Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mission to the Western Ocean


The space banquet has been troubled by the ghost of Leif Ericson all along, archeological confirmation of Norse voyages having been unearthed right at the start of the space age. Only some years later (at least for Westerners) did another ghost turn up at the feast: Zheng He, the Muslim eunuch who led the great Chinese 'treasure fleets' to the Indian Ocean nearly a century before the Portuguese got there from the other direction.

The Chinese may have gone farther than that. A 15th century Venetian monk and geographer, Fra Mauro, reported that a large 'zoncho' - junk - from the Indian Ocean sailed sailed 2000 miles into the Atlantic before turning back. The illustration on his map shows a ship of European type, but the artist was probably working from a second or third hand account, and knew only that the 'zoncho' was big.

(By the way, the Chinese probably did not 'discover America' in 1421 or any other year. File that one alongside the aliens who built the Pyramids.)

One puzzle about the treasure fleets turns out to have a simple (likely) explanation. The largest ships are reported to have been enormous, upwards of 150 meters long, even close to 200 meters. But Europeans later found that the maximum safe length for seagoing wooden ships was 60-70 meters, about 200 feet. Yes, the Chinese used very different constructional methods, but wood is wood, and early modern Europeans were not chumps when it came to wooden shipbuilding.

It is now thought that the mega junks were used only for river service on the Yangtze, while the largest ships in the treasure fleet were comparable in size to the largest European Indiamen a few hundred years later, with a load capacity of about 1500 tons. Which is just what you'd expect.


But the much bigger and sobering puzzle about the treasure fleets is the way their voyages suddenly ended. There was a power shift at the imperial court. The court eunuchs (among whom was Zheng He) had supported the voyages, and when they fell out of favor the budget ax soon fell. The treasure ships were laid up and left to rot away. More axes fell than that. Building large seagoing ships was forbidden, and China's entire maritime capacity rotted away. A hundred years later Europeans showed up, and the rest is history.

It makes a great cautionary story. Cut the NASA budget, and the next thing you know the red haired devils are at the door. Or something like that.


The real story is more complicated. For one thing, the treasure fleets were stupendously big and expensive. Really big, perhaps five or ten times the fleet tonnage of a Spanish treasure flota or a convoy of Indiamen. A vast and economically disruptive effort was called for to build the treasure fleets and send them out.

Imperial China was capable of it; whether it was a good idea was no doubt a matter of dispute. It was good if you were a merchant or timber supplier, or a member of the court with a taste for Indian or Middle Eastern luxuries, not so good if you were paying taxes for some fairly nebulous benefits.

So it is not surprising that there was a reaction. The whole enterprise had no deep foundations in China's economy or its political interests. It was a matter of imperial prestige, and only by one measure of prestige - fleets of junks impressed no one in Central Asia, far from any ocean. By comparison the British East India Company was deeply rooted in the folkways of England. (Crumpets and tea, anyone?)

The backlash, when it came, was as extravagant as the voyages themselves, but it did not cause the 'century of humiliation' 500 years later. Shipbuilding was banned, but the sky was big and the Emperor far away, and oceangoing Chinese shipbuilding did not cease. China lost the Opium Wars for other reasons, in another era.


If there is any warning here for space advocates it is about needless gigantism, and arguably the old hare and tortoise story. Perhaps the post-Apollo letdown was fortunate in that it happened early, before the inevitable backstroke could develop too much force. The post-Apollo program has been more modest, but in spite of setbacks it has proven fairly robust.


Related posts: Leif Ericson, a retrospective and prospective, a Solar System for this century, and thoughts on colonization.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reading these accounts of the history of exploration and colonization, I hadn't realized that the analogies work so well with space exploration. Thanks for making the comparison.

In this light, it looks like NASA's been taking the smarter (if less exciting) route to mastering space travel. I wonder how many more Challengers, Columbias, and Apollo 13s we'd have had if they'd continued following the "Zhen He" philosophy after the Cold War space race was over.

-Eric

Jim Baerg said...

Stopping the 'treasure fleets' was probably a fairly sensible move. However, at least one version of the story I heard includes bans on private citizens building ships for overseas trade, which seems harmful to China overall though it might have had the understandable motivation of keeping the overseas traders from becoming a power center within China to rival the then dominant faction.

