Going Up… And Out

David Brin, in the midst of speculating about Obayashi Corp.’s plan to build a space elevator, stopped to ask how we ended up squandering the spacefaring momentum of the Apollo program:

Were those early dreams just fantasies? Were the Apollo landings flukes? Or evidence that an earlier generation was better, or more daring, than us?

Well now, here’s the thing about sudden tech spurts and long, frustrating plateaus. You may be deluded by the spurts, but you can also get too accustomed to plateaus! In fact, as models of reality they are just as unrealistic.

What’s more accurate is to realize that Apollo was way, way premature. Given the technology of the 1960s — your phone has more computational power than all of NASA had, back then — it’s amazing they didn’t blow themselves up every time. It was a perfect example of human determination and ingenuity overcoming all obstacles of technology or common sense.

Brin’s comment reminds me of the question raised by Samuel Eliot Morrison in The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages — Why did so many years elapse between Columbus’ voyages and the beginning of intensive European colonization of North America? Perhaps the answers will prove to be related.

4 thoughts on “Going Up… And Out

  1. Coming late to this, having stumbled across it whern running down something else. However:

    As a matter of pedantic accuracy, Columbus was not the first European to have “discovered” the Americas — the Vikings were in L’Anse aux Meadows in the eleventh century and the Basques were fishing off the Grand Banks in the thirteenth. But perhaps that points towards an answer to your question: the intensive colonisation of the Americas could not begin until the technology, society and economy of Western Europe had developed to the point at which it was able to sustain more than these merely exploratory voyages. And that, arguably, did not arrive until the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries.

  2. @Joseph: I don’t think anybody was unaware of the Vikings, let alone Morrison who famously delved into all the European predecessors of Columbus. Besides,the Spanish and Portuguese did begin conquering and colonizing South America within a few decades of Columbus’ voyages, so technology would not seem to be the limiting factor in respect to North America. Maybe it all comes down to the more readily exploited gold and silver in South America as the motive force.

    Some theorize that the Viking voyages were to places that became inhospitable later due to weather trends. Otherwise who knows how things might have played out. Certainly the Polynesians were abl to make incredible voyages of colonization throughout the Pacific using primitive technology.

  3. “the Spanish and Portuguese did begin conquering and colonizing South America within a few decades of Columbus’ voyages”

    Conquest, certainly, by merchant-adventurers sent out by their royal patrons to sieze the resources of the new lands; but true colonisation, the large-scale permanent settlement of them, didn’t begin until much later.

    What of course drove all stages of this exploration-conquest-colonisation cycle was the rivalry between the three Atlantic powers of the time (England, France, Spain), each striving to prevent the other gaining an advantage. But there’s nothing comparable to that now. It’s possible that a future China-USA (or China-anyone else) rivalrisy could drive something similar, but at present that seems unlikely. Until then, no political will equals no desire to put humans in space.

    (As to the Vikings: this is counterfactual, but a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows might have survived the climatic downturn that extinguished the Greenland settlements, because it was further south (and thus better located). But L’Anse aux Meadows seems to have been more of a summer trading camp than a settlement, and abandoned before the onset of the Little Ice Age.)

  4. @Joseph: That’s a worthwhile reminder of the political rivalry component of the original Mercury/Gemini/Apollo program as well. We tend to forget that it wasn’t inevitable simply because it was technically possible. I think you’re onto something with that line of thought.

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