»  National Review Online

June 15, 2009

   End of an Extravaganza

In the first third of the 15th century, while the Hundred Years War between England and France stormed dramatically to its denouement (Agincourt, Joan of Arc), and Muslims held on by their fingernails to their last fragment of Spain, and the Ottomans regrouped following the ravages of Tamurlane, and Ladislas II was breaking the power of the Teutonic Knights — while all that was happening at the other end of the Eurasian land-mass, China was enjoying a spell of national confidence and bold self-assertion under the third Ming emperor.

The famous great tourist sights of Peking stand as testimony to that period of vigor. Among its other glories, though they left us with no monuments to admire other than a few scattered steles, were the seagoing expeditions of the "Eunuch Admiral" Zheng He. In seven voyages from 1405 to 1433, Zheng and his "treasure fleets" carried the imperial banner to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.

The striking thing is how utterly little historical consequence these voyages had. It can fairly be argued, in fact, that they had none at all. A school of revisionist historians has come up arguing that Zheng was instrumental in the consolidation of Islam in Indonesia; and one scholar even tells us that "Zheng He reshaped Asia." Even on the most extravagant claims, though, nobody thinks that Zheng's voyages had any result as dramatic as what followed the great European explorers of a few decades later.

There were no colonies established as a result of the treasure fleets, no trade routes opened up, no alliances formed, no enlargement of understanding among China's educated classes. The Ming court decided at last that the whole business was too costly. The records of Zheng's last two expeditions were destroyed in a court intrigue, and China commenced the retreat into incurious bureaucratic despotism from which she was awoken only four hundred years later, when European traders came banging on the nation's doors.

Now, approaching the fortieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 20), you have to wonder if history is repeating itself. America's manned space program was a grandiose public-works project, government-initiated and government-funded, like Zheng's expeditions. Its achievements, like theirs, were sensational but content-free. Men floated in orbit above the earth's atmosphere; men walked on the moon, but nothing changed among the earthbound.

There were no permanent consequences, and no jolt to the imagination such as the opening of the New World delivered to Europe. Once the Moon had been attained, nobody could think of any satisfactory follow-up. Mars was a hundred times further away, and promised essentially the same scenery, only under a different-colored sky. Why bother? With the cold war still going on, and patriotism still widespread even among the educated middle classes, there was a general feeling that some kind of manned space effort ought to continue, and so the Space Shuttle was conceived. There is work we need to do in orbit! our politicians told us. This is the vehicle that will do it!

What was that work? Today, after 126 Shuttle flights across 28 years and an expenditure of several hundred billion dollars, not one American in ten could give you an answer, and the occasional exception would be unable to explain why the work might not have been done as well by robots at one tenth the cost. Probably most people who had any clue at all would mention servicing the International Space Station, or, with last month's mission in mind, keeping the Hubble Space Telescope in operation. But then, your respondent could not tell you the point of the Station, or give you a comparative-cost analysis of servicing Hubble with shuttles at half a billion per mission versus just sending up a replacement Hubble on an unmanned launcher. Still less could he explain why any of this was government business.

In fact the main point of the International Space Station is to give the Shuttle something to do. So far as Hubble is concerned, most of the construction costs were in planning, design, and development. We could have built half a dozen copies for little more than the price of the first, and put a replacement in orbit on an unmanned rocket when one conked out, saving ourselves billions in shuttle costs.

Manned space travel always was, and still is, a pointless extravaganza project of no practical or scientific value — a Zheng He expedition for our time. In the bumptiousness of early-imperial triumphalism — a new dynasty established in China, a great war won by America — government can get away with stuff like that. Then, as domestic lobbies clamor for more of the national fisc ("If we can put a man on the Moon, why can't we …?"), as the people are tamed by long peace, turning away from great events to their small daily affairs, as a mandarinate of unimaginative scholar-bureaucrats consolidates its grip on the society, priorities shift.

If we were wiser and more frugal, we would have just shut down the whole pointless business after the Apollo program, as the fifth Ming Emperor stopped the treasure fleets. There was residual post-Apollo public sentiment for government-funded manned space flight to continue in some reduced fashion, though. Surely we hadn't spent all that money for nothing? And was not manned space flight sanctified by the memory of the coolest, most tragic of recent presidents, John F. Kennedy? We couldn't just quit. There were also, of course, big aerospace contractors with political contributions, and their employees with votes — factors the 15th-century Son of Heaven did not have to trouble himself with. And so we got the Space Shuttle.

And now we are losing it. There will be another Shuttle mission this week, then three more next year. That will be the end of government-financed manned space flight so far as the U.S.A. is concerned. Americans who leave the earth's atmosphere in future will do so on private spacecraft, owned by firms making money from space tourism, or else on the dimes of taxpayers in some other country where national-imperial vigor is still waxing strong.

That's not the official narrative. NASA is proving as hard to kill as government agencies always are, even when their utter emptiness of all purpose is apparent to everyone. They are supposed to be pushing ahead with a project named Constellation, with an expanded space station, six month expeditions to the Moon, and other grand stuff. (See program manager Jeff Hanley talk about it here). A spiffy new booster named Ares will replace the old Saturn V; it will hoist a new interplanetary spacecraft named Orion … Everything will be just as before, only better!

It's all fantasy. The world turns, and nothing is ever as it was before. The whole absurd Constellation scheme is under review by a panel of inquiry under former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine; but even as they deliberate, Congress is knocking away the budgetary props. Everyone involved knows that Constellation is doomed; and that knowledge feeds back on the program, sapping at morale and sending the best engineers and analysts off looking for work elsewhere. The lawyerly mandarins of the Obama administration have no interest in science, or in imaginative enterprises of any kind; and it is anyway dawning on them, through their fog of self-regard and the rustle of bureaucratic intrigue, that the country is broke.

It may be that some future generation will find some good reason to travel in space. Perhaps space tourism, with a few big technological advances to bring the price down, really will take off, even in our own time. The Apollo astronauts meanwhile have their glory, along with the envy of those of us who would have given everything we have, even our lives, to stand where they stood and see what they saw. At last though, as a government enterprise, it was all a waste of time and money, like the voyages of Zheng He. Perhaps our country, like his, is in for a few centuries of introverted, creativity-free stagnation under bossy literati, till something unexpected comes banging on the door to wake us from our opium dreams.