Thursday, 18 June 2009

Learning the Wrong Lesson

John Derbyshire at the National Review on Manned Space Missions:
The famous great tourist sites of Peking stand as testimony to that period of vigor. Among its other glories, though they left us with no monuments to admire other than a few scattered steles, were the seagoing expeditions of Zheng He. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng and his “treasure fleets” carried the imperial banner to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.
So far, so good. Zheng He's explorations, if followed up, would have meant Mandarin rather than English would have been spoken in the New World, and would be the de facto lingua franca of today. But they weren't.
There were no colonies established as a result of the treasure fleets, no trade routes opened up, no alliances formed, no enlargements of understanding among China’s educated classes. The Ming court decided, at last, that the whole business was too costly. The records of Zheng’s last two expeditions were destroyed in a court intrigue, and China commenced the retreat into incurious bureaucratic despotism from which she was awoken only 400 years later, when European traders came banging on the nation’s doors.

Now, as we approach the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing (July 20), you have to wonder if history is repeating itself. America’s manned space program was a grandiose public-works project, government-initiated and government-funded, like Zheng’s expeditions. Its achievements, like theirs, were sensational but content-free.
I agree completely. The whole US manned space effort is a monument to Pork rather than a serious long-term effort for space exploration and colonisation.
Manned space travel always was, and still is, a pointless extravaganza project of no practical or scientific value — a Zheng He expedition for our time. In the bumptiousness of early-imperial triumphalism — a new dynasty established in China, a great war won by America — government can get away with stuff like that. Then, as domestic lobbies clamor for more of the national fisc (“If we can put a man on the Moon, why can’t we . . . ?”), as the people are tamed by long peace, turning away from great events to their small daily affairs, as a mandarinate of unimaginative scholar-bureaucrats consolidates its grip on the society, priorities shift.

If we were wiser and more frugal, we would have just shut down the whole pointless business after the Apollo program, as the fifth Ming Emperor stopped the treasure fleets.

And the result of that was that eventually "European traders came banging on the nation’s doors". Not because voyages of discovery were wastes of time and money, but because they weren't. It was because the Europeans persisted, and without political in-fighting, and the Chinese did not. Because there was no immediate gain, they gave up all exploration as a waste of resources - just as John Derbyshire is advocating we do.

And unless the US really gets its act together, and treats manned spaceflight as something more than a political football and a source of pork for state constituencies, with funding withheld at whim, it will be Mandarin that will be the language not of Earth, but the whole Solar System.

Because the Chinese have learnt the right lesson, while John Derbyshire - and most US politicians with him - have learnt exactly the wrong one.


Laserlight said...

The American empire is in the process of declining, so I'm afraid don't expect us to starting new colonies.

Anonymous said...

IMHO, manned spaceflight is a colossal waste of money. How many robotic science missions could have been done with what it cost to build and operate the ISS?

Anonymous said...

Isn't Derbyshire the eugenics fan who is best buddies with Bailey?

daddy dave said...

I agree with you about manned space flight.

I don't agree that America is declining and that China will inevitably supercede America... to borrow an American expression, I'm not drinking the Kool Aid on that one.