A Human Imperative?
  • Harry L. Shipman


From the very beginning of the space program, its proponents have sought to evoke the Golden Age of Discovery, that momentous era when humanity, led by Western Europeans, became aware of the true dimensions of the globe. Many satellites and missions have names that evoke this era. The first American satellite was called Explorer 1, and the name was given to a whole series of small scientific satellites. The two most famous explorers, Columbus and Magellan, have posthumously given their names to a future mission to Venus and to the European part of the American space station.


Space Program Pure Science National Pride Space Enthusiast Territorial Claim 
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Reference Notes

  1. 1.
    James A. Van Allen, “Myths and Realities of Space Flight,” Science 232 (30 May 1986): 1075–1076; letters responding to this article are given in Science 233 (8 August 1986): 610-611, I described Van Allen’s views briefly in Space 2000, pp. 324-327.ADSCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Shipman, Space 2000, pp. 72ff; and A. C, Clarke, Ascent into Orbit; A Scientific Autobiography (New York: Wiley, 1984).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Fact Sheet on the President’s Space Policy, released February 1988.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Henri Pirenne, Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe, trans. I. E. Clegg (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1937), pp. 142–146.Google Scholar
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    The role of spices in medieval and Renaissance Europe is described by Frederic Rosengarten, Jr., The Book of Spices (New York: Pyramid, 1973), pp. 60–65.Google Scholar
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    Wage Comparisons; Jaime Vicens Vives, An Economic History of Spain, Frances M. Lopez-Morillas (trans.), (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) writes that I ducat or 375 maravedis paid eight days’ wages for a “specialized laborer” (p. 296) at the time of Columbus. Setting this at about $6/hour for an eight-hour day means, in contemporary purchasing power terms, 375 maravedis = $384. Don Quixote’s aide Sancho Panza earned 26 maravedis per day.Google Scholar
  7. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha, T. Smollett (trans.), (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986). If you equate this to a minimum wage worker at MacDonald’s earning $28 for an eight-hour day, you once again arrive at the figure of 1 maravedi = $1.Google Scholar
  8. Another, more detailed salary comparison can be made using the data from Samuel E. Morison’s The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). He lists various salaries for different members of the expedition (all figures in maravedis per year).Google Scholar
  9. In salary terms, all of the above numbers say that a maravedi is something like $1; curiously, by modern standards the pilots and captains are underpaid relative to the seamen. Salaries of members of the Columbus expedition (S. E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1942, Vol. 1, p. 137) are similar.Google Scholar
  10. Cost of Living: Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea cites a cost of 12 maravedis for feeding a seaman for a day; I’d interpret this as meaning in contemporary terms that a maravedi is, in terms of food, worth something like 25–50 cents. The cost of maintaining a manservant in Pavia, Italy, was 20 florins [Carlo M. Cipolla, Money, Prices, and Civilization in the Mediterranean World from the 5 th Through 17 th Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press for the University of Cincinnati, 1956)]. The florin (minted in Florence) and the ducat (minted in Venice; referred to in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice) were two stable currencies of the time, and worth 375 maravedis (Vicens Vives, p. 296). The arithmetic shows that the cost of maintaining such a person is 7500 maravedis per year. The person in question was a high-level manservant; I interpret the data as indicating that the purchasing power of a maravedi was, again, something like 50 cents.Google Scholar
  11. With the purchasing power equivalent of a maravedi being roughly 50 cents, and the salary equivalent being about $1, I’ll split the difference and use an equivalent of 1 maravedi = 75 cents; as explained in the text, for current purposes we need to interpret such things as the cost of Columbus’s expedition and the cost of spices both in terms of goods which were purchased then and now (e.g., food and shelter) and in terms of how many man-years of work is invested in something like 10 pounds of cloves or an oceanic voyage.Google Scholar
  12. Gold equivalents: The usual approach taken by historians is to equate old currencies to gold, and then use contemporary prices to set dollar equivalents. The florin and ducat were gold coins with weights of 3.5 to 4.5 grams or 0.12 to 0.16 troy ounces (Cipolla, pp. 22-23) and worth 375 maravedis, according to the exchange rate quoted by Vicens Vives for the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. Prices often quoted in older history books are based on gold at $35 an ounce, a price fixed for decades by the U.S. government, leading to 1 maravedi being worth $0.013, unrealistically low in purchasing power. Gold prices in 1988 ($500 per ounce, roughly speaking) are closer to what they were in the 15th century; using these prices, 1 maravedi = 18 cents, still lower than its worth in purchasing power or salary equivalents by a considerable factor.Google Scholar
  13. 7.
    Rosengarten, The Book of Spices, gives (p. 205) clove prices as ranging from 33 cents per pound (1967) to $2.25 per pound (1972); cumin (p. 220) as 26 cents per pound; and nutmeg (p. 300) as 40 cents per pound. The approximate figure in the text allows for a threefold price increase since the early 1970s.Google Scholar
  14. 8.
    The price of draft animals is estimated based on my past experience as business consultant to a horse trader and on the 1987 price of feeder cattle (60 cents per pound; a lightweight feeder cow, similar to a poorly fed 15th-century cow, would cost about $600 on the commodity market.Google Scholar
  15. 9.
    See John H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (New York: Mentor, 1964), pp. 56–58. Rosengarten, The Book of Spices, p. 68.Google Scholar
  16. Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (New York: Random House, 1983), Chapt. 19.Google Scholar
  17. 10.
    John H. Parry, The Discovery of the Sea (New York: Dial, 1974), pp. 85, 100-102.Google Scholar
  18. 11.
    Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, MS. Espagnol 30, quoted in John H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance, p. 33.Google Scholar
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    William H. Goetzmann, “Paradigm Lost,” in Nathan Reingold (ed.), The Sciences in the American Context: New Perspectives (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1979), pp. 21–34.Google Scholar
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  21. 13.
    The full story of Shackleton’s expedition is told in E. Shackleton, South, (New York: MacMillan, 1920). The open boat voyage is told in an extract in Sir.Google Scholar
  22. Francis Chichester, Along the Clipper Way (New York: Ballantine, 1966), pp. 239–260.Google Scholar
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    Paul C. Daniels, The Antarctic Treaty, in Richard S. Lewis and Philip M. Smith (eds.), Frozen Future: A Prophetic Report from Antarctica (New York: Times Books, 1973), p. 34.Google Scholar
  24. 15.
    Pyne, p. 350.Google Scholar
  25. 16.
    Paul C. Daniels, “The Antarctic Treaty,” in Frozen Future, p. 35.Google Scholar
  26. 17.
    Frozen Future, p. 58.Google Scholar
  27. 18.
    Pyne, The Ice, p. 352.Google Scholar
  28. 19.
    Boorstin, Discoverers, p. 192.Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    Boorstin, Discoverers, p. 201.Google Scholar

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© Harry L. Shipman 1989

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  • Harry L. Shipman

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