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The Importance of Exploration (continued)
Why We Explore

American Exploration

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

Exploration is certainly part of the American character, and Federally funded exploration has been a significant part of American history -- from land exploration beginning with Lewis and Clark, to the U. S. Exploring Expedition headed by Charles Wilkes from 1838-1842, the latter the subject of a colorful book by Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery.

The exploration of the American West during the 19th century by the likes of John Wesley Powell is another prime example of American exploration. Of course the Western frontier was limited, a cause for worry according to historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who argued in the late 19th century his frontier thesis -- that many of the distinctive characteristics of American society, including inventiveness, inquisitiveness and individualism, derive from the existence of a frontier.

The Western frontier closed about 1890, but Americans found a new one in space. Even though some historians do not agree with the so-called "frontier thesis" as the sole, or even the primary, source of these characteristics in the United States, space as a new frontier has always been a driver of the U.S. space program, and I think rightly so.

Buzz Aldrin on ladder to lunar surface Image right: Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin climbs down theEagle's ladder to the surface of the Moon, as America fulfills the first vision for space exploration. Click for larger image. Photo credit: NASA

To Explore ... Or Not to Explore

Of course, even those who say we should explore in principle, for whatever reason including new frontiers, face the hard reality of funding. This brings us to an essentially ethical question: is it ethical to explore when there is so much that needs to be done on Earth?

This is a public policy question, but I would point out that it is always tempting to sacrifice long-term goals for short term needs. It is an astounding fact that the expenditure for the 15 U. S. naval expeditions from 1840-1860 approached one quarter of the annual federal budget, by far exceeding even the Apollo commitment. But I don't think we have cause to regret either the 19th century expeditions or the Apollo Program.

Today there are ample reasons one might give not to continue space exploration. 2001 --supposed to be the year of Arthur C. Clarke's "Space Odyssey," will forever be remembered instead for the events of 9/11. We do have to deal with the reality of world events, but surely we should not let terrorism set the agenda. H. G. Wells said many years ago that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Surely an international cooperative venture into space -- with all that implies -- strikes a blow against catastrophe, and a victory for civilization.
We are still in that race today, and surely an international cooperative venture into space -- with all that implies -- strikes a blow against catastrophe, and a victory for civilization. Great things were achieved in the past in the name of competition -- the Apollo program would never have happened without Cold War competition. It now remains to be seen whether great things may be done in the name of international cooperation, even in the midst of great unrest in the world.

For its part, the United States has much at stake. Pulitzer Prize winning historian William Goetzmann saw the history of the United States as inextricably linked with exploration. "America has indeed been 'exploration's nation,'" he wrote, "a culture of endless possibilities that, in the spirit of both science and its component, exploration, continually looks forward in the direction of the new." The space exploration vision must be seen in that context.

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Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983), especially pp. 186-201.
William Goetzman, New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (Penguin Books, 1987).
Louise Levanthes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433(Oxford U. Press, 1994).
J. R. McNeil and William H. McNeil, The Human Web: A Bird's --Eye View of World History (New York, 2003), 166.
Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (William Morrow: 2002).
Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery. The U. S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Viking, 2003).
Stephen J. Pyne, "The Third Great Age of Discovery," in Martin Collins and Sylvia Fries, eds., Space: Discovery and Exploration(1994).

Steven J. Dick
NASA Chief Historian