I’ve noticed that Columbus Day is not as…celebrated… these days as when I was a kid, when it was pretty much an unalloyed paen to the great explorer and navigator who thought that the planet was a lot smaller than it was, bumped into a convenient continent in between Spain and Asia (had it not been there, the expedition would have been lost, or the crew mutinied and return home, long before they arrived at the real Spice Islands). Fortunately for him, the power of self delusion is great, and he seems to have gone to his deathbed thinking that he found a new route to the Orient, albeit one that bore no obvious resemblance to the one being traded with previously, other than full of heathens.
Anyway, the holiday seems to arouse much more protest today than in the sixties, at least among the politically correct and bien pensant, many of whom think that colonizing and industrializing the continent was the worst thing to happen to not only the people who had already been living here (and despite Rousseau’s toxic delusions about savage nobility, pillaging and making war amongst themselves, torturing and human sacrificing, and slaughtering the fauna who had beaten them here), but the entire planet.
I’m somewhere in the middle, but more old school than new. Certainly the place could have done with a lot less slavery and gold digging in the name of the Lord, and it would be a happier, or at least more productive place had both the north and south been Anglicized, rather than feudalized by Spain and Portugal, but overall I think that we’ve been better stewards than the first plunderers were, having gained a lot more scientific (as opposed to faux spiritual) knowledge and developed technologies to make things more to everyone’s liking, for all their cavilling. I don’t, after all, see the natives doing much of that return-to-the-earth stuff — they find casinos much more lucrative. That seems to have been left to their worshipers in communes and academia, who seem to worship them even when they are fake but accurate. And it’s tragic that so many died from simple contamination by diseases to which they had no immunity (though not deliberately for the most part, despite that particular mythology), but this is another area in which we may learn from the past, and at least try to minimize such future events.
Which gets me to my real point.
In reading some of the comments over at Pop Mechanics today, I was struck (on this day) by how many in the space advocacy (and non-advocacy) community continue to use the opening of the New World as an analogy for where we are today, or are going, in space. For instance, Jeff Greason:
I think Mars is a very obvious place for settlement to happen. It is the place we have that is closest to us and looks like the most prominent candidate for a self-sustained human presence. Why would anyone want to go there? I want to go! There are lots of people out there who want to go. Wind that question back 400 years. Why would anyone want to go this great howling wilderness in North America? When the pilgrims got here, they wrote about what inhospitable place it was, with no inns to refresh one’s spirits, nothing but howling wilderness. The first three attempts to make a permanent place in the Los Angeles area ended in death. Even now, you have to pipe in water to survive. We had to master fire to get out of Africa, and agriculture to get to a lot of places. The American West had to be subjected to massive civil engineering works before more than a small community of pioneers could live there. What you consider to be habitable is a function of your level of technology.”
This is an argument that I (and countless others) have made in the past. And then we have the inevitable Bob Park:
When we established colonies [on Earth], we did it for very specific reasons. To rape the resources and bring them home. There aren’t any resources on Mars, not that we know of. There’s nothing to go there to get. If there were diamonds a feet deep on Mars, it still wouldn’t be worth the cost of sending people there. We’re already doing a great job with unmanned explorers.
That last, of course, always begs the question of what “the job” is.
So is it a good analogy or not? Yes, in some ways, no in others. As Scott Pace notes, our future in space depends on two critical issues, and one can build a quadrant table from them:
Can Live Off The Land
Can’t Live Off The Land
No Economic Benefits
Nothing Much In Space
In the Americas, there was a clear economic benefit. Even ignoring the spice issue which became moot when Columbus stumbled into the wrong continent, the early explorers quickly found profit from treasure that the natives had accumulated, and then later with agricultural resources (e.g., sugar and tobacco). And the life support system was in place, with little/no technology development necessary to live there. So it cleanly fell into the upper left box, and we had colonies. The Vikings, on the other hand, didn’t find much in the way of economic benefits in Vineland other than the grapes, and climate change seemed to have put an end to that eventually. And unlike the Spanish a few hundred years later, their technology was insufficiently advanced over the natives (if at all) that they were probably chased out by them, so they fell into the lower right.
