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Nostalgia For Medieval Explorers Won't Make Us Space Explorers

Cheng Ho's travels took him far at the time, but left China in no better position to confront the centuries of decline it has faced until the most recent years.
by Jeffrey F. Bell
Honolulu - Dec 03, 2003
Talk to "Space Cadets" long enough and they will inevitably start using historical analogies to "successful" sea exploration programs in order to promote their particular vision for future space exploration. But it is the historical failures that shed more light on the state of space efforts today.

Living in Hawai'i, I constantly encounter references to the great Polynesian canoe voyages. Another popular model is the age of European exploration that started with Columbus and Vasco Da Gama. Both had an immense influence on human history, so Space Cadets love to point to them to describe the potential for the exploration of space.

More appropriate lessons can be drawn from two "unsuccessful" sea programs. One which does get a certain amount of play is the Chinese Empire's program of "tribute fleets" that roved throughout the Indian Ocean in the 15th century. Science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge has even named his future interstellar trading culture after the most famous commander of those fleets, Admiral Cheng Ho.

The Space Cadet history of Cheng Ho's voyages goes like this (with modern analogies in parentheses): Far-seeing palace eunuch-administrators (JFK's New Frontiersmen) funded an immense program of exploratory voyages (Apollo) that extended Chinese influence and culture throughout the Indian Ocean.

The size and technical sophistication of these ships was far in advance of the pitiful Portuguese (Soviet) caravels that were creeping down the West African coast at the same time. When Cheng Ho was on the verge of rounding the Cape and reaching Europe, a palace revolution replaced the eunuchs with Confucian scholars (Great Society welfare-staters / Nixon Administration warmongers) who lacked the vision to appreciate the value of oceanic exploration. The new administration cut seafaring out of the budget. Eventually, the building of ocean-going ships was banned, China turned inward and left the world of the future to be dominated by Europe (USSR / Japan / Red China).

But some years ago, I read some of the actual literature on that short period of Chinese oceanic voyaging. The real story is that those tribute fleets were very much like our current space program: vastly expensive, but producing no useful results other than propaganda. At each port stop, the local sultans or maharajas proclaimed themselves vassals of the Celestial Emperor, expensive gifts were exchanged, and then the fleet sailed on.

The Chinese didn't get any colonies, forts, naval bases, or trading posts. They seem not to have even collected taxes or tribute on a long-term basis from the places they visited. There was no increase in trade or industry that can be traced to Cheng Ho's voyages.

The emigration of the Overseas Chinese population so prominent in the economic life of this area today is completely unconnected to Cheng Ho. The Chinese Empire spent a huge amount of public money on these voyages and in return it got a short-lived boost in prestige and a few alien animals for the Emperor's zoo.

The whole operation was really one of those "royal progresses" that Western emperors and kings used to stage, where the court would migrate around the countryside and show itself to the provincial nobility. Cheng Ho's fleets didn't actually carry the whole Imperial Court, but just enough of it to impress everyone with the power and majesty of China. It is misleading to refer to these voyages as "exploration". That concept didn't really exist at the time and certainly was not a major motivation for the tribute fleets.

The Chinese ruling class of the 15th century felt no need to colonize or expand in any way. They were satisfied that China was the peak of human civilization, so any other place would be less fit for civilized living.

The idea of conquistadores, traders, or pirates going out into the barbarian world to win fortunes, estates, and noble titles just didn't exist in that highly ordered and stratified society. The only way to get ahead was to score high on the Imperial Civil Service tests, so any ambitious youngster stayed home and studied classical literature and poetry.

As for the fantasy of Cheng Ho sailing around Africa and conquering Europe -- Europe was already well ahead in the technology of gunpowder weapons. After they reached the Indian Ocean in 1498, tiny Portuguese squadrons smashed much larger Arab, Mameluke, and Indian fleets with cannon and musket fire, and they would have done the same to Cheng Ho or his successor.

So I agree with the Confucian scholars that stopped these super-expensive and pointless expeditions. It would have been nice had the new regime in the Forbidden City substituted a real sea exploration program like the one Prince Henry the Navigator had started in Portugal. But that was outside the realm of political possibility in China circa 1500AD. Only the West had the pre-existing social conditions to make the Age of Exploration possible.

An earlier example of a failed sea program is the Norse expeditions to Canada circa 1000AD. Here, the colonists had a strong motive to permanently settle and colonize new lands. Their homeland was devoid of farmable land and ridden with blood feuds that made emigration the only hope of survival for some families. Only sheer desperation could have driven the Vikings to settle in Iceland, much less points further west.

What the Norse colonizers of Canada lacked was the technological base to maintain themselves in the New World. They had a marginal technology for crossing the ocean, a marginal technology for fighting the Indians, marginal cold-weather clothes, and marginal farming/fishing/mining techniques.

They didn't find an export product that could have been sold in Europe. They could just barely support one tiny village in Newfoundland with the help of the larger colonies in Greenland and Iceland. (And this was in a period called the Medieval Climatic Optimum that was considerably warmer than today.)

When it became clear that life in Newfoundland would be nasty, brutish, and short even by Viking standards, they gave up. Later, the Little Ice Age came along and even the Norse colonies in Greenland were snuffed out by global cooling that their feeble technical toolkit couldn't cope with.

I think we are in the same position with respect to space flight that the Norsemen were in respect to colonizing Canada. Our chemical rockets are just as inadequate as the Viking longboats. Our spacesuits are as clumsy as chainmail armor. Our means of defense from solar and cosmic radiation are as ineffective as the Viking spears and axes were against the Indians. Our ideas for using local resources are as primitive as the farming and mining techniques of 1000 A.D. And so far, our ideas for profitable imports from space have turned out to be as disappointing as the real lands behind those Viking realtors' names "Greenland" and "Wineland" (Newfoundland).

What we need are the 21st-century equivalents of the galleons, plate armor, gunpowder, horses, and plows that made the European colonization of America practical in the 1500s and 1600s. Even more, we need some outer space analog to profit centers like Newfoundland's codfish, Virginia's tobacco, and Mexico's gold.

When we have these things, the Age of Space will really start. If we emulated the Vikings and the Confucian scholars by closing down our current useless manned space program, we might have the money to fund the equivalent of Prince Henry's Navigation Institute and develop this technology now instead of waiting 500 years.

But no Space Cadet dares to advocate this. They fear that instead of a second Space Age with advanced technology, we would get what the 16th-century Chinese got: no manned space program at all. They insist that we need to continue spending the existing budget on Cheng Ho's pointless and expensive voyages, and find new money to fund Columbus and Da Gama.

Unfortunately, there seems little possibility of significant new money, at least from the US government. The Congress recently sent letters to President Bush asking for a modest increase in the NASA budget. These letters were signed by only 18% of the House and 23% of the Senate! This level of support is not enough to start a major new spending program.

So the International Space Station will continue to circle the Earth, like Cheng Ho's tribute fleets circling the Indian Ocean, and the Space Shuttles will continue to make expensive and dangerous crossings of the 300-km gap to LEO, like Viking longboats venturing into the Atlantic gales. Remembering history is not enough. We need to understand it as well, or we will be doomed to repeat it.

Jeffrey F. Bell is Adjunct Professor of Planetology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and not those of the University.

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