"The Times They Are-A-Changing" – The Final Frontier
Space the Final Frontier,
These are the voyages of the starship Shenzhou 15,
As I sit here at my computer reminiscing about my most memorable events of the past twelve months my thoughts, as they so often want, turn to Star Trek but this time not so much centered on Kirk and co warping to distant stars to seek out new civilizations but instead much closer to home, namely the Earth and its moon.
During the first week of August 2008 the world was glued to their TV sets not because of the economic turmoil that was about to descend like some petulant alien invasion but rather all eyes were on Beijing for the start of the summer Olympics. This was a grand spectacle like no other, probably never to be rivaled at least in the short term. Just how many countries could mount such a lavish production and spend upwards for $40 billion dollars on staging the games and the related infrastructure needed to accommodate them. To put that into perspective that’s the entire yearly nominal GDP of the Dominican Republic or Oman or Syria. That’s about 1/3 the nominal GDP of Egypt and a staggering amount of investment by any measuring yardstick.
This was a ceremony on such a scale that it demands to be seen more than once in order to process everything involved. From the opening Fou drummers to the movable type blocks controlled completely through manpower to a gigantic globe rising from a hidden compartment in the stadium floor, the show was simply breathtaking. Featuring over 15,000 performers, the number actually exceeded the total number of athletes competing. I hate to quote TV commentators, as most usually talk excessively during these broadcasts but for once NBC’s Bob Costas said it right when he chimed in, “In terms of opening ceremonies, retire the trophy.”
Veteran director Zhang Yimou, armed with a virtually unlimited budget and given the manpower of a small army, let loose all his creative artistry in a cornucopia of dazzling colours and intricately tailored costumes all enacted with military precision, a fact not lost to many in the Western media who kept harping about goose stepping soldiers. I’m not going to bother talking about the political impact of the Olympics other than to say this was China’s coming out party and it went off without a hitch. Even quasi scandals like a lip syncing girl and computer aided special effects that were splashed all over the Western media did little to tarnish the accomplishment especially since it was later revealed that other Olympics one-upped China in that department – one girl lip syncing is rather tame when compared to the entire Sydney Symphony “pretending” to play during Sydney’s Olympics in 2000.
Soon after the Olympic glow faded and the world crassly turned its attention elsewhere, the Paralympics started in Beijing with a ceremony of unprecedented emotion. The Olympic opening was definitely grand, showcasing China’s five thousand year history but the Paralympic one had something that was palpably missing from its more famous sibling, namely heart. This was a show that truly touched those involved and while Li Ning running along the rim of the Bird’s Nest during the Olympic opening ceremony was certainly the highlight who could have expected the feat to be equaled a mere few weeks later as Hou Bin , a wheelchair athlete, used his brute strength to literally pull himself off the floor and directly up a pulley leading to the flame — incredibly heart warming and something that I recommend everyone to see if they can manage to find a copy of it. Those living in Toronto can easily pick up a copy of both the Olympic and Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies from Chinese megamalls in Pacific Mall (Steeles and Kennedy) and First Markham Place (Highway 7 between Warden and Woodbine Avenue). Just be warned that they are broadcast in Chinese and those looking for an English version would probably be better off ordering them from NBC.com or getting someone from the USA to ship them to you.
However, though Beijing soon said goodbye to the world’s athletes the government had other plans to celebrate which leads us to the Shenzhou 7 mission which took China back to the stars, this time to accomplish what only the USA and Russia had previously – a manned spacewalk. The Chinese leadership had this all planned and yes, it is propaganda on a grand scale but what the heck, it worked. While no one can say the world was glued during the spacewalk the political implications are obvious and reinforced the message brought forth during the Olympics – China is back and they are gunning to recapture their former eminence.
Throughout the ebbs and flows of human history, civilizations have come and gone but they have all left an indelible mark on us. From the earliest human settlements based along river valleys like the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates or the Yellow river, empires have risen, fallen, risen again or just plain disappeared into the sands of time.
It was watching Col. Zhai Zhigang, the Chinese taikonaut (the Chinese term for astronaut), bounce around in space while waving the flag of the PRC that I decided to learn a bit more about the Chinese space program just to see how it was faring and came across this rather odd logo of the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA). Imagine my surprise, shock, and just plain laughter when it immediately dawned on me why this logo was so strangely familiar although I had never seen it before.
