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Ex. Ex. illustration
The USS Vincennes, one of the ships of the Ex. Ex., visiting Antarctica in 1840. (credit: US Navy)

The coming golden age

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It is not uncommon to read articles and blogs from space advocates lamenting that we as a country don’t prioritize space exploration the way America did during the Apollo era. Others complain that we have retreated back to low Earth orbit ever since abandoning the toehold we had for six short missions on the Moon. Some of the writers worry that the Chinese, Russians, or even others will get out to deep space before we return. To them, the Apollo era is the long past golden age of space exploration.

Exploration has long been, in one form or another, a way of generating national prestige and being taken seriously by the rest of the world.

When arguments are made for expanding and accelerating space exploration, historical analogies of Columbus’ voyages, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and the Railway Act of 1862 that led to a transportation system across the continent as are used as examples of why we should push into the final frontier. There is one more obscure historical analogy to the Apollo program that is probably more fitting. It is the US Exploring Expedition of 1838 to 1842, at the time referred to as the “Ex. Ex.” I was only vaguely aware of the Ex. Ex. until I read Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. The Ex. Ex. is a grossly neglected chapter of American history that has many lessons for us about exploring a new frontier.

Prior to the Ex. Ex., the great voyages of exploration of the second half of 18th and first half of the 19th century were conducted by Europeans such as James Cook and Charles Darwin. Americans followed the voyages of James Cook with great interest. Charles Wilkes read about and was inspired by these voyages, not unlike generations of engineers and scientists inspired by the Apollo missions, and wanted to explore because of the giants who went before him. The Great Southern Ocean, especially down towards Antarctica, was still greatly unexplored and poorly surveyed. The fact that a continent covered the South Pole region was, at best, only speculation. Another idea that the South Pole had a great hole flowing deep into the Earth was being promoted. As crazy as the idea of a great hole in the South Pole was, it started the push for an expedition of exploration to find out. Notable citizens, including Edgar Allan Poe, were intrigued with the idea and helped promote it.

The argument at the time was that a scientific expedition would help raise the stature of a young nation so we could compete on the world stage with the great powers of Europe. This is not unlike the reasons India and China use to justify their expenditures on space programs. Exploration has long been, in one form or another, a way of generating national prestige and being taken seriously by the rest of the world.

Prior to the Ex. Ex., with the exception of a few notable scientists such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the US was not a great source of scientific advancement. When John Quincy Adams suggested in his inaugural address building a national observatory and supporting scientific research, he was largely ignored by Congress and nothing much happened. America did have scientists who taught at universities, but beyond that there was not much scientific research done because the country did not yet have much of a rich upper class that supported the arts and sciences the way it was done in Europe.

The Ex. Ex. took more than a decade and multiple presidential administrations before it was launched. Congress waited until the economy was booming during the early to mid 1830s before it agreed to fund the huge commitment required. The financial panic of 1837, which had many parallels with our current financial mess, almost derailed the voyage. How the expedition was sold to Congress in a time when the country was in financial disarray from the excesses of decades leading up to the collapse is a lesson for how to sell the value of space exploration to Congress during tough times.

In the early years of the country, after successfully gaining our independence from the British Empire, the US was to a great degree a maritime nation. It made sense that this was its focus: the original states were along the Atlantic coast, and shipbuilding in the New England states had developed into a fine art. Agricultural production was creating export products the world needed. Whalers from New England were already venturing around the tip of South America into the Pacific Ocean, working mostly uncharted waters to bring home the whale oil to light the nights of a young, ambitious nation.

The growing economic success of the US was drawing in new immigrants that were expanding into the territory west of the Appalachians towards the Mississippi River. This group, including my great great grandfather, started changing the nature of the country. As states formed in this territory and sent representatives to Congress, and, separately, with the emergence of the industrial revolution, the country had less of a maritime focus. This change was one of the reasons for the increased resistance to spending significant national resources on exploring the Pacific Ocean. Just like key members of Congress nowadays voting mostly on the needs of their own districts, spending money on charting a distant ocean and funding scientific research was not in their personal interest.

The successful selling of the Ex. Ex. had many things in common with how the Apollo Moon program was sold.

Proponents of the Ex. Ex. started to lobby Congress in the 1820s. Like most NASA programs, it required the support of multiple presidential administrations. The proposal had to survive the ridicule of high-ranking naval officers who wanted no part of the mission, until it looked like it was actually going to happen. It had to survive various degrees of support and opposition by a changing cast of cabinet members. It required the unwavering driving force of the controversial Lt. Charles Wilkes, who eventually commanded the expedition. It also helped that a nationally known celebrity like Edgar Allan Poe publicly supported the mission.

The successful selling of the Ex. Ex. had many things in common with how the Apollo Moon program was sold. Proponents argued that mounting an expedition similar to what the England and France were doing would elevate America’s standing to that of a major player on the world stage, similar to the battle for prestige and influence the race to the Moon afforded us in the 1960s. The British explorer James Cook was the inspiration for Charles Wilkes to want to explore the Pacific Ocean and to want to surpass his idol, which he did. This is not unlike a generation of engineers being inspired by Sputnik and Apollo. This last point is definitely not a new phenomenon in human nature.

