In China, space travel is team effort

Friday, October 24, 2003

When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space and return safely to Earth in April 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a Cold War that spurred political, military, scientific, economic and cultural competition as well as a race into the realm beyond this planet's gravity.

Ten months later, American astronaut John Glenn completed his historic orbital flight aboard a Mercury-Atlas 6 rocket.

By the end of the 1960s, the United States had sent men to the moon. Both the Soviets and the Americans developed intercontinental ballistic missile systems capable of obliterating each other. Massive space-exploration projects were begun that led to space stations, long-term orbital voyages, major scientific missions, space shuttles and probes to other planets within our solar system.

Since the heady days of early space travel in the 1960s, much of the world's political landscape has changed dramatically. The Soviet Union has been dismantled. The Cold War has ended. And the biggest player other than the United States in global affairs is the country that also has the most people: China.

Earlier this month, China also became the third nation to send a human being into space. Yang Liwei is a national hero who, since his 21-hour orbital flight and safe return to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, has been promoted to colonel, dubbed an "instant hero," given the honor of "meritorious citizen" and designated to be honored with a statue.

But, oddly, Yang hasn't been seen in public since his landing when he was shown on Chinese television waving to the cameras.

Gagarin and Glenn were treated like heroes after their space feats. They were given parades, special honors and plenty of public exposure.

Yang, on the other hand, is being represented in public by his 8-year-old son, Ningkang, who has become the darling of Chinese TV news and interview programs.

So why is Yang nowhere to be seen? Is this an indication he is ill or unable to appear in public for some other reason? Is he OK?

Not to worry, say Chinese officials. Yang is being properly attended to while receiving the highest honors the country can bestow.

What Westerners might not understand, say the Chinese, is that the glory of space travel is not an individual honor. Tens of thousands of Chinese are involved in the space program, many of them in secret jobs. To give all the attention and recognition to one man wouldn't be fair to everyone who was responsible for the successful space flight.

In other words, China's newfound spotlight for sending its first taikonaut ("taikong" is the Chinese word for space) goes to the team, not to Yang Liwei.

Until Yang is seen in public again, the world won't be focusing on the "tens of thousands" of team members who put him in space.

Nor, we suspect, will there be statues erected or "meritorious citizen" honors distributed to anyone but Yang.

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