Cuddihy's Cut

Cuddihy's Cut on the events of the day....

Monday, May 08, 2006

Accuracy in metaphors

Among the visionaries of the new frontier at the ISDC conference 2006, I'm sure it's tough to find naysayers about our (meaning humanity's) progress towards actually becoming a spacefaring civilization. Without a doubt, most of the speakers are preaching to the choir. I'm afraid that I mostly agree with Jeffrey Bell of UH (Hawaii). Jeff wrote this article a few years ago-- I read it at the time and agree with most of its major points. If you're going to use a historical analogy, better use it appropriately, and accept the positives AND negatives.

I saw it again tonight when I was trolling usenet--somebody reposted it. Probably the part of Bell's thesis that's most distressing to types is the contention that our technology level is currently too low. Here, I'll quote:
I think we are in the same position with respect to space flight that the Norsemen were in respect to colonizing Canada. Our chemical rockets are just as inadequate as the Viking longboats. Our spacesuits are as clumsy as chainmail armor. Our means of defense from solar and cosmic radiation are as ineffective
as the Viking spears and axes were against the Indians. Our ideas for using local resources are as primitive as the farming and mining techniques of 1000 A.D.
Say that at ISDC, or worse, Space Access, and visionaries and geeks will fall all over themselves telling you that it's not true, that the technology exists today and just needs to be 'done right.'

I'd say that's a category I fell into until I got to school and started studying the actual physics and engineering required to get off-planet. TANSTAAFL is an excellent motto to keep in mind. Want higher performance engines? Be prepared to pay a hefty price. Reusable engines? Be prepared to pay a performance penalty. You have a completely new way of doing things? Be prepared for it to take 3 times as long, 4 times as much money, and 5 times as many failures as you initially budget for.

I do think there's one big hole in Bell's perspective of NASA as our society's version of Cheng Ho's journeys to nowhere: Cheng Ho's journeys may not have been able to challenge western technology, but as Bell himself stated, that was because Ming dynasty China could not compete with the real advances taking place in the West. The fact is, we ARE the West. The outward expansion begun in Prince Henry the navigator's day may be confined to our humble planet at the time, but the rational mind and the scientific method are alive and well. The cause of the technological advances that gave Western Europe the advantage over other cultures (for a time at least), is still currently in motion. Given enough time, we will develop more powerful engines, better ISRU techniques, and sufficient political will to really colonize space.
The real question is whether our society will stick around that long or lapse into decline because of ever-falling birthrates.

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