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Yesterday's vision of tomorrow, from today's perspective

By Warren Singh-Bartlett | China Daily | Updated: 2022-06-21 07:09
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Growing up in the early 1980s, one of my favorite books was The Usborne Book of the Future, an illustrated guide to the glittering world of the 21st and 22nd centuries; moon miners, undersea cities, space elevators, a robot-controlled world, all rendered in bright colors, full of people wearing semi-futuristic versions of mid-1970s street chic. The tone was upbeat with creeping realism-climate and pollution got a mention-but overall, it was less Terminator and more Elysium, at least if that particular vision of the future had extended to the other 99 percent, too.

Warren Singh-Bartlett [Photo/China Daily]

Perusing it the other day, I was surprised how many of the pictures I still remembered - the fruit of too many hours daydreaming about the gleaming world my generation was poised to inherit-and intrigued by the ways it related to the world we actually inhabit. So no, the 2020 Olympics weren't held on the moon, but our computers are far better.

While there was an attempt, in that 1960s "united world" way of being multicultural, I was struck by how, in 1979 (the book's year of publication), space exploration was presented through an almost entirely American lens. While it never suggested the future of space exploration belonged to the United States - we'd all be joining hands and collaborating, after all - there was little indication that anyone else had a space industry, even though the former USSR continued to launch space missions until its collapse in 1991. In fact, just four years before the book's publication, it landed the first probe on Venus.

Of course, space has always been political. Armstrong's giant leap happened because of worries the former Soviet Union might get to the moon first. Military interest in space has always eclipsed civilian and, although private initiatives like SpaceX and Blue Origin have somewhat democratized the stars, that remains true today-even in developing world nations like India and China.

This is understandable, if unfortunate. Cooperation would get us so much further, faster. However, as the nation that gains control of space, especially near-Earth space, will be impossible to ignore, despite the many scientific breakthroughs space exploration has produced, it is still more about power than pursuing the common good embodied in Star Trek's United Federation of Planets.

It was China's staggering rise as a space-faring nation and, in particular, Liu Yang's recent return to space that got me thinking about all this. Her arrival at the Tiangong space station on June 5, and the subsequent images of the three taikonauts (Liu's companions are Chen Dong and Cai Xuzhe), reminded me of my favorite childhood read and sent me down a rabbit hole in search of a copy. After some hunting-I'd forgotten what it was called, and had to get creative-I found a PDF of it and spent a few hours basking in a glow of nostalgia.

But how is that related to China's first (but no longer only) woman in space? I'm glad you asked. Usborne's vision is a product of its time; mostly male and mostly white. Neither China nor India feature, and while Liu is not the first woman, or even the first nonwhite woman in space (Mae Jemison was the first African American astronaut in 1992 and Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-born American, in 1997), the image of her on the station, hair in a halo, checking her phone (was she updating her Weibo account from space, perhaps?) remained with me, and as I flipped through my old favorite book a few days later, it reminded me of how far we have all come in some ways, and yet of how far we still have to go in others.

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