Monthly Archives: June 2009

Point,Counterpoint

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Coming back from vacation, my email and real mail boxes are stuffed.  One internet article that several folks forwarded to me came up several times.  At the surface, it was suggested that this is a counterpoint to my last post about the Chinese navy in the 15th century. 

I strongly encourage you to read this article by John Derbyshire.  I found it a very interesting read.  Here is the link and I encourage you to read it yourselves: 

http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=Nzc2NTYxMzVjNWRkMzc0YzQ0Y2VhNGI1ZGRkMTc2N2I

Now, having read Mr. Derbyshire’s article, I think that he is right on the mark.  In fact, I think we even agree at a very significant level.

My analysis comparing space to exploration in the 15th century is summed up this way:  “Over the next centuries, the European countries repeatedly decided to go forward, by fits and starts . . . into the world for trade, treasure, discovery, and glory.  They immersed the west in new ideas, new technologies, and new innovations.   . . .  The Chinese course lead inexorably to stagnation, then dissolution, then decay, and finally to destruction.”

Mr. Derbyshire’s conclusion is that “The lawyerly mandarins of the Obama administration have no interest in science or in imaginative enterprises of any kind,  . . . Perhaps our country . . . is in for a few centuries of introverted, creativity-free stagnation under bossy literati, until something unexpected comes banging on the door to wake us from our opium dreams.”

So we both see the same consequences of terminating our exploration.  All that we have done to date will be pointless, left without even suitable monuments for future generations to wonder at.  Only those bold and persistent enough to build on the past explorations will reap the transforming benefits.

Stopping now would put the United States on the ash heap of history, just like those Chinese who burned their fleet six centuries ago.

I hope we choose a vibrant future full of exploration, development, innovation, creativity, and unfathomable economic growth.  I want to avoid centuries of opium dreams where the rest of the world passes us by.

 

 

 

Its your choice,really.

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This is a little talk I put together to give at various functions.  I learned all this in college world history class.  Pardon the all caps – it is written as a speech and my old eyes need large font to read it.

But the point is as important as it can be.  We stand on the brink of ceding American leadership in exploration to other nations of the world.  We need to think about the consequences of this action.

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IN MY NEW ROLE I GET TO TRAVEL AROUND THE COUNTRY AND TALK TO A LOT OF PEOPLE.  THESE DAYS I AM FREQUENTLY ASKED THE SAME QUESTION:  CAN WE AFFORD THE LUXURY OF HAVING A SPACE PROGRAM.  IN THESE DAYS WHERE THE NATION IS FIGHTING TWO WARS, THERE IS A CRISIS IN HEALTH CARE, THE NATIONAL DEBT IS REACHING ASTRONOMICAL LEVELS, AND WE ARE IN AN ECONOMIC RECESSION, INDEED FIGHTING HARD TO PREVENT ANOTHER GREAT DEPRESSION, CAN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AFFORD A SPACE PROGRAM. 

 

IT DOES LITTLE TO POINT OUT THAT NASA RECEIVES 0.6% OF THE FEDERAL BUDGET AND IF ALL SPACE ACTIVITIES WERE TERMINATED THAT DROP IN THE FEDERAL BUCKET WOULD NOT SOLVE ANY OF THE PROBLEMS FACING THE NATION.


 

I BELIEVE THAT A STRONG BUSINESS CASE CAN BE MADE THAT THE SPACE PROGRAM LEADS TO ECONOMIC GROWTH THROUGH THE INVENTION OF NEW PRODUCTS WHICH STIMULATE NEW BUSINESSES AND INDEED WHOLE NEW INDUSTRIES.  BUT I AM NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT CASE TODAY, INDEED I BELIEVE YOU ARE MORE FAMILIAR WITH IT THAN I AM.

 

A CASE CAN BE MADE THAT SPACE EXPLORATION EXCITES OUR YOUNG PEOPLE TO STUDY SCIENCE, MATHEMATICS, ENGINEERING – AREAS WHICH THE NATION IS DESPERATELY SHORT OF NEW COLLEGE GRADUATES.  BUT I AM NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT CASE TODAY.

 

A CASE CAN BE MADE THAT BY LOOKING BACK ON THE EARTH AND STUDYING OTHER PLANETS WE CAN BEST UNDERSTAND WHAT IS HAPPENING TO OUR CLIMATE AND PERHAPS HOW TO CONTROL IT.  BUT I AM NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT CASE TODAY.

