COMMENTARY | Charles Miller, a recently resigned adviser to NASA on commercial space flight, has sounded an alarm on the need to create low-cost access to space in an article in The Space Review. His arguments are sound, but his proposal is doomed to fail.
For space travel to garner widespread popular support, it has to serve some other goal. We cannot assume that people will get the idea that space travel is important unless it is explained to them. That was Newt Gingrich’s mistake when he offered his lunar base proposal before the Florida primary. He thought that just because he instinctively knew that the lunar base would have benefit that most people would also understand thus. The heaps of ridicule and opposition piled on the lunar base idea proved the folly of this attitude.
This leads us to Prince Henry the Navigator, an early 15th century Portuguese royal who founded and operated what was essentially the NASA of his time. His goal was to do for trans-oceanic travel what NASA ought to be doing for space travel.
Prince Henry founded an institute, which was essentially a research and development facility, at Sagres, in the far west of Portugal. The institute included a library, an observatory, and ship-building facilities. The art of navigation was developed at the Sagres institute. He brought together shipwrights, geographers, cartographers, astronomers, and mathematicians to work on a singular problem.
The problem was how to sail around the Horn of Africa to reach the rich spice markets of the East, bypassing the land route controlled by hostile Muslim powers. The solution the Prince Henry’s men developed was the ocean going caravel, which 70 years after he founded his institute, reached India and established Portugal as a world, economic super power for the next hundred years.
Incidentally, a certain Genovese mariner used two caravels as part of his tiny fleet that he sailed west to find a new route to Asia, but instead found America.
Prince Henry had the resources, the expertise, and the long term commitment to achieve a well understood goal, to bring the wealth of the East to his country.
Fast forward almost 600 years. How would Prince Henry approach the problem of space travel?
He would do as he did in Sagres, to gather the best engineers, scientists, and business entrepreneurs on the planet to access the closest source of potential wealth in the heavens. That source would be the moon, rich in rare earth minerals, perhaps platinum, and an isotope called helium 3, which could revolutionize the production of energy.
The difference is that 600 years ago Prince Henry just had to convince his family, including the King of Portugal. A modern Prince Henry the Navigator would have to convince the American people. By pointing to how the moon could be a source of wealth and not just a sinkhole for spending money, he might just succeed.
Sources: Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, of deep space human spaceflight? Charles Miller, The Space Review, Feb. 20, 2011
Prince Henry the Navigator, About.Com