The last key resistance from Congress to funding the Ex. Ex. came from the states west of the Appalachians. Just like today, programs like this were popular in districts they were perceived as benefiting, and unpopular as wasteful pork everywhere else. What finally overcame this resistance from inland states was the argument that a major goal of the mission was to find new markets for the agricultural products of these states. Local self interest ruled the day, as it still does now.

The Ex. Ex. was spectacularly successful. The six-ship squadron led by an inexperienced, arrogant, and lucky lieutenant proved there was a continent at the South Pole. It created the first accurate charts of a number of island chains. The scientists onboard collected thousands of specimens were part of the founding collection of what was to become the Smithsonian Institution. Researchers wrote reports that greatly advanced the sciences of geology, biology, oceanography, anthropology, and others. This mission started the federal government funding science and exploration, making it possible for scientists in this country to make a living in science. Every person employed in this country doing research directly or indirectly with federal funding owes this mission a debt of gratitude for making their careers possible.

After Wilkes’s four-year mission, the US retreated from far-flung expeditions to concentrate on the conquest and settling of the West. This is a great parallel to our retreat to low Earth orbit after Apollo.

This country has gone through a number of golden ages of exploration and economic development, mixed with times of setback and disappointment. Some of the golden ages weren’t recognized at the time due to hardships and brutal conditions. Charles Wilkes’s legacy was in part overlooked because of the horrible way he treated his crew on the mission. He punished people for competence if he perceived them as a threat to his own inadequacies. He had crew members flogged beyond his legal right to do so. His officers grew to hate him and filed charges against him when the mission returned home.

After Wilkes’s four-year mission, the US retreated from far-flung expeditions to concentrate on the conquest and settling of the West. This is a great parallel to our retreat to low Earth orbit after Apollo. It was perceived—rightfully, in my opinion—as more important to consolidate the territories of the US and to strengthen the country before reemerging on the world stage. During this period we had the Mexican American War, the Civil War, the end of slavery, the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the development of our industrial base, and the creation of public schools, bringing literacy to millions. While during this time the US wasn’t actively exploring the rest of the world, it was setting the stage for the coming American Century.

Space advocates often complain of how we abandoned deep space exploration after Apollo. I don’t see it that way any more. I see it as a period where we have set the stage for the next golden ages of human exploration. Since Apollo we have had a phenomenal string of successes with unmanned spacecraft, telling us much of what we need to know about these locations before humans follow. We have advanced many technologies that will be used in our next push outward. We have a greater understanding of the challenges facing people who will be doing the exploration. All of this will hopefully greatly improve the likelihood of success as we push back out to the Moon and beyond, this time to stay. Yes, we could have done more in the last 40 years. We always could have, in everything we do.

The computer age of the last several decades has created immense wealth around the globe that is now seeking new markets to invest in. Green technologies are struggling to provide returns on investment. Biotech firms require huge amounts of capital and can take 20 years to provide a return, if ever. Gone are the days of high tech stocks regularly exploding in value on the NASDAQ, as they seemed to almost on a daily basis in the late 1990s. For people that got used to investing in startups with the relatively quick and sometimes huge returns, the next Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, or Google are getting harder to find.

Investments in space startups are expensive and require significant time to develop a product and start generating revenue. It’s a tough investment to sell because there have only been a few successful examples. Venture investors have preferred startup companies that have required minimal cash and time to generate a rapid return on investment. This has allowed them to spread their cash around, improving the odds of hitting a winner. It’s not that commercial space markets have changed in the nature of investing. It’s the other high tech markets that, for various reasons, have become more like commercial space in the size of investments required and the time to generate a return.

Commercial space now offers what other markets used to, in that it has a new frontier with the possibility of long-term massive returns. These changes, coupled with companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic starting the transition from the R&D phase to revenue generation, show a new path for the use of the billions of dollars of bottled up capital.

America can cower and retreat during hard economic times. Or it can, like a young nation did during the rough economic times following the panic of 1837, choose to be bold and great.

After many false starts, NASA may finally be on the verge of settling on a direction and outlining goals the nation can follow through on. NASA’s 180-Day Exploration Destination Report is due to be completed in the near future. It is to lay out a proposed path of human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. It is supposed to be based on NASA’s study of the options available and their best estimates of what can work and what we can afford.

I don’t pretend to know with any great certainty how the next few decades will unfold. But, when I see a growing group of private commercial space companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Stratolaunch Systems, and others combined with NASA’s plan to blaze new trails, I see the groundwork being put into place to create the next Golden Age of Exploration. America, potentially in partnership with other spacefaring nations have a choice to make. It can cower and retreat during hard economic times. Or it can, like a young nation did during the rough economic times following the panic of 1837, choose to be bold and great. I, for one, am in favor of choosing to be bold and great. I will, at every chance I can, promote to whomever I can that we should choose to explore and economically develop space so that if this time we head out beyond our cradle of life, we do it to stay. Not only will it be fun to watch unfold, we owe it to the next generation to inspire them to new heights the way James Cook did for Charles Wilkes and a young nation.