Yes, Today’s Age of Space Expansion is Like(ish) Yesterday’s Age of Discovery

My friend sitting across the table is giving me the look. Thirty seconds ago, he was sipping on a nice pinot, enjoying the moment and savoring the complex subtleties of Burgundy. Now, his wine glass is hanging mid-air in front of his face. He is staring at me with frustration like I have soured his precious liquid. I can see his eyes wide open looking all distorted through the glass. Our happy hours together are always so insightful and energetic but I feel that my statement has burst this brotherhood bubble. He lowers the glass and says: “Come on Daniel, today’s space exploration is by far more dangerous! There is no comparison with the Age of Discovery. I mean back then all they had to do is get on a boat. How can you compare that to going to space, a place that will literally kill you? I know you are an optimist and always see the glass half full but that is a bit too naive, even for you. On a boat, you can breathe, relax, and fish. In space, you die if you step outside and there are for sure no fish to catch!” I smile. I just love talking about Space, nature, and life over a nice bottle of wine. How can you not cherish these moments when enjoying the bounties of this planet while planning our expansion into Space?

When comparing with the past, we must be careful. We too often fail to recognize that what is trivial today was most likely an impossible achievement then. If we want to juxtapose previous milestones to today’s challenges, then we mustn’t’ look at the technology itself but rather at what these obstacles represented, their degree of impossibleness, and the human cost.

Let’s take for instance the wheel. We can all agree it is a poster child for what is rudimentary. What is a wheel other than a round disk with a hole in the middle? No Einstein material there! While we don’t think of it as something truly extraordinary, it is in fact one of the most important inventions of all time. There was the world pre-wheel and there is the world post-wheel. For the pre-wheel world, not only did the post-wheel world seem impossible, but even the vision of it had to be outside of its imagination. Our understanding of what the wheel meant when it was invented can’t be based on the experience of living today, thousands of years later. To grasp its significance, we must look at the inconceivable today. We have to imagine there is a technology that we don’t know, but when we do, we will be able to travel in space at the speed of light. That unknown technology is like the wheel. Groundbreaking when discovered but rudimentary in time. (Take a moment to read about the Simple Machines. These were what the Big Brains of the Renaissance were spending their time on!)

Tonight when you go home, you will go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet to perform a daily ritual. Nothing magical there. A simple push on a lever will flush away your biological output, taking it to a place far away, where it will be transformed into a new and clean solution, ready to be rehabilitated into society. No Einstein material here either! But there was a time when all we knew about our leftovers was that they were harmless and good fertilizers. Never did it cross our sophisticated minds that they could become a source of serious diseases. And definitely not something worth investing time and money to manage. That is what water is for. To wash it away and off to a river.

In 1833, when 200 people decided to form the Town of Chicago, they didn’t think sewers were necessary or would ever be an issue. But Chicago grew at an unprecedented rate and became the world’s fastest-growing city. The lack of drainage created horrible living conditions. The standing water turned into a pathogen factory and for 6 years, the city was plagued with numerous epidemics, including typhoid fever and dysentery. Then in 1854, a cholera outbreak killed six percent of the city’s population. The impossible needed to be achieved and over the next 46 years, the city raised itself by 14 feet (the entire city literally, using hydraulic jacks and jackscrews), building the United States’ first comprehensive sewerage system. It also reversed the flow of the Chicago River so that instead of flowing into Michigan Lake, it flowed away from it.

Of course, it would be preposterous today to build a city, a village, or even a house, without sewers. But there was a time when we didn’t see the harm in throwing our shit out the window.

Obstacles or challenges are not absolute and are relative to our capacity to solve them. Climbing Everest when you are 2 years old is not only impossible, but no toddler has the capacity to look at a mountain and wonder what it is like at the top. All it cares about is getting some attention from mom and dad. But later in life, when it is grown up and has trained its body, when it has the tools (rope, gear, oxygen, etc) and the knowledge to process the unknown, only then can it transform what was inconceivable into a possibility and then into a reality.

