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The Empire Turns Back

McKnight’s latest Spacefaring Web revisits the Cheng Ho story, with emphasis on the parallels McKnight sees with today’s space programs.

While I usually find myself agreeing with McKnight, here I have to take exception to this article. He seems to be suggesting that the war on terror will — barring extreme efforts to the contrary — end up with an American empire, a tyrannical national-security state concerned only with maintaining the status quo and, therefore, poised to thwart any initiatives towards exploration or innovation.

He does acknowledge that history doesn’t mechanically repeat itself, but yet his arguments are based on the opposite — that the U.S., in pursuing this war, will do exactly what China did in the early 15th Century…even to the point of “smash(ing) the drydocks” of emerging private ventures. This is highly unlikely, since the military is increasingly dependent on space assets for its day-to-day operations, and is not going to destroy the “ships” and “shipyards” a la the Chinese example (particularly in the middle of a war). And while he is spot on with the “what the mandarins giveth, the mandarins taketh away” observation re:military funding of space efforts, it seems a stretch to say that NASA or DoD scaling back on new, wartime commitments to space technology development would be equivalent to the U.S. pulling out of space altogether.

In general, the tone seems to be one of handwringing — unusual for his essays, which are typically more positive. On the other hand, his prescription at the end of the article — more public outreach to demonstrate both the tangible and intangible benefits of space exploration — is always a good idea.

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