Are China’s human missions to space a waste of time?

The Wall Street Journal's Bob Davis has penned a controversial and highly provocative article about China's recent push to get humans in space — what he largely considers to be a colossal waste of time and money. His contention is that China is trying to play catch-up to an outdated 1960s vision of space exploration at a time when other nations are developing such things as advanced robotics and sophisticated telescopic technologies.

But more to the point, Davis says that China has a lot more to worry about than just sending taikonauts into space.

China is definitely making a statement. With the recent landing of the Shenzhou-9 space capsule, the country has leap-frogged over Russia officially becoming the world leader in space ventures. China has now conducted 10 of the world's total 35 launches in the first six months of this year, followed by Russia's nine and the United States' eight.

Bob Davis takes all this as sheer foolishness, claiming that these efforts have literally nothing to prove. He writes:

Are China’s human missions to space a waste of time?

To my mind, it would represent a poverty of imagination, not riches. It would be one of a long line of Chinese efforts to "catch up" with the West. While it makes sense to try to catch up to the best in auto or airplane manufacturing, merely trying to repeat the glories of the American success program would be a step backward.

The U.S. Apollo moon program ended early because of the cost and because of a lack of purpose. Americans hit golf balls on the moon and drove around in lunar jalopies – cars and golf being two American obsessions. What would Chinese astronauts do differently? Play ping pong?

Since then the U.S. manned program has been stuck in low orbit. The U.S. built a space shuttle to fly astronauts to a space station that was decades late in being built. NASA engineers dreamed of manned missions to Mars, but Congress never came close to approving a program. The costs were too large and humans too weak. Much of a Mars mission would go to shielding astronauts from cosmic rays and creating some form of gravity during the flight so the explorers would be strong enough after a year-long flight to walk on Mars rather than sit on lawn chairs.

A better use of U.S. money has been to bankroll unmanned missions to Mars, including one that is close to trying to land an unmanned rover to explore whether the planet ever was home to life.

Davis goes on to describe how China's attention would be better spent elsewhere, such as an "Apollo-project" like effort to clean up its air, or initiatives to make solar energy affordable so that it can replace its coal plants. This kind of vision, writes Davis, "would be as dazzling as a vision as U.S. astronauts heading to the moon was in its day."

Be sure to read Davis's entire article, "Is China's Space Push Worth It?" at The Wall Street Journal.

Image via REUTERS/ Xinhua/Ren Junchuan. Inset image via AP.