Trekkers around the world will no doubt join me in a gentle chuckle as they realize that the CNSA logo is an odd combination of the United Federation of Planet’s flag and the Starfleet command delta and I remember my first reaction was to pen a blog entry along the lines of, “The Federation has been born today — not in San Francisco but in Beijing!” However, my initial amusement didn’t last long as I began to seriously ponder what I had just postulated. Can it really be possible that the future of space exploration to other planets be headquartered anywhere else other than the USA? What seemed preposterous even a decade ago was by far a murkier question in the present especially once the economic downturn hit with full force.
The world most definitely is stuck in a deep recessionary cycle right now. Some might even deem it a depression but about the only thing people can agree on is that it is a global phenomenon. This is not a local instance such as Japan in the early 90s that sank into recession while the rest of the world steamed ahead. With talk of the president-elect Obama postulating budgetary deficits in excess of 1 Trillion per year the American economy is reeling and that is not even counting the many industries on the brink of bankruptcy including Detroit’s big three automakers.
China itself has also seen a sharp decline in forecasts as it is so greatly linked by exports to the falling American economy. Still, industry analysts are predicting somewhere between 6-8% growth in the PRC while it is flat, or at worst, contracting in other parts of the world. In short, China might be limping with a hobbled foot but there are many countries that are taking multiple blows straight to the head during this unprecedented crisis.
Amidst all this doom and gloom president-elect Obama has hinted at a plan not well covered by many in the media of forcing NASA and the Pentagon to jointly work together in order to cut costs and better compete in the coming space race. Surely, economically this makes some sense as it has the potential to remove competing programs and wasted fat in both agencies but the political inference here is obvious – the coming space race between the USA and who? Well, it’s not the Russians although they still possess formidable resources and have the most efficient launch vehicle in the Soyuz program. No, Obama is focusing on the land of 1.3 billion people and its current headlong drive to modernize itself.
China has already stated the moon is its ultimate goal while President Bush has countered that America will also return to Earth’s satellite. The problem with the American program is that the Ares 1 rocket designed to carry the new Orion crew capsule is running behind schedule leaving NASA with the unenviable task of either delaying the retirement of the space shuttle or booking sorties exclusively with the Russian Soyuz as being the only launch vehicle available a plan that will undoubtedly cause much loss of face and political capital – how does it look if the world’s only remaining superpower can’t get back into space by itself and has to basically rent time on Russian space vehicles?
With the combination of both NASA and the pentagon the hope rises that the military’s proficiency in missile technology can be augmented to fit NASA’s needs as a vehicle to launch the Orion into orbit. Of course, everything is theoretical as Ares 1 and Orion are only scheduled to be completed around 2015 putting it dangerously close to the earliest estimates of a Chinese moon launch window. Any delay would push the American space program further back to 2020 giving China an opportunity to beat them back first.
I remember going to the online forums to see what people around the world were saying about this purported space race and as usual my fellow citizens didn’t disappoint me in the amount of vitriol spouted from all sides. If one could distill those comments to something more palatable it would inevitably be something close to, “Why go back to the moon since we’ve already beaten them there? There’s no reason to get there second – they’ve already lost before they’ve begun.” To others running along the lines of, “We deserve to go there and no one can stop us!”
This one incident really made me ponder the issue at hand which, on the surface reads as nothing more than a political power play between competing nations and indeed online citizens from around the world have read it as precisely that. On one hand they are absolutely correct but there’s a deeper underlying issue here that cuts right across country lines and its one that people should focus more on but don’t due to everyone’s inherent prejudices.
Even though earning a bronze in spacewalking is no small feat although it comes decades after the Russians and Americans accomplished the same goal and gunning for the silver with a moon landing is admirable these events just emphasize an inherent human flaw. Although this was a time for China to shine and for patriotism to run rampant throughout the Chinese mainland and for Americans to shrug their shoulders in an apparently transparent attempt to hide their concerns, I couldn’t help but think about how ridiculous humanity as a whole truly is to be put in this situation.
To bring back Star Trek, this is a Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario that mankind keeps repeating no matter the costs. Countries might rise and fall but mankind never seems to learn its lesson for as great a moment as it was for the Chinese people, in terms of mankind it was basically treading water. Imagine a more utopian world where everyone worked as one to accomplish feats of wonder and you begin to realize how ridiculous it is to keep harping about individual countries. Imagine a future like in Trek where humanity is united as one entity whose only goal is to better oneself and to explore space.
