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Explorer 1
William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1 after its successful launch. The three represented different reasons for carrying out spaceflight, with Pickering the supporter of space flight as an extension of past terrestrial exploration. (credit: NASA)

Space travel as exploration


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On January 31, 1958, almost four months after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States answered with its first successful satellite. At the ensuing press conference three men hoisted a full-scale mockup of Explorer 1. They represented the founding triad of purposes behind the American space program, and they remain the intellectual DNA behind a continued presence in space.

Instead the arguments turn, like a game of rock-scissors-paper, on the founding three. From early days the von Braun vision has dominated; now that it is finally fading, attention turns to science and exploration.

At one end stood Wernher von Braun, who oversaw the Jupiter C rocket. But the real propulsion, as he understood it, was a vision of human colonization beyond Earth. In the near term, he foresaw orbiting space stations, a base on the Moon, and the settlement of Mars before humanity pushed inexorably outward. In the middle stood James Van Allen, the physicist whose team developed the instruments the satellite carried and which yielded the first great discovery of the new era, the eponymous Van Allen radiation belts. Van Allen scorned human space travel, and argued that the purpose of the embryonic American space program was to extend further the frontiers of science by dispatching laboratories beyond Earth. At the far end stood William Pickering, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the institution responsible for the project overall. In pondering the meaning of further space enterprises Pickering thought the critical value was exploration, broadly conceived. It was, he thought, fundamental not only to America’s national identity but to that of Western civilization.

In the halcyon days of early NASA all three visions could converge, as they did with Explorer 1. Then the big bang of the space race caused them to diverge. There would not be enough money or popular will to do everything. After the Apollo program, NASA’s budget has settled down into a remarkably consistent one percent of federal expenditures. Other purposes have emerged, commerce and tourism among them, but none justify the kind of public commitment the agency requires. Instead the arguments turn, like a game of rock-scissors-paper, on the founding three. From early days the von Braun vision has dominated; now that it is finally fading with the imminent retirement of the space shuttle (and the space station to follow?), attention turns to science and exploration.

These are not the necessary allies they often appear to be. They evolved independently and only valenced during the 18th century, sometimes with a hard bond and sometimes with something akin to a van der Waals force. Space science has yielded extraordinary returns from orbiting observatories without traversing the solar system. If pressed, it may decide it can better advance knowledge by orbiting Earth than by rocketing past Neptune.

That leaves exploration, which all space partisans appeal to and few bother to understand. The history of exploration does not have a discipline, is not taught in scholarly venues, and typically takes the form of chronicles and sagas. Yet it is entirely possible to place exploration within existing historiography; and if exploration is to carry the political weight demanded of it, such a study should be as much a part of space scholarship as analysis of magnetospheres. What follows is a distilled historical survey of geographical exploration that attempts to place contemporary endeavors within a broader cultural context. In particular, it argues for parsing the amorphous chronicle into three great ages of discovery.

Exploration, lumped and split

Why three ages? There are those who see many more, and those who see none at all, for exploration history, too, has its lumpers and splitters.

The lumpers view the long saga of geographic exploration by Western civilization as continuous and thematically indivisible. The Viking landers on Mars are but an iteration of the longships that colonized Greenland. The Eagle, the Command Module orbiter, and the Saturn V rocket that propelled the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon are avatars of Columbus’s Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. The “new ocean” of interplanetary space is simply extending the bounds of the old. The ur-lumpers would go further. The origins of all exploration, including Europe’s, reside in the genetic code of humanity’s inextinguishable curiosity. Even more, space exploration, they insist, shares an evolutionary impulse. Through humanity, life will clamber out of its home planet much as pioneering species crawled out of the salty seas and onto land. The impulse to explore is providential; the chain of discovery, unbroken; the drivers behind it, as full of evolutionary inevitability as the linkage between DNA and proteins. The urge, the motivating imperative, resides indelibly within our character as Homo sapiens sapiens.