Circling back to the Age of Discovery. These 300 years of ocean exploration might seem to us as benign but they were monumentally and impossibly challenging. Granted, building something that could float wasn’t much of an issue, and living on a boat could be lovely – if you lived by yourself and were safely anchored in a nice bay. But embarking on an ocean-crossing journey in the 1400s and 1500s, towards an unknown world was as safe as jumping out of a plane without a parachute and hoping you magically landed in a swamp, alive (yes it does happen!!) In other words, it was borderline suicidal. And an expensive suicide too!

Take a moment and ponder what would push someone to leave everything behind and take such a journey. Even if they reached their destination, they would have to start from nothing. Some even carried on and crossed an entire continent in the hope of a promised land.

Today’s Age of Space Expansion is similar to the Age of Discovery for the following reasons:

  • FINANCING: Only the billionaires, governments and big corporations have the capacity and incentives to finance these risky endeavors. Today they are: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, NASA, ESA, Axiom Space, Sierra Nevada Corp, and others. Yesterday, they were: the Kings and Queens, aristocrats, powerful cities, and companies like East India Company and Hudson Bay Company.
  • UNKNOWN: There is a lot we don’t know today but we are working hard at changing that. Back then, there was a lot that people didn’t know as they ventured out. They could figure out the latitude but the longitude was a mystery. They were at the mercy of the weather and didn’t have the capacity to anticipate the depth ahead of them. There are countless shipwrecks around the world, scattered over the oceans or along the coasts that are a testimony to the reality these ships faced.
  • DEATH: Going to space can be deadly. But we know that. We know it is not an environment made for us but we are building ways to manage it. The Age of Discovery happened on Earth where we can breathe and feed ourselves. But we took that “comfort” for granted and dismissed the complexity of survival. Hundreds of thousands have died: drowned, starved, or killed. (Learn about Port Famine)
  • NEW ERA: The Age of Discovery led to new knowledge, new technologies, increased trade, and redefined the world. Going to space will do the same.
  • CHALLENGE: Going to space is as challenging to us today as crossing an ocean was for them. The investments and risks, while quite different, are actually relatively equivalent. The challenges are not the same but they are proportionate to our capacity at solving them.

As a side note, many will suggest that problems are more complicated today because the world is changing too fast and problems are appearing faster than we can solve them. I suggest they read “Our world is changing – but not as rapidly as people think”:

“… the idea of exponential change is simply not true. Yes, the world is changing. But change is not accelerating. Maybe some of the companies are growing exponentially – WhatsApp, Uber, Alibaba, and many more. But the external drivers of that change are not themselves exponential.

“They said that change was accelerating in 1900,“ Chris McKenna reminds us. “They said it in 1920. In 1940, in 1960, in 1980, and in 2000. So the presumption is that the people who said it before were wrong, but we’re right now. What we’re doing, is that we’re fetishizing the second derivative. We’re preoccupied with the rate of change.”

Geoffrey Jones says “If you go back and read what people wrote in the 19th century, they thought change was happening at an incredible rate we had never seen before.”

Our perception of the past and future is relative to our experience of the present. We imagine the future as an extension of today, and the past as a collection of mistakes. We judge yesterday with today’s wisdom and project a future constrained by today’s limitations. We shouldn’t. We should acknowledge the herculean breakthroughs of the past and give them credit for building up what we take for granted today. By the same token, we must accept that our own current and upcoming technologies will one day be seen as childlike and of simple nature.

I pour equally the last of the bottle of wine into our glasses. I tell my friend to imagine a day when wine will be shipped in spaceships across our solar system in the same way it was shipped in barrels, onboard galleons, across the oceans. He leans back. His fingers play with the stem of the wine glass. I can see his brain “wheels” turning. He looks up and says: “Do you think one day there will be 2 people having a similar conversation, on a planet somewhere, drinking wine, talking about the impossibility of traveling between dimensions?” I take a sip, and let the taste of Burgundy linger in my mouth, before answering: “Of course!”

Good reading: Cape Horn by Felix Riesenberg , Age of Discovery: Shipwrecks in the Caribbean