Thursday, March 16, 2006

[geek] Of clipper ships, schooners, steamers and yachts...

Brian Dunbar, over at Space4Commerce, passed along an excerpt from a piece that discussed the motivations for space travel, as well as comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of manned vs. robotic space exploration. The piece he linked to touched upon a number of topics I've been meaning to expound upon but haven't quite managed, so when the comment I was typing on Space4Commerce started to become post-length... well... I decided to actually get my act together and, well, post something. Throughout history, the biggest motivators for mass migrations has been what can crudely be described as economic. There's some magic tipping point where the perceived risk and the actual cost of leaving everything behind and starting over is lower than the 'cost' of staying behind. Rarely is it for ideological or moral reasons - that may be the rhetoric used to encourage people, but behind it all tends to be an economic (if not ouright profit) motive. Someone, somewhere, is expecting to make a profit on the venture - and that profit is what has largely been missing from our current system of space exploration. Financial exposure must be somewhat limited and the promise of profit must be at least somewhat realistic in order to make investing in such a venture tempting - and in the case of the people who would actually make such a voyage and be the pioneers, the cost of participating must be relatively low and the risks of participting must be seen as being lower than the risks of staying put. In the case of European and Asian migrations to the US, shipping was streamlined to the point where steerage was within reach of many of the poorest of Europe's citizens - around the same time, the American West was more or less pacified, and so the costs of mass expansion Westward were lowered for the people who were already firmly established in the Eastern urban areas. That lower cost, those lower barriers - they contribute to the decreased sense of risk on the part of those making the voyage and make it far more likely that someone who wants to go will do so. So where does the space elevator come into this? Well, to torture my metaphors a while longer, I see the effort to build the elevator as the 21st century version of building schooners or clipper ships - while current manned spacecraft efforts are, to keep with the Gilded Age theme, more akin to building wooden racing yachts, like the one for which the America's Cup was named. Sure, you can circumnavigate the globe or move people with a 40m yacht, but the cost is prohibitive... Now the schooner - that can move stuff. And people. In bulk. And in comfort even, if you so desire. The elevator may not even need to be a clipper ship to have a major impact upon creating that tipping point - the elevator could be the proverbial 'slow boat to China'. Those boats may have been slow - but they were responsible for moving tons upon tons of commerce as well as immigrants. One-hundred-fifty years or so ago, these boats were an engine of commerce, of society, of innovation. Their existence reduced barriers - barriers to trade, to innovation, to emigration. A space elevator has, in my opinion, the potential to serve the same role today: a reducer of barriers, a force multiplier, an opportunity engine. This is not to say that current space technology should be abandoned, nor is it to take sides in the robots vs. man debate. Rather, I would simply like to point out that a lot of what counts against manned space flight is, frankly, the cost - and that the mindshift from producing yachts to producing clipper ships or schooners (or even steamships) could go a long way towards lowering that expense. And lowering expense could be a major step towards reducing the perception of risk associated with getting people into space on a much larger scale than we've seen to date. And that could lead to a whole new Age of Exploration, and possibly even some healthy and productive international competition... And both of those strike me as having the potential to be Really Good Things.

4 Comments:

Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

Rarely is it for ideological or moral reasons - that may be the rhetoric used to encourage people, but behind it all tends to be an economic (if not ouright profit) motive.

Borderer instinct is rare but should not be discounted. The anglo-celts that filtered across the Appalachians in the 18th century headed right out of time into the frontier. That they went wasn't directly down to economics - they were dirt poor by anyone's standards - but for other less tangible reasons.

The true pioneers weren't especially numerous compared to the regions they left behind but they did stamp their - our - culture with their folkways and habits of thought.

Hunger for the frontier isn't easily defined but it is a powerful force.

3/18/2006 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger protected static said...

Hunger for the frontier isn't easily defined but it is a powerful force.

Ain't that the truth... I was thinking more in terms of the early English colonies in North America - while many were founded under various banners of freedom of association, the charters upon which they were founded were truly "articles of incorporation" - and when the colonies began to turn a profit, the state that issued those charters reclaimed them as Crown Colonies.

3/18/2006 05:12:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Dunbar said...

Ain't that the truth... I was thinking more in terms of the early English colonies in North America -

Serendipity - I read this reply, then the next thing in my RSS feeder was

Corporate origins of the United States

When looking at the legal and political history that led up to the formation of the United States of America, judges and historians typically look to English royal and Parliamentary edicts as explanations and precedents for the American government. This is too limited a view. Usually neglected are the unheralded, deep, and indeed often dominant influences on the United States government from medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque-era era corporations.
http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2006/03/corporate-origins-of-united-states.html

3/30/2006 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger protected static said...

That looks interesting - I'll have to check it out...

3/30/2006 08:07:00 PM  

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