The splitters see it differently. Exploration pulses, expanding and contracting. Ming China launched seven dazzling voyages of discovery, and then outlawed all foreign travel and prohibited the construction of multi-masted boats. Medieval Islam sponsored great travelers before shrinking into the ritual pilgrimage of the hajj. The Norse spanned the Atlantic, then withered on the fjords of Greenland. Plenty of peoples have stayed where they were: they lacked the technological means, the fiery incentives and desperate insecurities, or the compelling circumstances to push themselves to explore beyond their homeland. Like Australia’s Aborigines, they were content to cycle through their ancestral Dreamtime, and felt little urgency to search beyond the daunting seas or looming peaks. A walkabout was world enough.

That Portugal pioneered the Great Voyages should alert us to the process’s uncertain origins and its often-desperate character.

To the splitters, what determines the cadences of exploration are the cultural particulars—the social conditions that prompt and sustain discovery. What is commonly called “geographic exploration” has been, in truth, a highly ethnocentric enterprise. It will thrive or shrivel as particular peoples choose. There is nothing predestined about geographic discovery, any more than there is about a Renaissance, a tradition of Gothic cathedrals, or the invention of the electric light bulb. From such a perspective, the European era of exploration that has dominated the past five centuries is simply another in a constellation of cultural inventions that have shaped how peoples have encountered a world beyond themselves. It is an institution, and it derives much of its power because it bonds geographic travel to cultural movements, because it taps into deep rivalries, and because its narrative conveys a moral message. It can accordingly be parsed into historical eras.

For Western civilization, these fall most easily into three grand eras. Each had its primary geographic domain, each bonded with its prevailing intellectual syndrome, each tapped a moral energy. Each had its own peculiar dynamic of geopolitical rivals and cultural enthusiasms. Each found a gesture that came to express its character. And each stage had to be rekindled. A successful launch only appears continuous in broad-brush retrospect; on closer inspection, it shows a rhythm of spark and extinction.

Great voyages: the Renaissance explores

The Great Age of Discovery opened with centuries of false dawns. Part of the difficulty is disentangling exploration from other forms of travel: from migration, walkabout, exile, wars of conquest, enslavement, trading expeditions, reconnaissance, long hunts, great treks, missionizing, pilgrimage, tourism, and just plan wanderlust. Roman merchants had contact with the Canaries and Cathay. European pilgrims trekked from Hibernia to the Holy Land. Franciscan scholars trudged to the court of the Great Khan. Each age of expansion, every expansionist people, experienced a burst of discovery about a larger world.1

What made events of the fifteenth century special was that these exploring contacts did not end in a rapid contraction. They became welded to a revived expansion of Europe that would stretch over half a millennium; they bonded with revolutionary epochs of learning and political reform. Exploring became institutionalized. Exploration became the outward projection of internal unrest that would not let the momentum long languish.

That Portugal pioneered the Great Voyages should alert us to the process’s uncertain origins and its often-desperate character. There was little in Portuguese history from which someone might predict, in 1450, that the nation would leap across whole seas and over unknown continents, establish the world’s first global empire, and create the raw template for European expansion, whose outposts would survive until the 21st century. Yet that is precisely what happened. For several hundred years, exploring nations sought to emulate the paradigm. Within a generation, it came to be said that it was the fate of a Portuguese to be born in a small land but to have the whole world to die in.

Why Portugal led remains an exercise in historical alchemy: one can find reasons, like ingredients, but not a simple explanation for why they mixed as they did. There is a certain logic embedded in Portugal’s geographic setting. Here, at Europe’s land’s end, the two major traditions of boat construction converged, the Mediterranean with the Baltic. It was a place on the edge. Its isolation forced it to take to the sea; its smallness compelled it to find nimble ways to outflank rivals and enemies; its precarious politics surrounded it with competitors. In particular, it waged a ceaseless dynastic war with Castile that left those two states as the drivers of European expansionism during the late Renaissance; and it fought endlessly with Morocco. Under Henry the Navigator it had discovered and colonized Atlantic isles from 1420, a cameo of what it would attempt with its passage to India. Yet if the causes seem feeble, the outcome was unmistakable. More than anyone, Portuguese sailed the Great Voyages, whether as sponsors or pilots in the service of others, and they plotted out the terms of European imperialism. Columbus learned his trade on the Portuguese circuit. Magellan sailed for Spain only after his native Portugal had rejected his scheme.