 

THERE IS AN EVEN STRONGER CASE THAT SPACE ACTIVITIES HELP PROTECT OUR NATION MILITARILY; BUT I AM NOT GOING TO MAKE THAT CASE TODAY.

 

I AM HERE TODAY TO TALK ABOUT THE LONG TERM CONSEQUENCES OF SPACE EXPLORATION, OR OF NOT HAVING SPACE EXPLORATION.

 

I AM MINDFUL TODAY THAT WE CHOSE OUR OWN DESTINY.  WE ARE FOUNDED BY PIONEERS WHO SAW OPPORTUNITY AND WHO HAD THE COURAGE AND ENERGY TO TAKE A CHANCE. 


 

HISTORY TELLS US THAT THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES.  IT IS NOT A GIVEN THAT THE UNITED STATES WILL ALWAYS BE GREAT.  TODAY WE ARE THE WORLD’S ONLY SUPER POWER AND WHAT WE DO IN SPACE CONTRIBUTES TO THAT POSITION.  WITHOUT CONTINUED COURAGE AND SWEAT, WE COULD FIND OURSELVES NO LONGER THE LEADER OF THE WORLD.

 

EVERYONE KNOWS THE QUOTATION FROM THE HISTORIAN GEORGE SANTAYANA:  “THOSE WHO DO NOT LEARN FROM THE PAST ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT”.   AND SO, TODAY, I HAVE A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT IN THE DAYS TO COME.


 

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO THERE WAS ONLY ONE SUPERPOWER IN THE WORLD: CHINA. 

 

THE MING EMPIRE RULED A PEOPLE MORE NUMEROUS THAN THE ANCIENT ROMAN EMPIRE AT ITS HEIGHT, LARGER IN TERRITORY THAN MODERN RUSSIA, VASTLY MORE POWERFUL AND RICHER THAN ALL THE PETTY FIEFDOMS OF CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN EUROPE PUT TOGETHER. 

 

THE MING EMPIRE WAS FABULOUSLY WEALTHY.  THE EMPEROR WANTED A NEW CAPITOL:  THEY BUILT THE CITY WE KNOW AS BEJING FROM EMPTY GRAZING LAND.  

 

THE EMPEROR NEEDED TO FEED THE PEOPLE IN HIS NEW CITY:  THEY BUILD THE GRAND CANAL, AN ENGINEERING FEAT NOT RIVALED UNTIL THE SUEZ AND PANAMA CANALS. 

 

THE EMPEROR WANTED A NAVY, SO HE APPOINTED AN ADMIRAL TO BUILD A FLEET OF  1,500 SHIPS. 

 

 

THE LARGEST OF THESE SHIPS RIVAL THE SIZE OF WWII’S SUPPORT AIRCRAFT CARRIERS; THEY WERE THE LARGEST WOODEN SHIPS EVER BUILT, THE LARGEST SAILING SHIPS EVER BUILT.

 


 

IT WAS NOT UNTIL THE AGE OF STEAM AND STEEL FOUR HUNDRED YEARS LATER THAT LARGER SHIPS BUILT.  THERE WERE OVER 30,000 SAILORS IN THIS NAVY.  CHINA WAS SO INCONCEIVABLY RICH IN THOSE DAYS THAT THE COST OF THIS VAST NAVY WAS AN INCONSEQUENTIAL FRACTION OF THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO THE EMPEROR.

 

THE CHINESE ADMIRALS SET OUT ON MANY VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY AND COMMERCE TO THE PHILIPPINES, MALAYSIA, INDIA, AND AS FAR AS THE EAST COAST OF AFRICA.  FOR OVER 40 YEARS THE MING NAVY MADE MANY VOYAGES WHICH RESULTED IN CHINESE HEGEMONY:  TOTAL  POLITICAL CONTROL OVER HALF THE WORLD.    NOT HALF THE “KNOWN WORLD” AS THOSE IGNORANT EUROPEANS MIGHT GUESS, BUT HALF THE TOTAL WORLD.

 

 FROM THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE THROUGH INDIA TO THE BERING STRAIT, FROM AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND TO THE WEST COAST OF THE AMERICAS, TRADE AND TRIBUTE POURED INTO CHINA.  ALL OF THESE ACCOMPLISHMENTS ARE WELL DOCUMENTED AND WELL KNOWN TO HISTORIANS.

 


 

IN A RECENT BOOK, A RETIRED BRITISH ROYAL NAVY SEA CAPTAIN, GAVIN MENZIES,  PROVIDES EVIDENCE THAT THE CHINESE NAVY CIRCUMNAVIGATED THE WORLD IN 1421, DISCOVERING ANTARCTICA IN THE SOUTH AND COMING WITHIN TWO HUNDRED MILES OF THE NORTH POLE IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. 

 

 

CAPTAIN MENZIES HAS EVIDENCE THAT THE CHINESE SET UP COLONIES NOT JUST ON THE ORIENT FACING EAST COAST OF AFRICA, BUT ON THE WEST COAST AS WELL, CHINESE COLONIES IN THE CARIBBEAN, NEAR PRESENT DAY PROVIDENCE RHODE ISLAND, AND ON GREENLAND.  WOW.

HOW DID THE EUROPEANS GET AN ACCURATE MAP OF THE WORLD 75 YEARS BEFORE COLUMBUS AND A CENTURY BEFORE MAGELLAN?  FROM CHINA!

 

SO THE CHINESE WERE THE WORLDS GREATEST SUPERPOWER AND CONTROLLED HALF THE WORLD AND EXPLORED THE ENTIRE GLOBE

 

 

IN 1415, THE TINY PRINCIPALITY OF PORTUGAL PUT EVERYTHING ON THE LINE.  PORTUGAL WAS INSOLVENT, ITS PRINCE IN DEBT AND HIS COURT THREADBARE.  AFTER A HUGE DEBATE, THE PORTUGUESE BORROWED JUST ENOUGH MONEY TO FINANCE A FEW SHIPS AND THEIR CREWS. 

 


 

WITH LESS THAN TWO DOZEN SHIPS – NONE OF THEM LARGE BY EVEN THE MISERABLE EUROPEAN STANDARD OF THE DAY – THE PORTUGUESE FOUGHT A SUCCESSFUL SEA BATTLE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN AND CAPTURED THE PORT OF CEUTA ON THE NORTH AFRICAN COAST.  THIS OPENED UP, EVER SO SLIGHTLY, TRADE WITH THE ORIENT, ESPECIALLY INCREASED TRADE IN THE HIGHLY DESIRED SPICES FROM THAT REGION. 

 

THE SCRAPPY PORTUGUESE DECIDED TO GO FORWARD, LEARNING THE LESSON THAT TAKING RISKS WAS WORTHWHILE, AND LOSSES COULD BE ACCEPTED.  THEY INVENTED A NEW TYPE OF SHIP SUITED FOR THE STORMY ATLANTIC, THE CARAVEL, THE FIRST REALLY NEW SHIP DESIGN SINCE ANCIENT TIMES. 

 

THE CARAVEL BECAME ONLY THE FIRST IN A SERIES OF CONTINUALLY IMPROVING AND INNOVATIVE SHIP DESIGNS THAT HAVE CONTINUED EVEN TO THE PRESENT.

 

THE PORTUGUESE EARNED THE ADMIRATION AND ENVY OF ALL THE EUROPEAN STATES, AND EVERY COUNTRY TRIED TO EMULATE THEM. 

 

THUS STARTED THE AGE OF WOODEN SHIPS AND IRON MEN.


 

OVER THE NEXT CENTURIES, THE EUROPEAN COUNTRIES REPEATEDLY DECIDED TO GO FORWARD, BY FITS AND BY STARTS, FOR GOOD REASONS AND FOR BAD ONES, ALWAYS WITH ENDLESS DEBATE, GENERALLY TEETERING ON THE EDGE OF FINANCIAL INSOLVENCY.  BUT THE WEST EUROPEANS MADE THE DECISION TO GO FORWARD INTO THE WORLD FOR TRADE, TREASURE, DISCOVERY, AND GLORY. THEY IMMERSED THE WEST IN NEW IDEAS, NEW TECHNOLOGIES, AND NEW INNOVATIONS.

 

BACK IN CHINA, AFTER A GENERATION OF ASTOUNDING VOYAGES, THE GREAT MING ADMIRAL DIED AT SEA.  THE EMPEROR ALSO DIED, AND THE NEW EMPEROR CAME UNDER DIFFERENT INFLUENCES. 

 

THESE VOICES COUNSELED THE YOUNG EMPEROR TO TURN INWARD.   SURELY CHINA HAD ENOUGH PROBLEMS TO SOLVE IN CHINA, WHY WASTE TIME AND ENERGY EXPLORING?  THESE ADVISORS TOLD THE EMPEROR THAT THERE WAS NOTHING IN THE WORLD TO MATCH CHINESE CULTURE – TRUE.  THEY TOLD THE EMPEROR THERE WERE NO GOODS IN THE WORLD TO RIVAL CHINESE GOODS – TRUE.  IN SHORT, THEY CONCLUDED, THERE WAS NOTHING OUT THERE FOR CHINA – A CONCLUSION THAT SOUNDED LOGICAL BUT WAS FAR FROM TRUE. 

 


 

THEY ADVISED THAT CHINA SHOULD PROTECT WHAT THEY HAD FROM THE FOREIGNERS.  FOREIGNERS WHO WANTED WHAT THE CHINESE HAD.  THE EMPEROR FOLLOWED THIS ADVICE.  HE COMPLETED THE GREAT WALL TO KEEP FOREIGNERS OUT.  HE BUILT A NEW CAPITAL, A “FORBIDDEN CITY” TO KEEP THE CITIZENS OF HIS OWN COUNTRY OUT. 

 

 

 

THE EMPEROR ORDERED THAT THE FLEET BE BURNED.  THE SAILORS WERE DISBANDED.  IT BECAME A CAPITAL OFFENSE TO BUILD A SAILING SHIP WITH MORE THAN TWO MASTS.  THE EMPEROR EVEN ORDERED THAT ALL THE RECORDS OF ALL THE VOYAGES BE BURNED.  CHINA TURNED INWARD.

 

 

WHEN THE PORTUGUESE EXPLORERS BERNARDO DIAS AND VASCO DE GAMA ROUNDED THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE FROM THE WEST TO THE EAST, THEY FOUND LEGENDS OF WHITE GHOST SHIPS THAT HAD COME TWO GENERATIONS EARLIER.  AFRICANS ALL ALONG THE EAST COAST WERE WEARING CHINESE STYLE HATS AND CLOTHES.  

 

 

WHEN MAGELLAN CROSSED THE PACIFIC OCEAN AND CLAIMED THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS FOR KING CHARLES OF SPAIN HE FOUND SILK AND PORCELAIN, ALL IMPORTED FROM CHINA YEARS BEFORE, BUT THE TRADERS THAT BROUGHT THEM HAD VANISHED. 

 


 

ALL THROUGHOUT THE INDIES, EUROPEANS FOUND REMNANTS OF A CULTURE THAT HAD BEEN OF GREAT INFLUENCE BUT WHICH HAD DISAPPEARED COMPLETELY FROM THE SCENE: CHINESE CULTURE. 

 

THE CHINESE COURSE LED INEXORABLY TO STAGNATION, THEN DISSOLUTION, THEN DECAY, AND FINALLY TO DESTRUCTION.   FOR THERE CAME A DAY WHEN THE PORTUGUESE AND THE OTHER EUROPEANS CARVED UP THE PITIFULLY WEAK REMNANTS OF CHINA FOR THEIR OWN COLONIAL USE.

 

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS LATER, THE GREAT 20TH CHINESE HISTORIAN WEI PU CONCLUDED THE CHOICE OF DIRECTION WAS CRITICAL.  THE CHINESE TURNED INWARD, THE EUROPEANS WENT FORWARD.   THAT CHINESE HISTORIAN OBSERVED:  “THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD FOR THE LAST 500 YEARS HAS BEEN THE HISTORY OF THE WEST.” 

 

CHOICES MATTER.  THERE ARE CONSEQUENCES, SOME UNSEEN AT THE TIME.  BUT ONE CONSTANT HAS HELD THROUGH HUMAN HISTORY; TAKING RISKS TO FIND NEW KNOWLEDGE, NEW LANDS, AND NEW WAYS OF DOING THINGS, NEW CULTURES, AND NEW IDEAS HAS ALWAYS PAID OFF.  STAYING HOME IS THE SHORT ROAD TO FAILURE.

 


 

SO ARE WE, TODAY, TO BE THE CHINESE OR THE PORTUGUESE?  WHICH DIRECTION WILL OUR COUNTRY CHOOSE?  THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES, ONLY REWARDS FOR THOSE WHO ARE WILLING TO SEIZE OPPORTUNITY, TAKE RISKS, WORK HARD, AND SHOW COURAGE.

