In August, President Bush approved a new U.S. policy on space exploration and on the military and commercial uses of space. The White House announced that the United States would not agree to any arrangements that would restrict our own ventures into space.
This was not surprising. We spoke as the superpower that had left behind, but not immobilized, what was once the other superpower, the Soviet Union. Russia acknowledges no bounds on its strategic intentions in space, but Russia is more worried right now about cornflakes at breakfast than about the old indulgences of superpowers.
What was important in the White House document, released in October, was less the announcement that we would continue energetic uses of space than the accompanying announcement that other nations' activities must be restricted. Specifically, the White House affirmed that the United States would "dissuade or deter others from either impeding (U.S.) rights or developing capabilities intended to do so." In fact, we would "deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests."
And of course today's headline is that Communist China has soared into space. What it accomplished, concretely, was to reach with a land-based missile an old and expendable Chinese weather satellite and blow it to smithereens -- literally: There are 300,000 bits of it cavorting in space, which will take a quarter century to clean up. We know this figure pretty exactly, because it took 17 years to dissipate the debris from our own test in 1985. And orbiting debris was one of the dangers specifically addressed in the Bush administration's new policy.
Two parts of the story attract attention. The first is that we were taken by surprise. It is embarrassing to proclaim, in October, that the United States will "dissuade" any power that seeks military leverage in space, and then to confront, in January, evidence that exactly what we set out to prevent has happened. Why was it beyond U.S. intelligence to foresee Chinese progress along these lines? And if it is deducible from street knowledge of Chinese ambitions, prowess and technological savoir-faire that China was likely to develop the capability of projecting a missile 500 miles into space, why did President Bush expose himself, and the United States, to charges of arrogance, and then impotence?