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It's Our Choice, Really

Wayne Hale


“...they concluded there was nothing out there for China - a conclusion that sounded logical but was far from true.”



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, and 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 Beijing 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 world’s 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, 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?

Wayne Hale was the manager of the Space Shuttle Program from 2005 until 2008. This article is taken from a speech that he gave and subsequently posted on his blog on June 16, 2009. You can view his blog at . The editors received specific permission from Mr. Hale to print this article.


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