Near the end of _Guns, Germs & Steel_ Jared Diamond discusses this incident along with the 'Cultural Revolution' & such policies such as British cities restricting electric lighting because they had a big investment in gas lighting. He notes that the latter had little bad effect because other countries could try different policies & results could be compared. The problem in China was that a policy, good or bad, was implemented over the whole enormous country & if it was bad there was nowhere for another policy to be tried on a small scale.

Diamond sees this as a warning against over-centralization.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...giant, standardized, centralized prorograms are doomed; but small, varied, decentralized programs succeed...maybe it IS time for us to transition to the second model as far as space travel goes.

Ferrell

Rick said...

I would say it argues for a middle course. Leif Ericson was too decentralized, so to speak.

Jean Remy said...

I've already stated before that I have never viewed the slowdown between Apollo and current day space program as anything like the "giant step backward" it is sometimes portrayed.

Apollo had a lot in common with the great treasure fleets: big, expensive and showy. Its purpose was far less scientific than political. But in essence it was a preliminary exploratory mission, a proof of concept with just barely adequate technology.

Comparing Apollo to Leif Ericson, or Cristobal Colon's first voyage, it is obvious that with borderline technologies it is possible to push the boundaries, to stretch forth and touch land that seemed beyond reach. However neither one was able to maintain this advance. Vinland failed, and so did Colon's first colony, because the gap between reaching out and staying there is far from insignificant. In fact time and time again we've tried to stay where we could barely go, and usually failed. It seems we have to relearn that every time we reach out.

I think the Chinese example shows us not so much the bad in centralization as much as the inherent failure of purely political gestures: if the winds of power change (which they will as politics, almost more than any other human endeavor, are fickle) then a project that was the brainchild of one side will be cut out. Flashy projects initiated by a political faction become such a visible symbol for that faction that the best way to indicate change (whether it is real or not) is to sink this very visible symbol (pun unintended) and even as the Chinese did to swing the pendulum way out on the other side.

I think we got lucky. We discovered just enough during the space race to stay even aver the winds of change had passed. We looked down and saw Earth, really saw Earth, for the first time. It was the Moon that sent us up, and the Earth that kept us there. No wonder of space industry has stayed nearby, since this fragile little bluish speck of dirt is sort of more important to us that the even smaller gray-whitish speck of dust.

Anonymous said...

Another way to look at the dangers of over-centralization - JFK isn't assassinated, but instead loses in his run at a second term (Entirely possible. He was in Dallas campaigning in the face of declining popularity, and didn't stand 'ten feet tall' until after the bullets hit). The new Republican president allows the Moon landing to go forward, but follows the landing by defunding NASA and turning government responsibility for space over to the US Air Force. The Air Force succeeds only in killing pilots spectacularly, by blowing up experimental spaceplanes. A decade later the US tries to rebuild a civilian space program, only to find that the engineers and physicists all work for the aeronautical and railroad companies.

Another way to look at the dangers of over-decentralization - In the 1950s the US decides to pursue an exclusively private-sector space program backed by tax incentives and X-prizes. By the 1970s the communication satellites and their launch vehicles are beautifully engineered low-cost works of art and science. But the US lacks the capacity to put more than a ton into orbit per launch, and Buzz Aldrin was the last American to orbit the Earth.

Ian_M

Jean Remy said...

"The Air Force succeeds only in killing pilots spectacularly, by blowing up experimental spaceplanes."

Wait, what? I realize this is sheer "alternate history" speculation and therefore not really subject to realism, but I'd like to know why you randomly assign sudden incompetence to The USAF. They did rather well with X-planes, notably the X-15 which in some flights did cross the internationally recognized space boundary and lost only one pilot in 13 flights above 80 Kms (and none above 100 kms) and a total of 199 flights. That's hardly succeeding "only in killing pilots spectacularly, by blowing up experimental spaceplanes."

"But the US lacks the capacity to put more than a ton into orbit per launch, and Buzz Aldrin was the last American to orbit the Earth."

That's completely discounting the fact that the space race was before and above all an arms race. The US failure of orbiting anything above one ton would basically have left the Russians with complete control of space and given them the ability of ICBM first strikes with no retaliation. This is not only unlikely, it would've been impossible to contemplate by *any* form of government in this country, JFK or no JFK. Let's not forget that a number of shuttle flights still read only as D.O.D with no details on payloads and mission. Control of space is not a purely commercial matter (and wouldn't the US want to compete with the Russians and Europeans anyway) but military. Put another way: if we didn't have a space program, we would need one.

