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Deja Vu

January 6, 2012

A Vision of Infinite Space


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2012: Nearly forty years after Neil Armstrong took those iconic first steps, mankind is headed back to the moon. The Guardian reports that the Chinese government has tentative plans for a manned mission to the lunar surface. China became only the third country to independently send a citizen into space in 2003, but with American space exploration derailed by the retiring of the space shuttle program, the Chinese initiative is part of a push to become a major spacefaring nation:

Details of the plan—which would see a human walk on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in December 1972—were published in a white paper that serves as a roadmap for the next five years of Chinese space exploration.

It says China will "push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight", and describes preparations for orbiting laboratories, space stations and studies that underpin "the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing".

"Chinese people are the same as people around the world. When looking up at the starry sky, we are full of longing and yearning for the vast universe," Zhang Wei, an official with China's National Space Administration, told the Financial Times. Chinese officials have not announced a firm timetable, but the mission could take place around 2025, the chief scientist of the space programme, Ye Peijian, said last year.

c. 1300: While the U.S. and Russia paved the way for modern spaceflight, China played a critical role in shaping the theoretical underpinnings of the physical cosmos. In the early fourth century, Chinese Taoist philosopher and alchemist Ko Hung articulated a vision of infinite space billed by British historians Joseph Needham and Colin Ronan as “far more advanced...than the rigid conception of Aristotle and Ptolemy”:

The books of the Hsuan Yeh schools were all lost, but Chhi Meng, one of the librarians, remembered what its masters before his time had taught concerning it. They said that the heavens were empty and void of substance. When we look up at it we see that it is immensely high and far away, having no bounds. The (human) eye is (as it were) colour-blind, and the pupil short-sighted; this is why the heavens appear deeply blue. It is like seeing yellow mountains sideways at a great distance, for then they all appear blue. Or when we gaze down into a valley a thousand fathoms deep, it seems sombre and black. but the blue (of the mountains) is not a true color, nor is the dark colour (of the valley really its own.

The sun, moon, and the company of stars float (freely) in the empty space, moving or standing still. All are condensed vapor. This the seven luminaries sometimes appear and sometimes disappear, sometimes move forward and sometimes retrograde, seeming to follow each a different series of regularities; their advances and recessions are not the same. It is because they are not rooted (to any basis) or tied together that their movement can vary so much. Among the heavenly bodies the pole star always keeps its place, and the Great Bear never sinks below the horizon as do other stars.
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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