Sharp Blue: Cathedrals and Shuttles


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In the early decades of the 15th century, something extraordinary was happening in China. The Ming dynasty was seized by a form of madness that involved building gigantic fleets of ships and sending them out onto the seas and oceans surrounding China to shower gifts upon the bemused locals. Each of the ships was a floating palace that dwarfed the contemporary ships of Europe and under the great admiral Cheng Ho the treasure fleet included seventy ships that required 30,000 sailors to man. Cheng Ho voyaged around the islands of Sumatra and Java and then on to across the Indian ocean as far as eastern Africa. Building the ships, outfitting them and producing the treasures they gave away required most of the industry of China's coast. The timber alone was enough to cause a localised ecological catastrophe. This vast enterprise was intended not so much to establish trade with exotic nations or to conquer or colonise them, but simply to reduce them to awe at the vast power and magnificence of China and to bring back one-off tributes. Eventually the strain on the economy proved too much and the emperor ordered the treasure ships burned and outlawed the building of new vessels.

At the opposite end of Eurasia, something equally extraordinary was happening at about the same time: the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy. Around the time of Cheng Ho's voyages, Brunelleschi was working on the dome of Florence Cathedral. The next two centuries would see a vast outpouring of architectural and artistic splendours financed by the new wealth of Italy. The culmination of this flowering would be St. Peter's basilica in Rome, the largest church in Christendom and a building that took generations to complete. These splendours were only the latest of a long series of European cathedrals that stretched back centuries to the gothic glories of Chartres cathedral and beyond. The cathedrals were intended to stretch the powers of creation in the service of the glorification of man and God. They are the soaring psyche, frozen in stone and glass. The expenditure in resources and talent was immense, the products sublime. Eventually more utilitarian concerns marshalled those resources to other ends.

The late Renaissance was also the beginning of the age of exploration. Explorers and adventurers sailed from Europe to the far reaches of the globe. By and large, their motivation was not to show off the power and majesty of Europe or to glorify God but to make a profit. From the beginning, the age of exploration was tied up with the explosion and globalisation of the European economy. Christopher Columbus sailed west in search of a route to China but instead found Cuba and Hispaniola. John Cabot was funded by Bristol's Society of Merchant Venturers to seek profits in these new lands and came ashore in North America. Ferdinand Magellan sought a new route to the Moluccas, the far end of the lucrative pepper trade. Hundreds of voyages followed, seeking gold and silver in South America (making Spain briefly the wealthiest state in Europe) or spices in India or profits wherever they could be found. These voyages laid the foundations for European dominance of the world in later centuries

In the 1960s, the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes were treasure ships. The early space programme was a tool of foreign policy, a demonstration of American technical supremacy to the rest of the world. It was, in a very real sense, a proxy for military conflict with the Soviet Union. Apollo, especially, was explicitly the means by which America organized and measured the best of its energies and skills in a display to the nations of the world. The journey to the Moon was a race that America intended to win, and won. Despite some rhetoric, it was not about science, not about building the future. (Indeed, Freeman Dyson argued that even with Apollo technology and NASA's budget, much more science could have been done on the Moon.) Yet, for all this, it was a magnificent achievement. That small step will be remembered when America and the USSR and the Cold War are but faded memories.

Since the winding down of Apollo, the space programme has not been building treasure ships but cathedrals. The Soviet Union bowed out of the space race and NASA turned its attention to Mars. Or rather it would've done so if its budget had allowed. Instead began developing the Space Transportation System, the Shuttle, with which it intended to make access to space cheap enough to build a space station from which to launch interplanetary ships to Mars. The intention was not science, not profit, but sheer adventure, the romance of space travel, the blue jewel of Earth dusted with swirls of cloud, the magic of footprints in red dust. And it has been beautiful, and awesome, and magical. Now, though, we've lost a second orbiter. We've found ourselves with foundations and scaffolding, but no cathedral. The scaffolding is starting to crumble, the dreams are being scaled down. No science of any significance has been done, nowhere has been explored, and there's no prospect of getting anywhere any time soon. The problem is that NASA's vision incorporates romance, but not profit; and romance can only conjure up so much money.

