Monday, July 20, 2009

Jack Kennedy's Treasure Fleet

I was 11 years old, and it was late. We simply weren't allowed to stay up that late - after 11:00. But this was no normal day. We all huddled around that old Black-and-White television set, watching a terrible picture that showed the first man on the moon. Dad was in Paris finishing his PhD research, and watched it projected on a huge screen at the Place de la Concorde. This was maybe the last time that an American's money was no good in Paris.

We haven't been back, since Gene Cernan climbed back aboard the LEM in December, 1972. Some folks think this is a crying shame. I used to be one of them. Now I recognize that there could not have been any other outcome. We've seen this before.

Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese Ming dynasty sent a series of exploration voyages to southeast Asia, India, and even Africa. While the Portuguese under Prince Henry struggled down the western coast of Africa in their tiny caravels, huge Chinese treasure ships sailed to Calicut and Mogadishu.

And then they were gone, as if they had never existed. Why?

The historian David Landes spends considerable time on this question in his indispensable The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations. The Chinese voyages differed in one critical way from those of Diaz and Columbus: the Chinese voyages were motivated by a desire to glorify the Middle Kingdom, while the European ones were motivated by the desire for filthy lucre:
In the 1430s a new emperor reigned in Peking, one who "knew not Joseph." A new, Confucian crowd completed for influence, mandarins who scorned and distrusted commerce (for them, the only true source of wealth was agriculture) and detested the eunuchs who had planned and carried out the great voyages. For some decades, the two groups vied for influence, the balance shifting now one way, not the other. But fiscality and the higher Chinese morality were on the Confucian side. The maritime campaign had strained the empire's finances and weakened its authority over a population bled white by taxes and corvee levies.

[snip]

So, after some decades of tugging and hauling, of alternating celebration and commemoration on the one hand, of contumely and repudiation on the other, the decision was taken not only to cease from maritime exploration but to erase the very memory of what had gone before lest later generations be tempted to renew the folly.

[snip]

At the same time, [the Chinese] desire to overawe meant that costs far exceeded returns. These voyages reeked of extravagance. Whereas the first profits (the first whiff of pepper) and the promise of even greater ones to come were a powerful incentive to Western venturers, in China the pecuniary calculus said no.

[snip]

The vulnerability of the program - here today, gone tomorrow - was reinforced by its official character. In Europe, the opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. Nothing like that in China, where the Confucian state abhorred merchantile success.
So why did we leave the Moon, never to return? Why is NASA wandering in the wilderness? Let's update Landes, shall we? In Europe America, the opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal Government projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies low-cost way to orbit was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. OK, then.

The heroism of the Astronaut corps doesn't change the fact that NASA will not - and can not - ever do what Columbus did. If they want to make a difference, to make it possible for people to live in Space, they should declare that they will purchase X kilograms of orbital launch delivery at $Y per kilo, and get out of the way. Unlike the X-Prize and Spaceship-One, NASA's pecuniary calculus will always be a football game, played between the Johnson Center Eunuchs and the HHS Mandarins.

But hey, this is all crazy talk, right? I mean, NASA would never skew things because of politics, right? Right?

No comments: