Continuing the discussion

About 48 hours after having posted a short example on Columbus, I hope you have reached some conclusions.  I’d like to continue this discussion just a bit longer. 

So the question, as posed by the University of Strathclyde, is this:  ‘Was Columbus voyage of discover a program (“tactical”) success or failure; and was it a Strategic success or failure?”  The point being, what can we learn for space exploration.

On a couple of different forums and by email I have received several interesting but brief votes for success or failure.

When we were studying how to reform the Shuttle Mission Management Team following Columbia, one of the best lessons we gained from a lot of academic and consultant forums was this:  it is important to properly frame the question. 

So I left you with the question:  success or failure, and whose?

From the Native American standpoint, the voyage of Columbus represented a catastrophic strategic failure.  If the natives of San Salvadore had risen up en mass and slaughtered the Europeans, nothing would have been heard from Columbus; and his opponents would have carried the day.  European discovery and all its catastrophic consequences for native Americans might have been delayed by centuries.  So if you take that point of view, strategic failure.

Alternatively, Columbus himself believed to his deathbed that he had actually discovered the route to the spice islands, China, and Japan.  If you had asked him, he would have emphatically told you that the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success. 

Isabella’s motives (and Ferdinand’s too) are harder to discern.  If their goal was to enrich Spain and increase international respect (and envy) for Spain, then the voyage was a tactical (“program”) success.  Some historians have stated that the Spanish royal couple mostly wanted to get rid of the pesky Italian and they saw a way to get rid of certain Portuguese maritime merchants that were causing them problems.  Strategically you could argue that they succeeded here as well.

In the very long run, Spain’s whole mind set defeated their ambitions in the new world and Spain sunk into 3rd rate status among nations.  So how long is “strategic” success good for?  It took the better part of a century to get to the apex, and another century to fall.

But my thesis is that taking the simplistic view of history and putting each expedition into the “successful” or “failure” bins defeats the possibility of learning from history.  The lessons are too complex, too rich, and too contradictory to put in a Venn diagram. 

So back to my example story from Columbus and the hurricane.  What can we learn that is applicable to space exploration?

Lets start with a very simple observations:  you should listen to folks who have experience.  Columbus and his crew knew the signs of impending weather.  They tried to warn others who laughed at them.  Then Columbus and his crew took cover.   How does that apply to spaceflight?  There are a lot of folks that make specious claims of being able to do things cheaper, faster (and better?) than those who have gone before.  While incremental improvements are possible, amazing predictions from folks who have no experience in the stormy waters of rocketry are probably direct descendants of Bobadilla.  Don’t laugh at experience, search it out and study it.

Explorers enable colonization, economic exploitation, and the advance of civilization.  Explorers frequently make lousy administrative leaders for the colony, the businessmen, or the rest of civilization.  Use people where their talents lie; don’t try to make them into something that they are not, have no interest in, have no experience about.  Keep the explorers exploring.

How about the theme that very small investments in exploration can result in huge rewards.  Isabella and Ferdinand invested a pittance in three very small ships and skimped on their outfitting costs; one can argue that economically that was the best investment in history.  Frequently the proponents of NASA cite studies that show for every dollar spent on the space program, new technologies and businesses result which in turn improve our economy by $4, $7, or $9 depending on how finely you slice the model?  Is 0.6% of the national budget an excessive amount to spend on the future of humankind, especially when it turns out to be a goose that lays golden eggs for the near term economic health of the country (and we need something!).

We could go on.  I worry that the internet age with its 12 sentence blogs and 5 second soundbite attention span does not have the patience to learn from history.  And you know what happens to folks that fail to learn from history.

Some time in the future we’ll discuss the Darien get rich quick scheme, how it plays into Scottish mythology, and how present day interest in Glasgow in Scottish devolution (independence) played a major role in the business school thinking of the Strathclyde paper  which mostly picked failed expeditions lead by the English. There is a history lesson there, too.

Keep your eyes open.   As Yogi Berra once said “You can observe a lot by just watching.”




Anniversaries and Calendars

As you all probably know, this week we celebrated the 50th anniversary of NASA and it is also the 51st anniversary of Sputnik and the start of the space age.  Last year on “Columbus Day”, I wrote a note to my shuttle troops on these anniversaries.  It may be cheating to recycle that letter, but I think it still applies.  Here it is:


Calendars are funny things.  We count time as very important and try to keep track of special days.  But the calendars and the seasons don’t always match up.  For example, every school child knows that Columbus discovered America on October 12. 


Well, not exactly.


It was October 12 on the Julian calendar which was already out of sync with the universe by 9 days in 1492.  So we should really celebrate the discovery of America on October 21st, not the 12th.


And who really sighted land first?  In the wee hours of October 12 (old style), it was Juan Rodriguez Bermeja de Triana aboard Their Most Catholic Majesty’s ship Pinta that called out “land ho” (Tierra!).


So Bermeja discovered America on October 21, 1492.


So much for the history books.




Fifty years is a long time.


We have just celebrated 50 years of space exploration.  How do our accomplishments rack up next to those of the age of discovery?


The first permanent settlement in what came to be the United States wasn’t established until 1565 when Juan Menendez de Aviles founded San Augustine not far up the coast from the recently named Cape Canaveral.  So it took more than 73 years to plant a city in what became our country.


How about exploration?  One of the greatest expeditions came 48 years after Columbus, err that is, Bermeja first sighted the new world.  That was the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronada which explored what would become Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.  Coronado detached one of his officers named Tovar to explore along his western flank.  In turn, Tovar dispatched a scouting party under the command of Don Garcia Lopez de Cardenas.  Cardenas found one of the great natural wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado.  And what did they think?  They thought they were great failures.  They were not the slightest bit interested in finding wonders in the natural world.  These early Conquistadors were motivated by the opportunity to convert the natives to Catholicism, to win glory for themselves, and perhaps to find gold.  Poor Cardenas didn’t convert many Indians, and his superior officer, Tovar got all the popular credit for finding the Grand Canyon (go there today and see whose name is most prominent). 


And if you study their own words, you might just come to the conclusion that the search for gold was their biggest motivation.  No gold, no glory, few converts, and Coronado felt he was a failure.  What a different perspective history puts on that expedition.


Not that those early explorers lacked courage.  Courage was in abundance.  Hernando Cortes took on the mightiest empire in the new world, the Aztecs.  Against an empire that on a regular basis could put upwards of 150,000 warriors on the battlefield against their enemies, Cortes marched in with about 400 soldiers of fortune.  Mostly by bravado and trickery the Castilians defeated their vastly more powerful adversaries.  Well, the captain from Castile had help from superior weaponry, and the biology of European diseases did the much of the rest, but it took a great deal of bravado just to go in the first place.  So the cruel and bloodthirsty Aztecs were defeated by the only slightly less cruel and bloodthirsty Castilians.


One of Cortes’ officers, Bernal Diaz, wrote the definitive eyewitness account of those days in 1521.  He could hardly believe his own story: 


“Those readers who are interested by this history must wonder at the great deeds we did in those days:  first in destroying our ships; then in daring to enter that strong city [Mexico City] despite many warnings that they would kill us once they had us inside; then in having the temerity to seize the great Montezuma, king of that country, in his own city and inside his very palace, and to throw him in chains. . . . Now that I am old, I often pause to consider the heroic actions of that time.  I seem to see them present before my eyes. . . .  For what soldiers in the world, numbering only four hundred – and we were even fewer – would have dared to enter a city as strong as Mexico, which is larger than Venice and more than four thousand five hundred miles away from our own Castile . . . There is much here to ponder on.”


It is not surprising that Bernal Diaz did not title his memoir The Exploration of New Spain, but gave the book the more accurate title:  The Conquest of New Spain. 


As explorers, the early Castilians did not know what they were doing.  They left no accounts of the wonders of the land or its people, merely the dreary endless stories of fighting, treachery, deception, and blood.


By comparison, peacefully landing a dozen expeditions on our nearest celestial neighbor and building a great international laboratory with the cooperation of the leading nations of the world doesn’t stack up too badly.  Comparing the first 50 years, that is with their first 50 years.


What else can we learn about this comparison of explorations?


Here is a short list:  Sometimes exploration goes slower than you would expect.  Don’t expect the history books to get it right.  Don’t expect to be remembered.  Doing the right thing for the wrong reason really can be OK.  Explore for the glory of doing it, for the experience of being part of something bigger than yourself.  Explore for the difference it will make in the lives of people, perhaps your great great great grandchildren in five hundred years.  Even if they won’t realize how much they owe you


A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to camp on a high shelf in the Rockies, far from city lights.  The evening was perfectly clear: no clouds, no pollution.  The moon was old and did not rise until well past midnight.  When the sun set, the most spectacular sight appeared: stars and planets,  satellites and meteors, the milky way so close you could reach out and touch the dark dusty lanes wandering through the innumerable crowds of stars.


There is a lot of exploring to do.  It is just beginning.  We should do it together with our friends.  In peace.  And if we do find somebody out there, we ought to treat them right. 


And someday, when future generations read our memoirs, they will wonder what it was like to be among the very first to start on the voyage of discovery. 


You old Conquistadors, they will envy you.


You see, in exploration you need to take the long view.