Op-ed | The Apollo program and the Chinese treasure fleets


This op-ed originally appeared in the July 16, 2019 special Apollo 11 at 50 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

History tells us that if our new commercial space industries succeed and grow, there will be no end to our space expansion. Supporting economic development of space is, therefore, the most important thing the United States can do right now to assure the future of its human spaceflight programs and humanity’s future in space.

During the decades since the cancellation of the Apollo program, some have used the Chinese treasure fleets of the early 1400s as a cautionary tale. Great Chinese fleets crossed the Indian Ocean more than 60 years before the Europeans got there, but then they ended their program and cleared the way for Europeans to dominate the world. The argument is that the United States’ failure to continue Apollo-style space exploration could lead to some other nation dominating humanity’s future. A closer examination of the comparison suggests a different outcome.


Early in his reign, the Yongle Emperor of China’s Ming dynasty wanted to expand Chinese influence in the world. He appointed Admiral Zheng He in 1405 to lead a huge treasure fleet on an expedition through the East China Sea and across the Indian Ocean. They reached the western coast of the Indian peninsula and returned in 1407, bringing gifts and emissaries from many countries. While Chinese traders in small ships had ventured as far as the Persian Gulf, the treasure fleets were the first large-scale, official expeditions to cross the Indian Ocean.

The Ming treasure fleets made a total of seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 to establish the superiority of Chinese culture, wealth, technology, and military power over a broad swath of Southeast Asia and around the Indian Ocean. The Ming voyages eventually ventured beyond India, reaching the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa. Accounts credit the first voyage as having more than 250 ships with nearly 28,000 crew members. The largest of the vessels were among the largest wooden ships ever built.

The Ming fleets were called treasure fleets not because they brought treasure back, but because they were lavishly expensive and took treasure with them to inspire awe and give to the rulers of the countries they visited. They returned with ambassadors and tribute, although the tribute was more symbolic than practical and did not counterbalance their vast expenditure. For example, giraffes were specially prized because they resembled a propitious creature from Chinese mythology.

A full-size replica of a medium-sized treasure boat of the Adm. Zheng He fleet at the Treasure Boat Shipyard site in Nanjing, China. Credit: Wikicommons

The treasure fleets were supported by the expansionist eunuch faction of the Ming court and opposed by conservative Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. When the Confucian faction gained ascendancy, they ended the voyages, banned construction of large oceangoing ships, and eventually scrapped the remaining vessels.

The Ming voyages were followed two generations later by European voyages of exploration and trade that proved more sustainable. While government investment in technology and military power supported both maritime programs, the European enterprises were organized as public-private partnerships. They focused more on establishing persistent trading relationships based on a profitable return on investment.

The Europeans reached India and its spices in 1498, while establishing profitable trade all along the route. They then continued to China. Unlike the Chinese, they built a string of trading posts, forts, and factories that supported a permanent presence. The effects of that presence continue to this day.

Five-and-a-half centuries after the Chinese treasure fleets, U.S. President John F. Kennedy used NASA’s Apollo program as a response to a string of Soviet space accomplishments that included launching the first artificial satellite and putting the first man in orbit. Surpassing the Soviet Union in space became an American political imperative. At the peak of the Apollo program, NASA commanded 4 percent of the federal budget and 1 percent of the entire U.S. economy.

While the goal of the Apollo program was a manned moon landing, its central purpose was to establish American technological superiority and national prestige. The United States took the lead when the Apollo 8 mission orbited the moon in December 1968. The purpose of the Apollo program was accomplished when the Apollo 11 mission captivated the world by landing on the moon in July 1969.

NASA’s budget was declining even before the moon landing, and the agency’s popularity began dropping immediately afterward. The decline was accelerated by President Richard Nixon, who was not fond of Kennedy’s program. NASA’s budget dropped quickly to 1 percent of the federal budget and has since drifted downward to its current half percent. The last three Apollo missions were canceled after the giant Saturn V boosters for them had already been built. One booster was repurposed to launch the Skylab orbital workshop, and the other two were put on display as museum exhibits, a step up from scrapping them.

The Apollo program and the voyages of the Chinese treasure fleets had much in common. Both programs were ostensibly programs of exploration. Both programs ventured far beyond the prior range of their sponsors, and both programs were fabulously expensive.

The most important similarity between the voyages, however, was in their purpose. They were both organized in response to a political mandate to establish the dominance of their cultures. In each case, the political mandate was satisfied quickly. And in each case, the combination of great expense, a satisfied mandate, and a change in government ended the program without a comparable successor. Neither program survived outside the unique political conditions that created them.

The lesson to be learned from the shared fate of the Chinese treasure fleets and the Apollo program is that expensive programs supported only by a political mandate are not sustainable. Any government exploration program viewed as expensive and not resulting in production of new wealth will always be one adverse political turn away from termination.

The European (and later American) strategy of exploration and economic development via public-private partnerships has proven far more sustainable over the last six centuries. Producing a positive return on investment each step of the way guaranteed not only continuance, but expansion.

Gary Oleson is a senior engineer at SAIC and a member of the board of directors of the Space Frontier Foundation.