Here is a post comparing the voyages of Zheng He to the modern US space program. Arthur Kantrowitz is the first that I’m aware of to make this comparison, back in the seventies.
I think that it’s an interesting analogy, but not in the way they intend, and I wrote about it a few years ago at Fox News:
…some have argued that in essentially turning our backs on the cosmos after the rapid success of Apollo, in favor of welfare programs and pork, our own politicians have given us a similar failure of vision.
But that draws the wrong conclusion. The fact was that Zheng He’s journeys were a failure. They sent out vast amounts of the nation’s treasure with which to impress the heathens and gain tribute and the appropriate respect (just as is the goal for the current Chinese space activities). But when trade occurred at all, the ships often came back with items that were perceived to be of less value than what had been sent out to the ports. The trade was not profitable — it was draining vital resources. The bureaucrats were right.
The Chinese suffered a failure of expansionary will 600 years ago because they were doing it for the wrong reasons. And I suspect that the current leadership is similar to Zheng He in their outlook. His missions were for national prestige — not the generation of wealth — as, apparently, are the current Chinese space plans.
As was America’s Apollo program.
Space will not be settled by governments, whether Chinese, Russian, or American. It will be settled by the people who want to go, and seek their own opportunities, and dreams. Governments can help, and if the Chinese government can navigate the difficulties I describe above, and actually eventually get to the Moon, that might be one way of helping, not just the Chinese, but as the article states, all who want to go. But I suspect that there will be private activities that beat them to it, and we cannot, and should not, count on Beijing.
We will know that things are moving forward seriously in space when, in addition to remote-sensing and communications satellites, there are activities going on in space, involving humans in space, that bring more value back than is put into them. Unfortunately, communist governments (which China’s remains, despite propaganda to the contrary) are not notable for their value-added activities, and I don’t think that the present Beijing regime is that far removed from its predecessors, either in the Ming Dynasty, or the Mao Dynasty.
But I hope they’ll prove me wrong.
I continue to so hope.