Posted by: cousindampier | 27 April 2010

What we knew of the World, and what that means for Space

We used to think the world was like this, and that was only 400 years ago. Kind of humbling.

I had a conversation with a friend a while ago about the privatization of space flight, and what it means for space exploration. It is certainly a change for both NASA and America. One of the greatest moments in American history is putting a man on the moon; now we can’t even put men and women into orbit safely. I’ve been reading J.C. Beaglehole’s Exploration of the Pacific; comparing the discovery of islands and coastlines in the Pacific has striking similarities to space travel so far.

The discovery of the Pacific had three main eras:

1. Spanish Era, for religion and gold; voyages sponsored most often by the crown
2. Dutch Era, for profit and trade; most voyages sponsored by the Companies of the time (Dutch East India Company)
3. British Era, for trade/knowledge. These voyages had a mixture of sponsorships – voyages of trade were often run by the different companies, and there were a good number of them (America was colonized by them – Virginia Company, etc). However, the voyages of exploration were sponsored by the Crown, through the British Admiralty. William Dampier’s first voyage in 1697 was the first sponsored by the Admiralty. Cook’s voyages were essentially state run.

With space exploration, the general trend is the same. The moon landings were equivalent to religion – getting to the moon was as accomplishment of ideology over the Soviets, which is similar. After 1972, we move to the Shuttle and space stations, which were useful and needed. There is no denying now we are at a point of wondering what NASA and space travel is for.

I think we’ve moved to that second stage – private enterprise will take the lead for a long while. Eventually, I think states will get back into the process, but it will be for two reasons: knowledge and…whatever the equivalent of geography in space is. Mapmaking, call it – private undertakings have never really held that as a priority.

Carl Sagen is right in terms of exploration – there is no point in sending a person for what a drone can do, especially given that if things go kaput (like…if we forget to convert meters into feet again and miss the planet Mars) then there is really nowhere for the guy in the spacecraft to go and survive. But I definitely think it is in human nature to move beyond Earth. I don’t know what quality it is about humans which cause that expansion, but humankind has always pushed beyond the known and wanted to discover what lay beyond the horizon.

Though NASA seems to be making a huge step backwards, it will emerge from some sort of a restructure of its strategy and means to achieve them with a more clear sense of mission, and at a time when the object of humankind in space is more clear as well. The British took the lead in the Pacific as science became power – geographic knowledge was a form of imperialism (Robert Kaplan, in The Ends of the Earth, commented about maps being propaganda. He’s right – the Dutch kept many of their discoveries secret for fear others would exploit their newfound territory).

Why do humans want to always move beyond the horizon – be it a true horizon, or a metaphorical one in fields such as science?

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