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George Washington and the Space Age

[For what it's worth, here are some excerpts, very lightly edited, from the talk I gave yesterday at a conference on advanced concepts in spaceflight. I didn't read from the script but just winged it. In other words, these are essentially just notes. I showed some slides -- canals and rivers and GW. I feared the audience would find it a peculiar talk, but it worked out fine.]

Five years ago I wrote a book that dealt a great deal with the Space Age. My most recent book was about George Washington. Those are, at first glance, two rather different topics. Twentieth century, eighteenth century. Rocketships -- horse-drawn carriages. Pressure suits -- powdered wigs. GPS satellites -- false teeth. In fact I'm not sure the anyone has ever mentioned the Space Age and George Washington in the same sentence. That changes today, with my talk, titled, "George Washington and the Space Age."

I suspect that George Washington would have been an ardent supporter of Apollo and of the space program in general. I think he would like the Vision for Space Exploration. He would say of course we must go to the moon and Mars. But a cautionary note: Even George Washington sometimes got things wrong.

My recent book is about George Washington and his plan to make the Potomac River the pre-eminent commercial corridor between the settled East and the raw wilderness of what was then considered The West. Now, you may ask, what does that have to do with the Space Age?

First, George Washington was very much a man of the frontier. He spent much of his youth stomping around the back country. Throughout his life, The West hovered in his consciousness. He saw the West as the future of the nation. He knew that people had the energy and zeal to tame that wilderness. So much of the philosophy of the Space Age is built around a similar notion: That human beings must go to the frontier, and indeed, that Americans should lead the way. That human nature compels these journeys. That we go because it is there.

Second, George Washington was a man of the future. When people came to Mount Vernon after the war, he didn't talk about the war, didn't talk about the past. He talked about his river plan. He looked ahead. In my book I discuss a trip that GW took in 1784, a 680-mile journey to the backcountry. During this trip he kept a diary. He had traveled that terrain many times in his life. But not once in the diary did he mention any of his past trips. It's as though he'd never been there before. He looked forward.

Third, GW had a profound sense of the young nation existing amid a tremendous amount of space. But there was a problem. You couldn't get anywhere. There were no bridges to speak of. The roads were terrible. Travel was a painfully slow, dangerous, uncomfortable proposition. And worst of all, the Appalachian mountains loomed as a formidable obstacle. They served as a 3000-foot high wall running right down the center of the country. They were every bit as much a problem to travel as the gravity well of our Earth is for spaceflight. It was possible to get from tidewater in the East to the navigable rivers of the West, but it was really really hard slogging....[BLATHER]...

Fourth, although Washington had little sense of living in a world of technological change, he did believe that we could use technology to get what we wanted. And what was the technology of the day? Canals. He started a canal project at Great Falls. 1.3 miles. He figured it would take 3 years. It took 17. He figured it would cost a fair bit of money, but it cost much more. There were unforeseen problems, there were fatalities, there were maimings, there was a constant struggle for dollars, there was political bickering behind the scenes, there were people trying to make a buck off the project, and all the while there were competitors, up in PA and NY. When the canal at Great Falls was finally finished, it worked brilliantly. People came from all over America and indeed from other nations to see this great marvel. It was something America could be proud of. But it sure lost a lot of money. It spent about four dollars for every dollar in revenue. It was an expensive way to get wheat and coal and furs and lumber to market.

By 1820, the Potomac River simply looked different. Technology changes the way we look at our environment. The basic Washington idea still existed: We needed a route to the West, using the Potomac corridor. But ships had gotten bigger. The demands of the American marketplace has grown. People needed reliable supplies of cargo all year round. No one wanted to hear that they couldn't get their supplies because the river had frozen. The Potomac looked shallow, quirky, unreliable, tempestuous.So the most visionary people in the middle Atlantic came up with a new idea: Let's build an artificial river.

This project cost millions, and resulted in something ruly phenomenal: A canal from Washington, D.C., all the way to the heart of the Alleghenies. 185 miles. It was called the Great National Project. Now this was truly an Apollo project. Nothing was easy about building a canal through the mountains. Indeed they sought to carrry the canal's waters all the way over the mountain, using 275 locks just in the central third of the project. You could float across the mountains...[MORE BLATHER]

But the Potomac partisans miscalculated. They never could finish that central section over the mountains, because it was simply too expensive. And meanwhile the New Yorkers were up there in the Mohawk valley, digging the Erie Canal.

You know how this story turns out. Not only did the Erie canal beat GW's Potomac route, but canals in general fell victim to a new technology: Railroads.

The people who believe in space, who say that our destiny lies there, who think that it is part of our nature to break the bonds of earth and explore the heavens, have to prove that they are not lashed to last century's paradigm. They must prove that rocketships aren't canals.

By Joel Achenbach  |  March 16, 2005; 7:31 AM ET
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