All this talk of rocketry and path dependency, and now it looks like we’re going to re-run one of the classic (arguably) bloodless megaconflicts of the 20th Century all over again: Russia is working on a clone-job of the US Air Force’s little-known but oft-alluded-to “spaceplane”, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle!
Stepping away from sensationalist overstatement for a moment (hey, us internet hacks have to attract eyeballs somehow, right?), I don’t think this is anywhere near as big a story as it it’s being made out to be. For a start, all we have to go one regarding the Russian project is a statement of intent, and given the state of the Russian economy (and the alleged state of its government), I’m not sure they’re in any position to pour funding and expertise into a space race right now… indeed, I’d have thought China would be a more potent potential player on that particular gameboard.
Secondly, a similar but less severe problem pertains with the United States, namely the same econopolitical instability that’s so globally fashionable right now (“favela chic, darling – everyone‘s doing it!”). I don’t doubt there’s work being done on the X-37B, but I can’t see it being a significant budget draw in an era of domestic financial woes, long drawn-out “liberation” projects in the Middle East, and an internecine state of polarised political pugilism.
Again, among the nation-state players I’d say China looks like a much better bet for significant progress toward the top of the gravity well in the next decade or so. The commercial space outfits may make some strides as well, but given the sort of characters heading those organisations, I suspect any allegience to the U.S. as anything other than a source of expertise and skills will be more a matter of convenince and expedience than of national pride.
Nonetheless (and as I seem to be saying on a pretty much daily basis of late), interesting times ahead.
One thought on “Space race rebooted? Or, y’know, not.”
“the U.S. as anything other than a source of expertise and skills”
Except you’re forgetting that goes ditto-double for China. The whole raison d’etre of the upstart 300 million “geniuses” supposedly composing the new Chinese “engineering workforce” is not actually to *advance* technology, aeronautical or otherwise, but to *reverse engineer* stealth bombers “accidentally” shot down by stray and also blueprint-pirated ballistic missiles during “routine military excercises”. They’ve got some great minds over there alright, some of the best hackers in the world, good for stealing code from Google or schematics from the pentagon developed by actual creative intelligences. This long-calcified path dependency of China’s is best illustrated by China’s “Harvard” of China. The Chinese factory is basically the screwed up kid-filter problems with SAT culture of memorize-and-regurgitate, with the knobs all jacked up to eleven creating pure robot factories. It’s quite literally all about “strategies” to figure out which letter-bubble to fill in with graphite. Performing rote calculations divorced from the real world, memorizing definitions of big archaic words. Dissecting and withdrawing “key words” from Kerouac and Einstein like a mindless ant collecting sucrosy material for the hive mind, and then giving them the big 1600 on the transcript, without them ever even *beginning* to understand the cultural revolution embedded in “On the Road” or the great journeys of the imagination to the outer reaches of the imagination that were vital to *creating* the 5-letter sentence “e=mc^2”.
Even the deputy principal of one of China’s most prestigious universities admitted that China’s schools are, “Good at copying things, not creating them.” They may be able to rip off some stealth bombers and a couple Ares rockets and pull off some nice publicity stunts for “national pride”, but I’m not seeing them going boldly (mentally) where no human has gone before any time soon.
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