Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Half a Century in Space

This was the Google banner today:

It was a nice reminder of what our species has accomplished to get to that point and how far we've come since then.  And yet also, after half a century, in many ways how far we haven't come.

This is a hobby blog, so I don't want to get political about the reasons why America has seemingly abandoned the space program after it has languished for decades, or that the rest of the world hasn't really picked up the torch either. The tourist flights into space Russia is offering is cool and all, and I sure wouldn't turn away a ticket, but it isn't really pushing our species into the expanse.

As gamers, most of us have an interest in space, adventure, the unknown, and all those laurels of civilization that may not really have a 'dollar value'.

50 Years since Gagarin left the planet, the first for our species, the first of any species from Earth doing it by design and will... sorry Laika: not that you're not a first, but no one is going to believe dogs designed the spacecraft.

As a species we did a lot in a short amount of time after that. We went into orbit again, and for longer, and eventually to the moon and back.

But what have we done since then?

In the 15th Century the Portuguese dedicated themselves to exploration.  Within 60 years they'd gone from the Azores to rounding Africa, able to then make contact with the rest of the world beyond.

Within a handful of years later the Spanish were in the Americas.

Thirty years later humans were sailing around the entire world.

Less than 50 years separate the voyages of Dias & Magellan.

How far have we come in 50 years since Gagarin?

Well before the Portuguese, China's great explorer Cheng Ho sailed an armada to India and Africa. The next step was to round Africa and from there China could have made contact with Europe, even sailing into the port of London by oh, say 1430.

Imagine that world.
Why didn't they do it?  They gave up.
Exploration was too expensive, they didn't see any economic reward, there were too many problems at home.  O.K., invading Mongols is a problem, I can grant you that.

But just look at what they missed out on! And in that exploration vacuum and absence of direct contact, Europe chose to go to them.  And that set into motion a whole new world.

So what are we missing out on as we tell our Cheng Ho's to hang up their astronaut helmets and get on to more practical concerns?

The 15th & 16th centuries saw the Europeans advance in leaps in exploration.  Sure, a lot of it was because they did have a real & practical motivation of greed.
Do we need to find an economic reward in space to get our butts in gear?

Common incorrect assumption about Columbus by the way: no one with more than three brain cells thought the world was flat in 1492. They knew it was round: they even knew how big it was. (Columbus didn't by the way- he just got lucky there were a couple continents in his way before he ran out of food & water).

So why didn't they go? Cost.
Not until Portugal started making progress did Spain decide to hire this guy on the off chance he was right.
Which he wasn't: which proves it's better to be lucky than right.

So Spain took that risk because of rivalry.  They didn't want to be outdone by Portugal.

The U.S. got into the 'Space race' because the U.S.S.R was way ahead.

Apparently, to get off our butts and continue to progress as an exploring species we need to see some cash just out of reach and have the immediacy of a sibling rivalry.

Until then, maybe we'll just sit on our planetary porch, look at the stars and dream about it instead.

Enjoy the movie: Way to go Yuri!

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