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Consequences of Exploration: Learning from History Part 2
Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of
essays on exploration by Steven J. Dick.
The Railroad and the Space Program
unfortunately, been very few studies of the societal impact of space
exploration. One exception stands out from four decades ago, and I would like to
share that with you, both because I think it is an interesting case study, and
because it speaks to all historical analogy arguments.
The title of the
study is "The Railroad and the Space Program," and in fact its subtitle is "An
Exploration of Historical Analogy." One might well ask how valid analogical
reasoning really is. After all, the argument using Ming China in a previous
essay is only one example of a civilization that pulled back from exploration
with disastrous consequences -- and even if I elaborated other cases, in science
that is still what we call "small number statistics."
The Railroad and
the Space Program study worried about that problem in considerable detail, and
in fact went on to give the best treatment of the general use of historical
analogy that I know of. Although originally suspicious of parallels with the
past, present and future, the authors in the end saw "the possibility of moving
up onto a level of abstraction where the terrain of the past is suggestive of
the topography of the present and its future projection." They cautioned that as
much empirical detail should be used as possible, and that analogies drawn from
vague generalities should be avoided.
the use of historical analogy as suggestive, but not predictive of the future,
they then went on to elaborate their analogy with the railroad and the space
program. It was, they said, an engine of social revolution that had its greatest
impact only 50 years after the start of the railways in America. As a
transportation system, the railway had to be competitive with canals and
turnpikes, and 20 years after the start of railways in America, more miles of
canals were being built than railroads. It was not clear at all they could be
economically feasible. And though many technological, economic and managerial
hurdles needed to be overcome, railroads are still with us. In the course of the
19th century they represented human conquest of natural obstacles, with
consequences for human's view of nature and our place in it.
|I hope the choice is to move forward into space with
all the vigor we can summon, while taking into account the consequences
using the lessons of history. |
consequences often turned out to have greater societal impact than the supposed
primary purposes for which they were built. The space program has had, and still
has, it technological challenges, and the economic benefits may be even longer
term than the railroad. But by conquering the third dimension of space as
aviation did to a very small extent in the thin skin of our atmosphere, and as
the railroad did in two geographical dimensions, I venture confidently to
predict that in the long run the space program will have an impact that exceeds
that of the railroad.
The current debate
over human exploration of the Moon and Mars illustrates the choices we face. I
am struck that opinion is deeply divided into two world views: those on the one
hand who feel strongly that we need to address our problems at home, that space
exploration is a waste of money, and on the other hand those who want to
explore. The first says we cannot afford to explore; the latter answers that we
cannot afford NOT to explore. A study of how these two groups came to their
respective opinions would go a long way toward illuminating the underlying
assumptions of our present society, and toward mapping our future.
might well ask is it ethical NOT to explore? The Chinese case indicates that
pulling back from exploration is tantamount to letting a society wither. In
closing I cannot do better than quote historian Stephen J. Pyne. In his essay
"Space: The Third Great Age of Discovery" he wrote that "I find it inconceivable
that this country -- itself the continuing product of discovery, with its own
vital creation myths inextricable entangled with the history of geographic
discovery and expansion -- I find it inconceivable that such a country would
surrender its exploring tradition. This is a frankly nationalist appeal. The
United States in not predestined to journey to the stars: we will have to choose
that destiny . . . ."
I would only add that this choice for space
exploration does not have to be a nationalist appeal. Since Pyne wrote those
words 15 years ago, we have a striking example of international cooperation in
the International Space Station, which, one could argue, is worth the money for
that alone. In other words in an ideal world, billions of dollars spent on the
International Space Station is better than similarly massive amounts spent on
wars stemming from lack of cooperation and lack of cultural understanding.
Space exploration -- both robotic and human -- is going to happen, it is
only a question of when. Precisely because we are at a time when there are so
many problems in the world I hope the choice is to move forward into space with
all the vigor we can summon, while taking into account the consequences using
the lessons of history. I think it is not just naive optimism to say that such a
choice, especially an international endeavor, might just lift us out of our
current dilemma by focusing on a goal that can unite humanity rather than divide
Bruce Mazlish (ed). The Railroad and the Space Program: An
Exploration in Historical Analogy. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
Stephen J. Pyne,"A Third Great Age of Discovery," in Sagan and
Pyne, The Scientific and Historical Rationales for Solar System Exploration
(GWU Space Policy Institute, 1988).