Where are the ships?

The International Astronautical Congress is having its 59th annual meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.  This is one of the oldest professional meetings for the space industry.  This is my first time to attend and it has been great.  There have been so many great discussions with the senior professionals and with the students; opportunities to hear the plans and projects for the future as well as the news from projects underway now with recent successes.  The opportunity to discuss mutual problems and mutual interests with people who have different perspectives makes you stretch, learn, and become more innovative.

Of real and particular interest to me were the discussions I had with the SpaceX people and Virgin Galactic.  These folks are building real spacecraft with private funds for commercial reasons.  Even more companies presented papers with plans for imaginative spacecraft that may become more than viewgraphs — or should I say, electrons — in the future.  The potential is enormous.

But the most challenging and best part of the conference for me occurred during a reception.  Now the reception was good, I had a long chat with several colleagues from Canada, Germany, and other places.  But the most striking thing was the location:  on the tall ship Glennlee moored on the river Clyde. 

The Glennlee was launched from a Glasgow shipyard in 1895; a sailing ship in the days of steam freighters.  It is now a museum outfitted for tourists and school children to learn about life at sea a hundred years ago.  Large displays show where she sailed — literally all over the world — and how the crew lived — very spartan.  There was even a long discussion about one of the crewmen who died at sea.  Wages were low, work was arduous, and every day was filled with hazards.  But they carried the freight for decades to ports all around the world.

Leaving the reception and the Glennlee, I walked along the banks of the Clyde reflecting on how many ships were built in Glasgow’s yards: freighters, battleships, channel ferries, even mighty ocean liners:  the two Queens of the 1930’s and the QE2 were built there.  For three hundred years, thousands of ships set sail from the Clyde bound for every place in the world a ship or river boat could reach.  They still build ships there, although fewer than in the heyday of ocean travel.  No great liners; just tankers and immense freighters. But they still build them, and they still set sail.

How long will it be until we have spaceship yards building thousands of spacecraft?  When will we reach the great age of Space Exploration when ships routinely set sail for all the ports in the Solar System? And whose ships will those be?

It is a good thing to preserve the past, to help us learn for the future.  But the Glennlee is forlorn; her yardarms barren of canvas.  No more does she sail from Glasgow harbor to the ports of the world. 

There is a pop culture moment that captures perfectly my mood.  When Elizabeth Swann tells Captain Jack Sparrow that returning to his ship would allow him to go anywhere in the Caribbean, the pirate replies:

“Not just the Spanish Main, love, the entire ocean, the entire world, wherever we want to go. 


That’s what a ship is, you know. 


It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails,

that’s what a ship needs. 


But what a ship is, . . .


What it really is,   


is freedom.”



4 thoughts on “Where are the ships?”

  1. I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
    And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
    And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
    And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

    I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
    Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
    And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
    And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

    I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
    To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
    And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
    And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

    “Sea-Fever” by John Masefield (1878-1967).
    (English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)

  2. “Now…bring me that horizon!”

    You have the same problem I do…we’re both born a few hundred years too early. But unless someone has the dream, the reality will never be.

    Not just the solar system, Wayne. Think larger. What was the Nostromo doing before happening upon the distress signal? Those vessels won’t necessarily belong to any particular country…remember, flags don’t wave in a vacuum. Besides, Old Glory is meaningless when you’re 100 light-years from home. Better to have the “map” as seen on the flanks of the twin Voyagers.

    Most likely, a company such as the fictional Weyland-Yutani will lead the way.


  3. Another (hopefully equally suitable) pop culture moment:

    Capt. James T. Kirk speaking to his good friend, Dr. McCoy:

    “All I ask is a tall ship,
    and a star to steer her by”

  4. Kinda behind the times, but I think we will start the great voyage of exploration when we slip the surly bonds of earth. When we have ships that go off on voyages without needing the full time tether tether to the ground and when we start working in space with a skill set and not months of rehearsal before a mission, then we will be explorers. Now, we are like the early sailors in the Med, tethered to the shore and not ready to take the big steps. You said it best when you talked about how we are at the longboat stage, but we’re not quite there yet.

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