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There still be dragons

April 7, 2012

It is extraordinary how human cowardice seems to have flourished in the past five centuries.  Once upon a time, men were willing to take risks in exploring unknown regions.  A strong chance of dying along the way used to be regarded as perfectly normal, but today it is somehow considered “avoidable”.  The change in attitudes is really quite striking.

Consider the facts.  The Magellan expedition set out with five ships and 237 men, and returned with a single vessel and 18 men, not including the expedition leader.  Drake departed to circumnavigate the world with 165 men and arrived back in Plymouth with only 60.  La Perouse took 220 men and lost them all along the way, including himself.   Likewise, Mungo Park started on his second expedition with a party of 44, none of whom survived.  In spite of the high mortality rate, each of these voyages of exploration was considered a landmark success.  The principle that early explorers of a region are expected to die in droves is well established and always has been.

By the end of the 20th century, however, the human race had somehow acquired the idea that exploration should not cost lives, or that vastly increasing the costs and duration of expeditions was an acceptable tradeoff for saving the lives of a few explorers.  This changed attitude is most obvious in modern space programs.  There is no rush to the final frontier.  Would-be explorers hide behind lengthy tests and protocols that they devoutly hope will avert fatal accidents.  Should an accident occur, they run screaming into hiding and lose years in trying to overcompensate for random chance.  Most noticeably, the two routine hull losses in the American space shuttle program delayed further missions for over two years in each case and eventually contributed to the cancellation of the program.  Lately there have even been attempts to further reduce the risk of life by eliminating human explorers completely.  In their most striking act of pusillanimity so far, NASA and ESA have chosen to send automated rovers to Mars rather than real explorers.  These machines cannot contribute a tiny amount of the data that reasoning human observers could, nor can they make humanity feel uplifted by its own daring, but to the pessimists who decided to send them out in place of men, they are glowing triumphs.

There are no longer dragons drawn upon the edges of our maps, but to the cowards who boldly go where no man has gone before, the firmament still teems with them.

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