We have another choice, though. The space programme needn't be about treasure ships or cathedrals - it could be about profit, resources, industry. There's romance in that too, the romance of Columbus, Cabot, Magellan, da Gama. Just as each of their adventures financed the next, leading inexorably to a global network of trade, so the adventure of manned space travel could finance itself, leading to a network of trade and industry that spanned the solar system. There is vast wealth locked up in near-Earth asteroids. Near-Earth comets contain the resources we need to mine and transport it. The sunlight streaming past Earth can be captured by solar power arrays to power our cities. The Moon can be mined for helium-3. The space programme itself can pay for the exploration of Mars, of Europa, of Titan. What's more, all of this is in the reach of NASA. It wouldn't take more resources than the Station. All we need is vision: a vision to organise our skills and talents, to direct the courage and daring of our astronauts. We need NASA to outline why it wants to do the things it wants to do. We need NASA to have goals that truly do benefit all of humanity. What we need is not vague talk about our glorious destiny in space, but a desire to build the future we all want using realistic budgets. Let's remember that brave crews of Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11, Challenger and Columbia as heroes pioneering the future, and not as men and women who died building cathedrals.

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In spite of my wariness of specious historical analogies, that's a very strong argument.

You've set me thinking a little more about the economics of Solar System industrialisation. One question that's beginning to nag me is this:

Suppose that I could wave my magic wand and make all of the R&D and infrastructure required for an industrialised solar system magically appear... for a price. (Maybe there was a Schumpeterian jump in space investment?) Now we can consider space as a kind of black box: we throw some of earth's resources into it (e.g. aluminium, titanium, fossil fuels, astronauts) and we get something back out (e.g. helium-3, platinum group metals, "long pork").

How much would we be willing to pay for this box? Bear in mind the effects of this box's existence on markets: the price of inputs would rise, and the price outputs would fall, *especially* if the box's capacity was significant compared to the earth's.

Also, remember that the earth's resources are much more limited than the solar system's. If there is no way of getting anything useful out of the box without putting something valuable and finite in, such as titanium, then it would eventually become useless and have to be abandoned. (Can we turn space into a cornucopia?)

Having said all that, you wouldn't catch me on one of them damn' shuttles!! :-) Did you know that Olga's parents were engineers on the Russian space shuttle programme?

Just had another thought. What we need to do is engineer a specualative bubble in space exploration. So how do we do this? Well...

The tulip bubble was partly triggered by the introduction of futures markets.

The Louisiana Bay Trading Company was created by a man who also, amongst other things, introduced paper money to France, thereby freeing up capital markets.

The dotcom bubble was fuelled by the sudden lowering of barriers to entry into the stock market (internet based day traders).

After the collapse of communism, there were a large number of pyramid investment scams, ready to exploit the unsophisticated new capitalists.

You get the general picture. When a new investment vehicle comes along (or an old one is made more widely available), a bubble follows, because people lose their sense of perspective. In a sense, the dotcoms were incidental... what was important was the cut price internet share dealers. (I'm not saying that this explains *all* bubbles. But I'm not saying it doesn't either.)

So what we need is a new kind of investment vehicle, or a way to democratise an old one, and a way of ensuring that it is used to invest in space. (Synthetic green cheese puts?) Then leave the forces of greed and stupidity to do their thing.

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Just bad? I was aiming for abysmal!

Hey... guess what Rich? You know what they say about great minds. If you had this idea in your head, I daresay it's a good one. Please see my essay from April (actually it goes back to a post to brin-l from years ago, but I finally developed it into an essay this year) here. older ladies nude freematurepicture

This site is funny. it started off with, the economics of an industrialised solar-system, and ended up a gambling granny humping advert! nice

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