An expedition voyages into a moral universe that explains who a people are and how they should behave, that criticizes and justifies both the sustaining society and those it encounters.

Exploration became—directly, or indirectly through charters—an organ of the state, and because no single state dominated Europe, many joined the rush. Geographical exploration became a means of knowing, of creating commercial empires, of outmaneuvering political, economic, religious, and military competitors—it was war, diplomacy, proselytizing, scholarship, and trade by other means. For this reason, it could not cease. For every champion, there existed a handful of challengers. This competitive dynamic—embedded in a squabbling Europe’s very fabric—helps explain why European exploration did not crumble as quickly as it congealed.

On the contrary, many Europeans absorbed discovery into their understanding of who they were, even in some cases writing explorers into a founding mythology, a cultural creation story. In short, where exploring became a force, something beyond buccaneering, it interbred with the rest of its sustaining society. The broader those cultural kinship ties, the deeper the commitment. Societies dispatched explorers; explorers reshaped society. Exploration became an institution. The explorer became a role.

The fabled Great Voyages announced a First Age of Discovery. Its particular domain was the exploration of the world ocean: it ultimately proved that all the world’s seas were one, that it was possible to sail from any shore and reach any other. Of course there were some grand entradas in the Americas, and missionaries, Jesuits especially, penetrated into the vast interiors of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. But as J. H. Parry observes, it was the world sea that defined the scope and achievements of the First Age. Mapping its littoral was the era’s finest scholarly (if not fully cartographic) triumph.2

The map reminds us that the First Age coincided with a Renaissance. The era unveiled two new worlds, one of geography, another of learning. Francis Bacon conveyed this sense perfectly when he used as a frontispiece to his Instauratio Magna the image of a sailing ship pushing beyond the pillars of Hercules. The voyage of discovery became a metaphor for an age of inquiry that would venture far beyond the dominion of the Mediterranean and the inherited wisdom of the Ancients. The discoveries overwhelmed a text based scholarship: scholasticism, that arid discourse that resulted from too many scholars and not enough texts, collapsed as new information poured into Europe like New World bullion into Spain, and like it, caused an inflationary spiral of knowledge.

The nature of learning differed, too. It came not from recovered texts but from newly discovered lands and peoples, and not from the Ancients but from encountered living cultures. Very little of the terrestrial world Europe discovered was uninhabited, which is to say, unknown to humanity. It was unknown to Europe, and Europe learned about it through its indigenes. Interpreters, guides, cultural brokers—all assisted in the transfer of learning from various enclaves to Europe, which proceeded to sew them together into a global quilt. Voyages were the stitches; seas, straits, and societies, the patches. Over and again, explorers succeeded by relying upon (or seizing) local pilots, and by learning the language of, and emulating the dress and mores of, the native peoples. This meant that the central act of discovery, the encounter, was almost always an encounter between peoples.

An age of discovery thus demands more than curiosity and craft and yields more than data points or lore hoarded like bullion. Acquired knowledge has to be minted into useful currency; and exploring has to speak to deeper longings and fears and folk identities than science and scholarship. An expedition voyages into a moral universe that explains who a people are and how they should behave, that criticizes and justifies both the sustaining society and those it encounters. The Great Voyages provided that moral shock: they forced Europe to confront beliefs and mores far beyond the common understanding of Western civilization. The Renaissance expansion of Europe profoundly altered Europe’s understanding of itself and its place in the world. There was plenty of hollow triumphalism, of course; but those contacts also inspired Montaigne’s celebrated preference for the cannibalism of Brazil’s noble savages to that of Versailles’s courtiers, and Las Casas’s excoriating denunciation of the conquistadors. The contacts also compelled a reexamination of the political and ethical principles underlying Christendom and its secular principalities.

While all peoples are ethnocentric, Europe was distinctive in that its mappa mundi placed the cartographic center of creation in the Holy Land, leaving Europe to the margins. In the early fifteenth century that displacement accurately depicted Europe’s standing in the world. A century later, however, Europe could relocate itself to the center.

page 2: Corps of Discovery: the Enlightenment explores >>

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