In a world like that, whoever got to the moon in the first place would reveal all the secrets to the world so that everyone would benefit and be on the same page. Wishing thinking? Of course it is. Will it ever happen? Probably not in our lifetime or, if history is the judge, possibly never unless some external threat like some alien race appears and threatens the world. Only then would the world unite against a common foe or so you hope.
So, this is ultimately depressing looking at the superpowers duke it out for bragging rights as to who is going to go back to the moon and beyond. It is simple human nature to protect what you have at the expense of others, a trait that unfortunately is all too common. I have no doubt some of us are more altruistic but I reckon those numbers are few. I am not purporting to claim that we humans are inherently bad, merely that our concern with human created institutions like countries, religion, and race often times colours our judgment as to the greater picture.
In the entire universe we live on a tiny speck of dust. I previously challenged people with a simple question asking about our place in the universe. Who knows but one thing is for sure, we’re all alone here amongst the starry night and though it is sometimes impossible to fathom, until we meet someone else, we better figure out how to make the best of things. Maybe there’s a race of sentient pillows watching us right now shaking their “heads” thinking we’re a bunch of uncivilized barbarians. Imagine a world where everyone works together to tackle salient issues of the day – cures for diseases like Cancer and AIDs; renewable energy sources and recyclable materials; basic food, clothing and lodging from everyone; it’s all in the realm of possibility if only we stopped playing petty politics.
Yeah, it sounds like one big dream and it is. I’m not saying anything other smarter people haven’t already thought about. It’s just ridiculous if you sit back and watch the glacial pace of human progress.
There is a concept in Star Trek that diehard fans will no doubt know as being the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC which stands for, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” The story goes that the Vulcan people were originally an extremely warlike race with violent tendencies. The wise Vulcan philosopher Surak realized that if they continued down this path it would lead to their ultimate destruction so in response he advocated logical thought and reasoning as a way to lead his people away from confrontation. Of course, this being science fiction, it led to the Vulcan people to look deep within themselves and discover ways to control their emotions and over the centuries they developed into the Vulcans we know and love who are walking examples of pure logic, emotion being buried deep within and shunted into some dark recess of the mind.
IDIC though has further meaning, not just in repressing emotion but it advocates that people should celebrate and gain spiritual enjoyment through the acknowledgment that everyone is different and that human created institutions and concepts like race, colour, creed and religion should never take precedence over the spirit of cooperation and empathy for your fellow man.
Now, I’m a big Trek fan but I don’t pray to the church of Roddenberry but what he created in the Vulcan IDIC is essentially one of the main reasons people have gravitated to the show’s incredibly optimistic view of humanity’s future that precisely postulates that indeed we have learned our lessons, fixed up our planet and now cruise through the stars with altruistic motives. Other science fiction movies and TV shows are so often wrought with angst and posit less than utopian views on humanity that in many cases has brought itself closer to extinction. In this light, Trek is one of the only franchises to actually show that humanity can actually accomplish much if only we collectively worked together.
So, as we watch human politics play out over the course of our lives we really should be mindful of the greater goal. It doesn’t matter except to those short-minded individuals that an American, Neil Armstrong, was the first man to step onto the moon. It shouldn’t matter if the next person in 2015 who gets back is Chinese either. Maybe the first person to set foot on Mars will be an Indian or a Russian. Let’s stop worrying about which country gets there first and take Armstrong’s words at face value, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” If we are united there’s nothing we can’t handle. Let’s just revel and applaud the fact that we as a race can accomplish feats of absolute wonder.
As I look at the CNSA symbol, it doesn’t matter one bit if Starfleet begins in some remote corner of China or if the first starship has giant Chinese characters splattered over the saucer section (Trek!). Does it really matter if the language they speak onboard is English, Chinese, German, Russian or Japanese? If your answer is “yes” then perhaps it’s a good time to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself why?
If Zhang Yimou puts on a grand Olympic opening ceremony or Steven Spielberg wins an Oscar for Schindler’s List, let’s take it upon ourselves to be benevolent enough to acknowledge the contributions to their art and enjoy the beauty of their creation. We’ve spent enough wasted time jostling amongst ourselves and reinventing the wheel a million times over. Let’s instead go back to the moon and then, “To infinity…and beyond!” Only then can we meet those sentient pillows.
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow
*Olympic Photo credit Jeff Gross / Getty Images*