The Americans and Russians, not the Europeans, undertook space programs. Europe got in late and never launched a manned flight. There are those who say that we can explore space with unmanned rockets. That may be true, but we cannot own space, we cannot claim it that way. If Henry created his school solely for knowledge, then perhaps sending messages in a bottle and waiting for a reply would have done that. But Henry, the prince who became a monk, also acted for wealth, God's glory and to claim his place in history.
Today, we have entered a phase of history where the buccaneering spirit has left us. The desire for knowledge has separated itself from the hunger we have for wealth and glory. Glory is not big today, cool is. Cool does not challenge the gates of heaven, it accepts what is and conforms to it. This is a passing phase, however. Humans will return to space to own it, discover unknown wealth and bring glory.
The Wright brothers made bicycles, in those days not cool and certainly not glorious. Their heirs "touched the face of God," as John Gillespie Magee put it in his poem High Flight. Like Kipling, scholars do not regard Magee as a serious poet. Perhaps they are right, but he still captured something lesser poets of the inner neuroses failed to capture: a way to speak of glory.
Out in West Texas and other desolate places, private companies -- privateers -- are reinventing the space program. They are searching for what Henry sought -- namely, wealth and glory. Like the pioneers of flight or Columbus, they might be a little mad, much too hungry and filled with hubris. But like Henry's explorers, they will take a government program and transform the world while making themselves and their country rich.
These are extreme thoughts, but Sagres makes you wild if you let it. What was done here staggers the imagination and causes me to hunger for more. Certainly, European imperialism brought misery to the world. But the world was making itself miserable before, and has since: One group of people has always been stealing land from other groups in a constant flow of history. What culture did not live on land stolen from another culture, either annihilated or absorbed? Ours has always been a brutal world. And the Europe Henry founded did not merely oppress and exploit, although it surely did those things. It also left as its legacy something extraordinary: a world that knew itself and all of its parts.
The European Legacy
It is odd to be thinking of Europe's legacy while sitting here in Portugal. Only the dead leave legacies, and Europe is not dead. Yet something in it has died. The swagger and confidence of a great civilization is simply not there, at least not on the European peninsula. Instead, there is caution and fear. You get the sense in Europe -- and here I think of conversations I had on previous trips in the last year or so -- of a fear that any decisive action will tear the place apart. Eastern Europeans are wondering what happened to the European Union and NATO, their twin guarantees of never having to worry about anything again. Western Europeans are worrying about how to return to the smug satisfaction of a prosperity that has disappeared.
There is a great deal of discussion about Europe's economic crisis and finding a way to return to the lost promise of the European Union. But what was that promise? It was a promise of comfort and security and what they called "soft power," which is power without taking risks or making anyone dislike you. The European search for comfort and safety is not trivial, not after the horrors of the 20th century. The British and French have given up empires, Russia has given up communism, Germany and Italy have given up fascism and racism. The world is better off without these things. But what follows, what is left?