Destroying The Ships

We’re destroying the ships.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If the current FY11 NASA budget proposal stands, within a year, every vehicle NASA has, every vehicle NASA is working on, will be grounded. Endeavour, Discovery, Atlantis, Altair, Ares I, Ares V, Orion. All gone.

I’ll admit that the destroying-the-ships analogy was one I came across this week, not one I came up with on my own. But it’s one I’ve seen before, one that you see from time to time tied to various events in spaceflight.

Back in the early 1400s, China was a major naval power, expanding its cultural influence far beyond its borders. But over the course of a century, the empire reduced its navy, and in 1526, the remaining ocean-going ships were destroyed and it was illegal to go to sea in ships with more than one mast. History can only guess what would have happened otherwise, what China’s reach would have become had the navy not been destroyed.

The analogy should be obvious — some aruge that is what we’re doing today with space, with the same limiting consequences.

But there’s another Chinese story about destroying the ships (with later Wester parallels). Xiang Yu was a third century BC Chinese general who took his troops into enemy territory, and then destroyed their cooking pots and burned their ships. Retreat or complancency was no longer an option, only victory or death. Hernando Cortes did the same with crews he brought to the New World, for the same reason.

And there’s an analogy that could be made there, as well. By destroying our ships, we are, as Kennedy might say, tossing our cap over the wall of space in a new an unprecedented way. The old model, the way we’ve been doing spaceflight for the last 50 years, is no longer an option. We either succeed in creating a new space economy that will open the solar system to everyone, or we fail.

The question is still being debated in Washington as to whether we’re ready to destroy our ships. Some argue that the nation is not ready to abandon the current model, that we’re tossing our hat prematurely, setting ourselves up for failure. And it’s a legitimate question to debate.

But depending on the outcome of that question, another question must be asked — why are we destroying our ships? Which analogy do we want to apply? Are we destroying our ships so that we can no longer go forward? Or are we destroying our ships so that we can no longer go back?

It’s a question that not only must our leaders in Washington decide, but one that we as a nation must decide. And it’s potentially the most important question ever asked in the history of human spaceflight.

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