I don't buy either scenarios, which both seem to discount that other nations and blocks are competing for space, and that it is a critical part of the political, military and industrial might of advanced nations. And let us not forget that the Soviet Union lead the way and we had to desperately play catch up as they achieved first after first which scared the nation into acting. The JFK boast came after a series of defeat and served to reassure the US citizens that yes we were doing something about it, couched in the politically savvy idea of peace and science but driven by purely military goals.

Anonymous said...

Jean - Neither version is an attempt at any sort of plausible extrapolation. They're just-so-stories of extreme adherence to ideologically-driven visions of centralized v decentralized.

The Air Force isn't suddenly incompetent in the first story. It's suddenly driven by an ideological commitment to smaller-faster-cheaper after a decade of gigantism. It's been forced to change gears too rapidly, in other words.

A plausible alternate scenario would be some mix of government and private-sector, some mix of centralized versus decentralized. Sort of like what we actually have.

Ian_M

Rick said...

... tries to rebuild a civilian space program, only to find that the engineers and physicists all work for the aeronautical and railroad companies.

At least we'd have fast trains!

As a side observation, if the US program were purely military we might have no people in space. The military uses the Shuttle for some missions because it was pushed on them, but they preferred expendables, and all military human spaceflight programs have ended up being canceled.

Yes, alt-hist meta that if the US space program were purely military, the prestige factor in the 60s would probably have produced some human flights, but not leading to operational programs. There just isn't (yet) any military role for humans in space that justifies the costs.

Jean Remy said...

I agree that the programs subsequent to Apollo (and even Apollo itself) weren't purely military. There is no reason to build a rocket capable of sending (and returning safely) men to the moon. However at the time JFK made his space the US space program lost every attempt at one-upmanship to the Russians: First satellite, check, first living being in space, check, first man in space, check, first woman in space, check... The list was fast becoming distressing and a grand gesture had to be made: the Moon.

By the way: at the time the computers were so pathetic there really was a use for man in space. No one predicted the rapid rise of the computer at that time, and there was a foreseen need for military personnel in space. So while it doesn't apply anymore, it was very much a consideration at the time.

Anyways, after that initial rush to prove we could reach out and touch someone across oceans with beeping devices, cameras, or nuclear bombs, something extraordinary happened: the entire world got to see a tiny little blue bubble in the middle of an immensity of deep, black nothing. For the first time in history did we not only vague know we might not actually be at the center of the universe, but that we were not even a significant part of it. That our little something here was a fragile, unique thing in the middle of a lot of nothing. And it suddenly became very important to stay up there and turn out cameras down and pick apart that tiny little speck because it was the only one we had, and it was sort of important to know as much as we could about it.

We went into space because we had to, as doing otherwise would doom us to military domination. We stayed for the science.

That wasn't even my argument anyway. In the age when the Chinese were sending treasure fleets no one knew that someone on the other side of the world was developing this capacity. As the Chinese found nothing that necessitated a strong naval force, they could safely abandon it. Around Europe, the arms race on the oceans accelerated, or at least was steady, as everyone was very aware of everyone else's progress in the matter. It's back to steel germs and guns. There is only an arms race when you have someone to race against, but once the race is on, all bets are off. You cannot dissociate the space program in the US from the one in the USSR. As long as one was strong, the other was as well, by pure necessity.

As an aside, "our" program was a lot less decentralized than the Russian's. If you want an example as to what would happen, you can look at their space program. Once they'd lost the Moon race it pretty much went into a death spiral, dragged down by their economy. Buran was a swan's song: it now lies, a wreck under a collapsed hanger roof. Note however that as long as the race was on, even their extremely centralized system did not falter. Military threats are a great motivator, even for centralized systems.

I would say that the failure of the Chinese Treasure Fleets was in not finding an oversees adversary dangerous enough to make the pursuit of an actively strong naval force a concern. It wasn't a failure of centralization.

Jean Remy said...

Oh, and we have fast trains =)

Anonymous said...

