In fourteen hundred and ninety two…

12/04/2011 § Leave a comment

One of those childhood mnemonics that I’ve never quite shook is a little post-Columbian couplet:

In fourteen hundred and ninety two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue

I’ve always assumed that there were more lines, although I never learnt them. Anyway, there’s no equivalent for the first manned space flight. Probably just as well, since sixty one doesn’t really give an obviously useful rhyme.

Fifty years before twenty eleven/Gararin soared and punctured heaven

Socialism marches onward!

Socialism marches onward!

This isn’t the only difference between Columbus’ voyage and Gagarin’s space flight and the first decade of space exploration. There must have been a beautiful sense of optimism following those first flights; a feeling that the night sky, suspended in infinite eternity, would soon become as tame as the seas. What followed must, therefore, be classed as a severe disappointment. It took us no time at all to tire of the stars and let the sky close over us once more.

By way of a contrast, fifty years after Columbus’ first voyage the Spanish had conquered Mexico and Peru and enforced their claim to an entire hemisphere. The Portuguese, who were better explorers and traders, had acquired footholds in India, East Africa and Brazil. Cargoes of gold, silver, spices, ivory, jet, sandalwood all began to circle the planet with the rhythm of winds, watched by a spreading diaspora of mariners and colonists.

Bearing in mind that we have half a millennium of extra technology on our side, you’d think we’d have been able to do better. You could be reading this blog in London or Lhasa within a second of posting; while no one in the whole of Europe knew of Columbus’ discovery until 1493. Why is it that the skies have stayed out of reach?

It’s tempting to say that it’s harder to fly than it is to sail. This is nonsense, in the sense that it’s perfectly true and utterly unimportant. After all, if gravity was sufficient objection to travel then Easyjet would make its money with a bunch of steerage-only tramp steamers. Broadly speaking, if you can get a fleet of satellites into orbit to locate people’s mobile phones, our reasons for staying planet-bound are hardly practical ones.

The problem is that there is very little reason to go into space, at least past geo-stationary orbit. Why does Cortes take an expeditionary force to Mexico by 1519? Answer – to boldly plunder where no man has plundered before. Likewise, when Bartolomeu Dias heads to India, he does it in the pursuit of a ready return through cutting out middlemen from the spice trade. Conversely, if you go to the moon, all you bring back are rocks. Boring rocks.

The moon offers us no real attractions – no treasure to steal, no markets to exploit, no people to enslave. Many people would celebrate the absence of pillage, profit or peonage; but the fact is that without bad reasons to go into space, we haven’t found any noble ones. If there were little green men on the moon who we could use or abuse, I’m fairly confident that we’d have shown a lot more interest. Trade and transport in turn inspire technology – fifty years after Columbus the Spanish were developing massive trade galleons to carry extra cargo in safety; while today we’ve forgotten even how to build a moon rocket.

Not to say there’s no hope, though. It’s genuinely astonishing how quickly Europe rushed to control the Americas, the Indies, the trade with China – how in about two generations explorers assembled a global system of trade. One corner of the planet, however, was left out. The first Europeans spot Australia in the early 1600s. It’s big, it’s dry, the bits they find are mostly deserts. The inhabitants had no economy, no industry, nothing worth trading and no desire to trade. Nearby Dutch merchants, trading in spices so valuable that a single shipload is worth years of labour to acquire, have no interest in wilderness.

For almost two hundred years, Australia sits half-discovered on Europe’s maps. The technology is there to explore the island, but no one can be bothered to make the journey. It’s not until the 1770s that Captain Cook is the first European to see the eastern coast of Australia.

Then, suddenly, circumstances change. With unrest in America, the British government decides that there’s a need to find somewhere new to deport criminals. At this point, a return journey to Australia takes around two years, but nevertheless, given an incentive, everything changes. In 1787, a fleet sets sail to found Botany Bay. By 1841 there are around 180,000 inhabitants, and thanks to a gold rush, six years later there are 340,000.

For space travel, there might be similar prospects. Scientists and engineers talk about the challenges of space travel, but there’s no shortage of people willing to try to solve them. What we lack is a reason to solve them in the first place; and once we figure out that there’s a particular metal that is particularly rare on earth and particularly abundant on the moon, or in nearby asteroids, suddenly we will have an incentive. And then, perhaps, we’ll have need of another mnemonic.

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