Why We Explore

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Why We Explore

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

How best to frame historically the new Vision for Space Exploration that NASA is now implementing? The Age of Space in general is perhaps best viewed as a continuous story of voyages further and further from the home planet. It is a process that has only begun, that goes in fits and starts, and that has no end. It is the story of debates about the relative benefits of human and robotic exploration, about expendable launch vehicles vs. reusable launch vehicles, about the benefits of space exploration to society, and numerous other contentious themes. But at its core, and in the end, it is fundamentally a story of voyages and exploration.

The concept and practice of voyaging is very old in human history. Members of homo sapiensleaving Africa 50,000 years ago were on a voyage of sorts, an exploration of the unknown that eventually led to their spread throughout the world. Spencer Wells has vividly described this process in The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Maritime voyages have an ancient history, extending from the mythological odyssey of Ulysses to the present. Ancient shipwrecks now being uncovered testify to the strength of maritime trade and exploration among early civilizations, as Bob Ballard records in his recent book Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers.

At its core, and in the end, it is fundamentally a story of voyages and exploration.
But at a particular time in human history, during the 15th and 16th centuries, discovery became so frenetic that historians have termed it "the Age of Discovery." In a classic work of historical interpretation, J. H. Parry more specifically labeled it "The Age of Reconnaissance," since during this time large parts of the Earth were visited for the first time, and entire continents were added to the map of the world. Here is one framework, and in my view an enlightening one, for understanding the historical meaning of the Age of Space.

The parallels and differences between the Age of Discovery and the Age of Space are instructive. Such parallels have, of course, been drawn before. Wernher von Braun was fond of talking about Magellan, and concluded that his proposal for a human mission to Mars was similar to that of Magellan. When Laurence Bergreen was researching his book Voyage to Mars about the Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor and the heartbreaking unsuccessful 1999 voyages to Mars, he found references to the Age of Discovery and Magellan rampant within NASA. "After the tenth or maybe the twentieth time the name Ferdinand Magellan was mentioned to me," he recalled, "a dim light bulb eventually illuminated in my mind." The experience led him to write a gripping account, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the World.

General comparisons of ocean exploration and space exploration abound in a variety of contexts. In the 1950s science fiction writers were fond of the metaphor, as evidenced in book titles such as Arthur C. Clarke's Across the Sea of Stars.

President Kennedy at Rice University in 1962 Image Left: President John F. Kennedy "setting sail on a new sea" at Rice University in Houston, Texas, on September 12, 1962

A few months after setting the course for the Moon in 1961, President Kennedy proclaimed that "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new, terrifying theater of war."

It is one thing when the President of the United States draws such an analogy. And it is significant when historians and journalists build on the analogy, as in the official history of project Mercury entitled This New Ocean, or William Burrows' classic history of the Space Age with the same title. But it is even more significant when NASA workers see themselves in the tradition of the Age of Discovery, for that idea, once internalized, becomes a powerful force in itself.

I do not say that the Age of Discovery is the only interpretive framework for the Age of Space. But it is a fertile and enlightening one. In future essays we will examine further the similarities and differences between the Age of Discovery and the Age of Space, including the voyages of exploration, their discoveries and their consequences. Recalling those epic voyages are another way of reminding us why we need to explore.

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Robert D. Ballard, Mystery of the Ancient Seafarers: Early Maritime Civilizations (National Geographic: Washington, D.C., 2004)
Laurence Bergreen, Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life Beyond Earth(Riverhead Books: New York, 2000).
Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (William Morrow: New York, 2003).
William E. Burrows, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age (The Modern Library: New York, 1998).
J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1981; 1st edition, London, 1963).

Steven J. Dick
NASA Chief Historian