Why We Explore

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Conditions for the Age of Space
02.04.05
Why We Explore

Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a series of essays on exploration by NASA's Chief Historian, Steven J. Dick.

In this essay we continue our discussion of the Age of Discovery as an interpretive framework of the Age of Space. Both the Age of Discovery and the Age of Space had their motivations, although very different.

In the 15th century exploring nations were in search of empire, and their motivations were twofold: economic gain through trading or land acquisition, and religious conversion. The motivation for the space age was neither of these. In the wake of Sputnik, under the Eisenhower Administration the President’s Science Advisory Committee in 1958 identified four factors that gave importance, urgency and inevitability to entering space: exploration, national defense, prestige, and science. Among these, national prestige was paramount, as historical analyses such as Walter McDougall’s The Heavens and the Earth have shown.

Replicas of Columbus' ships sail by the Space Shuttle.
Image left: Replicas of Christopher Columbus' sailing ships Santa Maria, Nina, and Pinta sail by the Shuttle Endeavour before its maiden voyage in 1992.

The motivations are much the same today, although we are now in a test of will to see whether international cooperation, exploration, and perhaps even commercial gain, can provide the same impetus to space that international competition once did.

Both the Age of Discovery and the Age of Space required means of conveyance. Beginning with Prince Henry the Navigator the vessel of choice for ocean exploration was the small maneuverable and relatively fast caravel with its "lateen" triangular sail, in contrast to the galley or other vessels with fixed sails or oarsmen. Caravels were used for everyday trade routes in Western Europe, and typically new types of vessels were not constructed for the early long transoceanic voyages.

By contrast, because nothing had ever entered the ocean of space, designers had to invent spaceships from scratch. It is true that both the Soviet Union and the United States adapted older military missiles as the motive power to enter space, but both also independently designed new "capsules" to carry humans on their epic early manned programs. The partially reusable space shuttle came later.

As described in Roger Bilstein's The American Aerospace Industry, and Joan Bromberg's NASA and the Space Industry, an entire aerospace industry sprang up on the foundations of the aviation industry to cater to the rocket and spacecraft needs of the Age of Space. Unlike the ancient ports from which the ships of the 15th and 16th centuries departed, spaceports were built anew, their locations determined not so much by water (though an uninhabited overflight path was a factor), but by the latitudes at which Earth rotation could impart additional motive power, among other considerations. Those spaceports, with now legendary names like Cape Canaveral, Vandenberg, Kourou, Plesetsk and Baikonur, were the equivalents of Palos, Lisbon, and Sanlúcar de Barrmeda.

"We are now in a test of will to see whether international cooperation, exploration, and perhaps even commercial gain, can provide the same impetus to space that international competition once did."
Both Ages had their heroes, leaders of the voyages of discovery. Columbus and Magellan were men of daring and adventure, who personally argued for government funding of their voyages. Cosmonauts and astronauts -- men like Gagarin, Shepard and Armstrong -- were daring too. But it was not they who argued for government funding for the space program, it was scientists and managers like von Braun.

At another level, crews in the Age of Discovery, as in the case of Magellan's circumnavigation, were often hard to come by. There is no parallel to this among myriads of astronaut applicants, which outnumber successful candidates by more than 1000 to one.

Neither do the robotic spacecraft so central to space exploration find a parallel in the Age of Discovery. In robotic exploration the human heroes were those who argued for the missions, spent entire careers planning and implementing them, and had either success or failure as their reward. As spacecraft designers, ground controllers, and principal investigators know, even robotic space exploration is an intensely human activity.

Finally, both the Age of Discovery and the Age of Space had their navigators, and their users and producers of maps as a result of their voyages of discovery. The Age of Discovery had its world cosmographic maps, and its portolan maps, the latter to actually help in navigating.

The Age of Space too had its general cosmography as backdrop, and its practical star maps for celestial navigation, though its methods of navigation -- gravitational assists from planetary flybys, for example -- were strikingly novel. Like the 16th century, space age voyages of discovery produce ever more accurate maps of their routes and their destinations.

The general themes for the Age of Space are similar to those of the Age of Discovery, but the particular conditions were very different. Not surprisingly, both need to be seen in the context of their times. Nevertheless, both ages indisputably produced great voyages of discovery. We will discuss some of them in the next essay.


Readings:
Bilstein, Roger, The American Aerospace Industry: From Workshop to Global Enterprise (Twayne: New York, 1996).

Bromberg, Joan Lisa, NASA and the Aerospace Industry (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1999).

William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (The Modern Library: New York, 1998).

Walter McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985).

J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1981; 1st edition, London, 1963).

Sheahan, John T. and Francis T. Hoban, "Spaceports," in Defining Aerospace Policy: Essays in Honor of Francis T. Hoban, edited by Kenneth Button, Julianne Lammersen-Baum, and Roger Stough (Ashgate: Burlington, VT, 2004).

Steven J. Dick
NASA Chief Historian