 

THE CHINESE HAVE LEARNED THIS LESSON FROM HISTORY.  WILL WE?

 

 

Why does Rice Play Texas?

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I wrote this note to the shuttle team in 2004.  I think it is still true today.  Maybe more so than in 2004.

Rice vs. K State tonight at Reckling Park in the NCAA regional baseball playoffs.  Texas has already advanced to the super-regionals facing TCU.  Why do we care?  Read on:

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This note is not about really sports but about exploration. Let me tell you why.

 

JFK was on a roll.  He could move a crowd with a speech.  He knew what would excite an audience and he could build on their emotion.  It was a hot summer day in Houston and the event was outdoors at Rice stadium.  The President had come to town to elaborate on his space exploration initiative.  He talked about the technical challenges, like the requirement for materials to withstand temperatures of several thousand degrees, or “almost as hot as it is here today” he quipped.  Then he came to the centerpiece of his speech:

 

SOME PEOPLE ASK, WHY GO TO THE MOON?

 

THEY MAY WELL ASK, WHY CLIMB THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN?

 

WHY 35 YEARS AGO, FLY THE ATLANTIC?

 

WHY DOES RICE PLAY TEXAS?

 

At this point the crowd which contained many university alumni, faculty, and students started cheering.  But JFK knew better than to slow down; without a pause he continued:

 

WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON

 

The cheering intensified, not cheering about a football team but about a new goal

 

WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON AND DO THE OTHER THINGS,

NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE EASY BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD

 

BECAUSE THAT CHALLENGE IS ONE WE INTEND TO WIN

 

At one time, during the 1920’s and 30’s there was parity in football in the Southwest Conference; Rice won its share of the championships and on any given Saturday in the fall any team had the potential to beat any other team.  But after WWII the University of Texas took off in size and came to dominate football in the region.  Rice earned the dubious honor of becoming the smallest school in the nation to play Division I sports. 

 

Logically, mathematically, analytically, Rice should never beat Texas.  With a regular period, the Rice University faculty debates giving up football – or all Division I athletics –  as a waste of time, money, and effort. 

 

And when the historians replay the tape of JFK’s speech, they generally clip out the phrase ‘WHY DOES RICE PLAY TEXAS?’  perhaps because the reference may be obscure to some people, perhaps because it seems less important than Lindbergh flying solo across the Atlantic.  But if that phrase is clipped out, I submit you may miss the point. 

 

Texas dominates the series 64-21-1.  The conferences have changed and the two teams don’t play every year, and when they do, it doesn’t count for conference standings. 

 

Logically, mathematically, analytically, there is no point for Rice to play Texas. 

 

But about once a decade, the illogical happens: the underdog triumphs.  Facing the challenge makes a fundamental change in the people who face that challenge.

 

George Mallory was one of the early explorers to attempt to climb Mount Everest, the penultimate “highest mountain”.  When they asked him why, Mallory’s reply became legendary: “Because its there”.  But that reason smacks of adolescence, it fails to describe any compelling value.  George Mallory died on the slopes of Mount Everest.  Tinzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary made the first successful assault of the world’s highest mountain.  Later Hillary spoke about the experience:  “It is not the mountain that we conquer, but ourselves”. 

 

The Universe neither knows nor cares if we boldly explore or silently fade from the scene. 

 

But we know. 

 

The point is what the challenge does to us.  There is nothing “virtual” about being on the mountain peak, or on the lunar surface.  The challenge changes us and that may very well be the most important thing of all.

 

JFK spoke about the challenge of the lunar program as being a measure of us as a people; could we meet the challenge.

 

Today, we are facing another space exploration initiative and the challenge is the same.  Exploring the space frontier is extremely difficult, saturated with risk, immensely challenging.  Our part is to fly the Space Shuttle safely soon.  It is a formidable challenge.  But everyone from the President down tells us that demonstrating that we can meet this challenge is the necessary cornerstone to all that may come afterward.  Flying the shuttle safely and completing the International Space Station will demonstrate that we –  our agency – our nation – has the competence to continue on and roll back the frontiers.  Meeting this challenge will change us.

 

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Somebody recently wrote that this was a poor reason to explore space.  There are many reasons to explore space.  I’ve written a number of posts providing various reasons, some intensely practical, some more philosophical.  Go ahead and look back over the record here. 

 

But challenging the best in ourselves to do something hard; that is not an inconsiderable reason either.