In the continuing debate over the utility of the space shuttle, proponents invoke the image of Columbus's voyages of discovery to the New World. His quest is cited as one of history's classical examples of serendipity, of a man searching for one thing and finding something else far more valuable.
A buttressing argument is what happens to civilizations that don't seize the opportunities when they present themselves.
China faced the same kind of decision during the Ming dynasty, when it successfully launched a series of maritime expeditions to India, Arabia, and Africa that surpassed anything attempted by Europeans many decades later. The momentum was quickly lost, however, and with it Chinese world dominance.
There are disturbing parallels between the Chinese experience of nearly 600 years ago and the current American dilemma of trying to find money for a program like the space shuttle, for which no immediate payoff is visible. As in the United States after World War II, the times were right for a major effort. China stood at the pinnacle of its wealth and power. An enlightened young emperor, Yung Lo, wanted the world to know of this new power.
The idea for a spectacular demonstration of power came from Cheng Ho, a court eunuch whose position was analogous to our chief of naval operations today. As a Muslim from the western province of Yunnan, he conformed to the pattern of the foreigner with outrageous ideas (Columbus, Einstein) that nobody would listen to back home.
Yung Lo, in a manner reminiscent of President Kennedy's Apollo moon landing challenge, gave him full backing. This was not to be a half-hearted venture; the emperor committed a force of 62 ships and 28,000 men for the initial voyage to India in 1405. The so-called Jewel Ships were outfitted with magnetic compasses, considered the state-of-the-art technology of that time, and reportedly were as long as 400 feet. (Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria, was 128 feet long.)
Like the seven Apollo missions to the moon, Cheng Ho's seven voyages illumined an unknown world. They also returned a wealth of scientific data and curiosities - exotic birds, ostriches, lions, zebras, giraffes, precious stones, and spices - which were welcome luxuries at the imperial court. (The giraffe was of particular interest because it was thought to be the mythical ch'i-lin, a Chinese variant of the unicorn.) The voyages explored the Persian Gulf and down the east African coast as far as Mogadishu in present day Somalia. Seven members of one expedition are reported to have visited Mecca.
But unlike the astronauts, Cheng Ho did not exactly go in peace. His goal was to create new tributary states. Those who acknowledged the Son of Heaven as the world's supreme ruler could expect friendly relations and trade. The kings of Ceylon and Sumatra did not, and were returned as captives.
The expeditions ceased abruptly after the deaths of Yung Lo in 1424 and Cheng Ho in about 1431. A new emperor declared that ''not an inch of plank'' should go down to sea. China, always an introspective culture, totally turned its back on the outside world.
The voyages were halted principally because of the excessive costs. The knowledge and curiosities acquired (like the moon rocks) were considered a poor substitute for trade in more profitable items.
Another factor was the role of the despised eunuchs (like today's technocrats?) who conceived the missions, led them, and stood to profit by them. As a military industrial complex of the time, they were a natural target for suspicion.
Just as the reasons for abandoning the quest have a familiar ring today, so also may the consequences. The Ming (literally ''brilliant'') dynasty consolidated the Chinese people's control over their own country until its final collapse in 1644, but the technological edge was lost. China has been a net importer of technology ever since.
Loss of technological superiority also was a prelude for China's loss of national independence. From the 17th century until recently, the country has been under continuous foreign domination. Continuing the pioneering spirit of Cheng Ho and Yung Lo would not necessarily have prevented this humiliation, but abandoning an active role in the world surely guaranteed it.
It is interesting to speculate on what the world might look like today if Cheng Ho had been allowed to follow up on his successes in the Indian Ocean by turning east and sailing across the Pacific.