooling that churns out engineers and other professionals. Education expert Yang Dongping at the Beijing Institute of Technology argues that science is taught at the expense of ethics, environmentalism, good governance and basic norms of behavior. "The quality of our society is in decline," he says. Even China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao fired off an oblique criticism. He noted in his National Day address on Sept. 30 that China's "bitter campaign" against the SARS epidemic underscored the need for "sustainable development" and "a harmonious coexistence between man and nature."

For better or worse, China's leader-engineers, who for 40 years have envied the feats of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard, have caught up at last. They've pulled off the ultimate megaproject. With any luck, their newfound confidence will allow them to see that bigger, faster, longer and higher don't always mean better, and that they needn't master the heavens to solve big problems here on the ground.