Posted by: Dexter Roberts on September 9, 2008
With national pride at a peak following the just completed Beijing Olympics, China’s government has plans for another major pride—boosting gesture. Between September 25-30, China plans to send three astronauts into orbit, with one of them to make China’s first walk in space, a space mission spokesperson announced on September 6th according to the China Daily. The cost of the venture has not been announced (China’s last manned space mission cost $110 million) but not surprisingly, it is expected to be substantial.
I couldn’t help noticing another bit of important news out today that warns that China is facing a shortfall in relief funds for the recent Sichuan earthquake. The article that ran in the online version of the September 9th China Daily says that China is facing an $180 billion shortfall, or that three quarters of the needed funds of $244 billion have still not been raised. Sichuan’s vice governor Huang Xiaoxiang said that the earthquake-hit region must rebuild 4.5 million homes, 11,700 schools, 9,700 hospital and clinics, 4,000 office buildings. Also needed is the reconstruction of 51,000 kilometers of highways, 5,500 kilometers of railways, 810 power stations, and 2,000 reservoirs. All told, the project will require 37 million tons of steel, 370 million tons of cement, and 210 billion bricks.
Juxtaposing the two bits of news, I can’t help wondering whether this is the right time to be spending millions on a space mission. Having just enjoyed the Olympics myself I feel pretty sure that the benefit of the Games was very much worth their multi-billion dollar cost—benefits including of course a boost to Chinese pride but also probably in health (a surge in interest in athletics in China is an almost certain result), better mutual understanding between China and the rest of the world following all the media attention the Games brought to the mainland, not to mention the sheer viewing pleasure the Games offered.
But is now the right time to fork out many more millions in a space mission that might bring some scientific benefit, but mostly seems to be about boosting pride? Given the gaping needs for better funding of everything from rural health and education, to a more extensive pension program—not to mention the earthquake relief—I’m not so sure. What if all the planned space spending instead was put into solving some of these pressing social problems instead—wouldn’t that be a real occasion for national pride?