Yes. A lot of engineers from the Avro Arrow project went on to work on trains - And also on NASA's Moon shot. And a lot of NASA tech ends up in the railyards a decade or so after after its use in the space program. A friend of mine who used to work in the railyards recognized the Apollo command module's controls as the electronics from late 70's/early 80's trains, and the shuttle controls as electronics from the early 90's trains.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Jean - your point is well taken about the politics and technology of the 1960s. The US space program was not strictly military, but it was quasi military and all about national prestige. Also true that the technical assumptions were essentially rocketpunk era.

It was the space program itself that was the great driver of miniaturization and automation. Even the early generation Mariners and Pioneers were nothing anyone predicted even a few years earlier.

Several US aerospace companies took on rail contracts in the 1970s, with decidedly mixed results. Boeing Vertol build streetcars for San Francisco and Boston that were a near fiasco - they ran, finally, but the doors had a thousand moving parts. Helicopters and rapid transit vehicles live in VERY different maintenance environments.

But Rohr Corporation's cars for BART are still running.

A lot of the new technology seemed like gold plating at the time, but has since become routine.

Jean Remy said...

Oh I can imagine those over-engineered doors sooooo well sadly. Probably very cool looking, unfolded in six discrete stages, bulletproof. Needed 5 hours of maintenance for every 2 hours of operation, one hinge costs $399.99. Parts requisition have to go through the Pentagon. Allow 2 to 3 months for delivery. Expect it to be the wrong one.

Anonymous said...

Expect the installation instructions to be in six languages (Four of them non-Indo_European, three of them extinct) and to call for a left-handed hex key.

Ian_M

Thucydides said...

Actually there were some very ambitious US military space programs involving manned space presence starting back in the 1950's for essentially "Rocketpunk" reasons (no automated systems were small or reliable enough to do the job).

Dynasoar was a manned spacecraft for orbital recce and a potential space bomber. MOL was a spy satellite with on board human control. The US Army's 1950 era Horizon project called for a manned moon base. The US Navy planned a one man spaceplane launched from a SLBM booster to identify and disable Soviet satellites as one of their contributions for the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980's.

Even today there are constant rumors of "Black" projects which seem to be realizations of the 1950's dream of an Aerospaceplane.

While commercial presence will "pull" people into space, historical evidence also shows the Flag follows trade. In American History, the US Navy was forced to become a blue water fleet to follow Yankee traders and ensure they could be extracted from trouble. (Read Max Boot's "The Savage Wars of Peace" for a primer).

How military and commercial space systems will evolve is difficult to predict, ideas which seem sound don't turn out to work while projects designed for one thing turn out to have applications far different from their design intentions (the B-17 "Flying Fortress" was designed to defend the sea approaches to the United States by bombing enemy battleships. Horizontal bombardment of ships turned out to be difficult [B-17's missed all their targets during the battle of Midway], but were well suited for strategic bombing missions over Europe...).

Short answer, expect the unexpected and allow as many paths as possible to remain open so all options can be explored.

Rick said...

The flag indeed follows trade, and vice versa. Sometimes they were hard to distinguish. Transportation has always been a highly 'politicized' industry - Roman roads, Spanish flotas, railroad land grants, Boeing. It is too strategic and too valuable to be anything less.

There were a whole series of planned US military human spaceflight programs, but none of them ever got into space. Presumably the Russians also had such plans but never developed them. There may be 'blue' Soyuz missions just as there are Blue Shuttle missions, but the Soyuz itself is a civil space workhorse.

Interesting point about unexpected lines of development, such as the B-17 turning out to be ineffective at its intended mission but excellent in a different one.

I'll pimp a post from August, on galleasses, for a somewhat comparable case.

Jean Remy said...

Very good point on transportation being of strategic value. The comprehensive US Interstate system was first launched to provide strategic corridors for troop movements. Every aerospace company that builds commercial vehicles also builds military aerospace vehicles. (Not necessarily valid in reverse, but generally true)

I have no doubt that space has, and will continue, to draw some rather wacky projects. You have to hand it to the Nazis for having some crazy stuff planned before you could even make a rocket do more than a short ballistic hop, like a giant sun-focusing mirror. But the US and the USSR didn't long lag behind with projects that would make us shake our heads now. Real rocketpunk era stuff. Like flying saucers.

Have we become so jaded and cynical that the zaniness has gone out of secret projects? Hard to tell right now, but I would suspect that, 50 years from now, we're going to look at declassified documents and shake our heads. Rods from God and Star Wars verge on this, and that's the stuff we know about...

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