Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ruminations on Space Travel

Today's Wall Street Journal aired a spat between Burt Rutan and Jim Benson, former partners who are now "sparring over who deserves credit for various aspects of SpaceShipOne," the first private suborbital craft to fly two consecutive flights to space in less than two weeks during the fall of 2004. We like the idea of entrepreneurs pushing the space boundaries like modern-day Wright Brothers and suspect that we'll see success in the next few years. (As an aside, we would ask if Lincoln had been alive today, would he have chosen to be a pioneer in a different sort of way?)

One of the biggest myths is that discovery and the advance of science was strictly a European/Western phenomenon. Supposedly when Columbus and others were exploring the globe, other people were just waiting around ready to be "discovered". In fact, in the early 1400's, the Chinese navy of the imperial Ming dynasty was not only equal to anything the Europeans had, but was in many ways technologically superior. Such inventions as gunpowder, printing and the compass were commonplace in China hundreds of years before they reached Europe. Beginning in the 500's, the Chinese sailed to East Asia and by 1420 the Chinese had sailed down the coast of East Africa, in the process bringing back a giraffe to Peking. Some of these ships displaced 1500 tons and carried a crew of 500.

What happened? as author-physicist Arthur Kantrowitz has pointed out, "In 1436, when the Cheng-t'ung emperor came to the throne, an edict was issued which not only forbade the building of ships for overseas voyages, but also cut down the construction of warships and armaments." By 1575, an imperial edict ordered any leftover ships destroyed and the mariners who used them arrested. Why? Historian Joseph Needham writes, "the Grand Fleet of Treasure Ships swallowed up funds which, in the view of all right-thinking bureaucrats, would be much better spent on water-conservancy projects for the farmers' needs, or in agrarian financing, granaries and the like." According to Jack Kirwan, "Chinese science ossified and, even worse, became divorced from technology. And this, the ongoing partnership of science and nuts-and-bolds technology, was what gave Western civilization the edge it has kept to the present day." There are similar parallels in our country. Politicians continually rail against spending money on space or other technologies at the expense of social programs. In Mr. Kantrowitz's words: "To the argument that we can no longer afford large-scale exploration of space, I would respond that hindsight makes it clear that the destruction of the Ming navy was the real extravagance . . . As in Ming China, there are those among us who profit from adventurous technology and there are those who have gained center stage by its suppression. The suppressors in both cases claim moral superiority and have too often been able to conceal the magnificent role of creative technology in liberating and elevating mankind."

People have an innate desire to learn and grow. The benefits of such challenging of orthodoxy and the status-quo spins off exponential benefits. Recall the words of Waldemar Kaempfert, the Managing Editor of Scientific American and author of "The New Art of Flying", on June 28, 1913: "The aeroplane . . . is not capable of unlimited magnification. It is not likely that it will ever carry more than five or seven passengers. High-speed monoplanes will carry even less." We salute those who push the envelope!


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