And of course, the biggest difference is the natives. As far as we know, no one has beaten us into space, at least in this solar system, barring the find of a monolith. The closest thing to the natives in the space analogy is Martian microbes, should they exist, and it has been noted in the past that the last thing that aspiring Martians on earth should want to see is the discovery of life there, because it’s quite conceivable and even likely that in today’s political climate it would result in a planetary quarantine to prevent contamination, either forward or back. The Europeans from half a millennium ago were much less fastidious about such things. If they had been, who knows what the course of history might have been? More native Americans, perhaps, but also perhaps less technology, and no Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
But I think that Scott’s formulation is a little too narrow. If we look at the history of the New World, at least from the Anglosphere, there were motivations other than economic. Here’s another, more expansive version of the table:
Can Live Off The Land
Can’t Live Off The Land
No Economic/Spiritual Benefits
Massachussets/Salt Lake City
Nothing Much In Space
I think, like Jeff Greason, that whether or not we can live off the land is largely a matter of technology, and that developing that technology is only a matter of time, so the issue for the first column is not if, but when. Initially, if there are economic benefits, it may be an oil rig scenario, but I suspect that it will eventually evolve to at least a company town, if not independent colony. The more interesting question, to me, is the benefits issue. The Pilgrims and the LDS weren’t seeking wealth (though many found it). They were seeking freedom of worship, and that was sufficient to compel them to pull up their roots in an old land in which they were doing well economically, but spiritually malnourished, and even being oppressed. While the initial impetus for colonization of the New World was God (as in converting and coincidentally enslaving the heathens), Glory and Gold, the most ultimately successful colonies were based on the former, in that they were driven by desire of at least freedom of worship (though in some cases also the freedom to impose their own religious viewpoint on others).
I think that the biggest difference between the New World and the space frontier is that in the former, while the land was initially plentiful, at some point (and we’ve pretty much reached it, at least at current technology levels) they aren’t making any more. In space, if one isn’t back down in a gravity well, all land will be manufactured, and the practical implications of this are that we won’t have to fight over real estate — anyone with the financial resources will be able to manufacture their own.
But if the biggest impetus will be spiritual and/or ideological, it raises the question of religions that want to be left alone (e.g., Jews, Jainists, Baha’i) and those that want to proselytize (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, evangelical Christianity) and even convert forcibly (the most notable example being Islam). For the former, having space colonies are a solution, but if the latter build them as well, we will indeed take our problems with us out into the cosmos, as we brought them to the Americas from Europe. That is, of course, no reason not to go. We are humans, after all, as flawed (and magnificent) in that way today as we were in the time of Mohammed, Leif Ericson, and Christopher Columbus. If we don’t expand into space, warts and all, then humanity will not have done so. And the future won’t be anywhere near as interesting.
Popular Mechanics has rounded up some thoughts from some panel members, and others, including John Carmack. I haven’t had time to read them yet, myself, but may have more comments when I have.
[Update a few minutes later]
OK, I’ve skimmed them. Bob Park has nothing of interest to say, as usual. I think that Scott’s comment is the most interesting. I think that the answer to both questions is yes. We already can see the economic justification — if nothing else, there is a market for wealthy people who simply want to go. If the price can be brought down, that market is extremely elastic (look what happened to the cruise industry…). The way to bring the cost down is to build an affordable infrastructure, and start living off the land. The great tragedy of human spaceflight is that we have squandered tens of billions over the past decades redoing the unaffordable Apollo model of centralized bureaucracy. Had we not been diverted by the need to beat the Soviets to the moon half a century ago, I think that a NACA that had evolved into a technology agency for space as well as aviation might have had us much further down that road by now.
I haven’t dug into either the programmatics or the politics of this, but Jeff Masters says that the Senate is about to cut NOAA’s budget and move the funds to criminal alien assistance. I don’t live in south Florida any more (hallelujiah!) but I think that tracking hurricanes is a higher priority for that money. I do think that if I did dig into this, I might find more innovative and cost-effective proposals to do it than another QuickSCAT (like data purchase), but I’d rather have that than nothing.
I would also note that if the satellite had been designed to be serviced, and Shuttle had lived up to its initial program goals (including, of course, west-coast launch capability), we wouldn’t have to launch a new satellite — it would be an excellent candidate for repair, with its instruments still in good shape. But because Shuttle didn’t, it wasn’t. And because satellites aren’t designed to be serviced, there is less market to justify systems capable of servicing them. Chicken and egg. Such are the ongoing consequences of not being a spacefaring nation.
I wonder if this would have been more in the news if we’d had a more active hurricane season, and were still in the middle of it? Timing is all.
Charls Krauthammer says that we have a choice to make. The problem is that the country is being run by people who think that such a decline is a “progressive” value, and not only favor, it but are doing everything possible to hasten it, in their goal to level the field and reduce us all to Eurosocialists.
…is there a chance that America will emerge approximately intact after the 2012 election, send Obama packing back to Chicago where he belongs, and gradually recover the strength, dignity, and economic vitality it has forfeited to a charlatan? Might the 2010 congressional elections apply the brakes and at least slow down the nation’s careening descent — what Roger Kimball calls a dégringolade — into impoverishment, stasis, and political and military weakness? Maybe. Maybe not.
Obama reminds me of a Star Wars Imperial Walker, wreaking havoc and devastation with every step, but one who may not be brought down by ordinary Americans who understand the danger he represents. The fear is that Obama has amassed so much power, aided by a Pravda-esque media and backed by a like-minded political clientele among left-wing voters and significant minorities, that he may be invulnerable. But, unfortunately, his country is not.
I think that the Republic will ultimately prevail, but the immediate future looks very ugly.