Echoing the vision of super-billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Bao Weimin, a senior director at the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, explained the logic behind China’s spectacular new foray into the space race. Its new mission aims at orbiting Mars for 687 days before landing a sophisticated rover to course over the red planet’s dusty surface collecting data on the physical environment.
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On state television, Bao announced, “We cannot lie in the cradle of Earth forever.” He explained the importance of the interplanetary mission as “a manifestation of the country’s scientific and technological strength.” In other words, this may be a scientific venture, but more fundamentally, it’s an act of geopolitical marketing. Just one further proof that China has fully grasped and adopted the culture of competition and hegemonic nation-state ambition that the US has effectively imposed on the rest of humanity.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A metaphor for the beginning of life, placed in direct contrast with the “grave” as a metaphor for the end of life in the expression “from cradle to grave,” a concept that in the 21st century has led to some confusion as humanity’s cradle now seems to be heading straight for its grave
According to The New York Times, it was a Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, more than a century ago, who first came up with the metaphor of the Earth as a cradle that humanity is outgrowing. NASA quotes the Russian: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.” This demonstrates a certain continuity between the thought in pre-communist Russia and post-Marxist (but still communist) China. The metaphor implies that mankind has only recently emerged from the darkness of the womb and is looking forward to maturing into a full-blown organism. Communists have always been looking forward to a new dawn.
The image of the cradle is one of optimism, in contrast with Musk’s stated reasons for colonizing Mars. Musk believes the Earth will soon become uninhabitable, which will force us to get settled on Mars before our own planet self-destructs. Is this a case of Western pessimism vs. Oriental optimism?
“It’s hard not to get the impression that Elon Musk has written off planet Earth,” Neel V. Patel wrote two years ago. In Musk’s own words, “I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event.” The Chinese communists are looking forward to their blooming youth; Musk is contemplating our impending doom.
There’s even a hint of spirituality in the Chinese project. The Chinese call their mission “Tianwen-1, or ‘Questions to Heaven’ after a classical Chinese poem (also sometimes translated as ‘Heavenly Questions’) from the 3rd century B.C.” It’s also a reminder that the Middle Kingdom’s civilization is more than 2,000 years old, in contrast with the US (just over 200 and already jaded) and the United Arab Emirates (literally in its cradle, having been born in 1971).
The Times quotes Indian researcher Namrata Goswami, the author of a forthcoming book, “Great Power Competition in Outer Space,” who claims China has a geopolitical goal in mind. “The Communist Party of China wants to prove to the world that they are actually a legitimate alternative to a U.S.-led space order,” she affirms.
What Goswami means is that today, China views this as a pivotal moment of human history in which two things are possible: either China takes its place alongside the US in a new multipolar — or at least bipolar — world order, or it replaces the US as the globe’s hegemonic leader. The US doesn’t seem ready for either prospect. Some believe that the American commitment to the defense of the status quo may push the world into what Graham Allison calls the Thucydides Trap, an inevitable confrontation between a waning and rising power.
Though the idea of a “space order,” a concept intended to complement or even surpass the traditional “new world order,” sounds somewhat surreal, by highlighting the importance of this new phenomenon, Goswami offers some much-needed insight into our common future. Every attempt at redefining the “world order” — as both US presidents named George Bush clearly intended to do — has singularly failed. Perhaps it’s time to take seriously the idea of an order designed to regulate the solar system, the “space order” Goswami invokes. It will at least help us to look at the state of the Earth within a wider perspective and with greater humility.
Some date what Goswami calls the US-led space order back to 1969 when NASA landed a crew of men on the moon for the first time. At that moment, the US could be said to have replaced the Soviet space order that began in 1957 with the first successful Sputnik mission. In one of the great ironies of history, the Soviets never had a chance to return to leadership over the space order and the Americans more or less abandoned the race aimed at controlling it with NASA’s final manned mission to the moon in 1972. After that, it was just a question of waiting for Elon Musk’s promise to revive the project.
Does a new space order have any meaning? Can we believe that the future of humanity is in space? The most powerful nations seem to believe that, but, as mentioned above, it may be more about geopolitical marketing than interplanetary civilization. How credible is such an idea? Can humanity reconstitute itself on Mars? For many, it sounds like an extravagant Utopian fantasy.
To settle the question, The Daily Devil’s Dictionary proposes the following thought experiment. Ask average citizens in both the US and China to draw a picture of the future human civilization on Mars. Americans, inspired by Hollywood science fiction, would most likely paint an image of immaculately dressed white people in futuristic space suits living under an immense bubble and reproducing sparkling clean cityscapes in which a lot of serious people could be seen earnestly going about their business, whatever that business might be. Even more realistically, the Chinese might paint a similar picture of Asians working together and getting whatever job needed to be done in total harmony.
Would any of the citizens of this new world be hanging out at street corners or in pool halls, or cocooned at home tweeting for hours on end on their laptops to cancel or doxx their enemies? Would any of them be colluding with accomplices to cheat their neighbors or steal to get what they think they deserve? Would our civilization on Mars have a system of justice with its elaboration of complex laws designed uniquely for such an innovative environment? How would the laws be enforced and who would enforce them? Who would collect the trash? And what language would they speak?
Or would the fact that it will be extremely expensive for an individual to book his or her passage to Mars and establish an abode and a means of recurrent income there mean that only the supposedly disciplined and law-abiding rich would be there to populate a kind of interplanetary gated community?
Unlike the building of the New World in the Americas, there will be no natives to enslave (or simply displace) and no means of bringing other slaves from a neighboring planet to build a productive economy for us, the conquerors. We’ll have to do it ourselves. Even with the modern forms of slave labor that our modern economy has invented (salaried employees), we haven’t really managed to make it work. Will we make it work on Mars?
In other words, we may be able to build a cradle on Mars, but like the first colonial experiment of the English at Jamestown, it will most likely rapidly become our grave.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.