In history classes, we pay a lot of attention to Columbus–in 1492, after all, he set out to discover a route to the Americas. Love his accomplishments or hate his humanitarian record (and I see no contradiction in doing both), he inaugurated the Age of Discovery (TM) which changed the world. Right?
Well, kind of. There were a lot of government-funded discovery voyages because of Columbus. Some were motivated by curiosity, some by conquest, many just resulted in plunder. But European presence in the Americas was no new thing–the Vikings maintained settlements in Canada on and off for centuries before the Spanish and Portugese ever arrived.
The Vikings, though, didn’t plant a flag, so to speak (they were driven off by the Native Americans, who later died off due to plagues), and the early Spanish and Portugese (who accidentally introduced said plagues, thus depopulating the continents) were more interested in plunder than in colonization. World history is filled with civilizations that came, saw, conquered, and left–and, at the beginning, that’s what the Europeans were more-or-less doing with the Americas.
They were doing that, at least, until the entrepreneurs got involved. The ones that grew sugar, the ones that made turpentine, the ones that grew tobacco. Fabulous, unheard-of wealth was there for the making, and people with more money than sense spotted the chance, and took it. By the 18th century, pretty much anyone could hop a ship and come on over, either as a colonist or as an indenture or a convict laborer or a slave. The New World became just a part of the world.
The hinge of history didn’t come in 1492. It came in the middle 16th century when people started going on their own, quite apart from government sponsorships. Governments paved the way, showed it could be done, made it interesting, but the New World wasn’t conquered by armies in any lasting sense. Damaged, yes. Plundered, yes. Razed and genocided, sometimes. But a permanent non-indigenous presence? That took ordinary people looking for a better place to make a living. Without that, the Age of Discovery would have been just another blip in the American historical record, like the Viking settlements.
In 1969, for the first time, government-sponsored humans walked on another planet. The world hailed the arrival of a new Age of Discovery, this one thankfully devoid of the possibility of genocide. For a few years, more men went to the moon, and then for another forty years, men and women hung around in orbit doing science experiments and repairing satellites, and it began to look like that’s where we were going to stop. We’d found our level after the high-water flood, so to speak. Not the moon, not anything beyond, really–at least, nothing except science probes–just orbit. And just a select few of us.
Eight years ago, no manned private spaceflight had ever occurred. Three years ago, no mannable private spacecraft had ever achieved orbit. And tomorrow, barring a spectacular accident that will bankrupt the company, Friday morning will see the docking of the SpaceX Dragon with the International Space Station.
Designed for humans, pressurizable, shielded, suitable for manned spaceflight, the Dragon’s only carrying cargo this time–the first time ever a private craft has docked with an orbiting space station. It’s about to prove that anyone with the money, the stupidity, and the glorious insanity can go into space.
Those of you that pay attention to history happening around you, take note, cause this is one of the big ones, and you should take a moment out to consider it. Walking on the moon was big. But history turns on this one–this is the one that makes Apollo program a true trailblazer, rather than just a spectacular publicity stunt.
Tomorrow, the stars.