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Lewis and Clark
What parallels can be drawn, and what lessons can be learned, from the Lewis and Clark expedition 200 years ago?

Jefferson’s dream

In the spring of 1804, a hardy band of explorers left St. Louis and pushed their boats northwest, up the Missouri River. They were grandly called the Corps of Discovery, and were commanded by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. It was the beginning of one of the most extraordinary adventures in American history, the brainchild of one of its most extraordinary men, President Thomas Jefferson. The expedition would return more than two years later, bringing with them news of dazzling discoveries and vast information about the mysterious lands of the American West. In the subsequent century, Americans would trek west in vast numbers, to start new lives in a new land, their way having been paved by Lewis and Clark.

Two centuries after the launch of the expedition, another president, vastly different in temperament and personality from the Sage of Monticello, announced another bold plan of exploration and discovery. Like the Lewis and Clark Expedition, it promises to be fraught with difficulties and dangers, but also holds the potential for vast new knowledge and perhaps even for future colonization of new and astonishing lands.

The fact that President Bush’s new space initiative was announced during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition is a pleasing coincidence, and the president’s speechwriters made use of it during the drafting of his announcement. But what real lessons can be learned from drawing a historical analogy between the Lewis and Clark Expedition and modern space exploration?

By far the most important lesson advocates of space exploration can learn from studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition is the absolutely critical need to develop and nurture a grand vision of the future.

There are doubtless many. There is the benefit of small expeditions living off the land compared to the difficulties of massive expeditions taking all their supplies with them; all realistic plans for space exploration involve astronauts using the resources of the Moon or Mars, rather than hauling everything they need from Earth. Furthermore, one can draw some parallels with the debate between public and private exploration and development. The Lewis and Clark expedition was funded and organized by the United States government, just as space exploration is today. However, it was the direct efforts of individual Americans that actually settled the West, which will likely be the case with the future settlement of space. The government sent the explorers, who brought back the needed information, and the settlers followed in their wake.

By far the most important lesson advocates of space exploration can learn from studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the context of the exploration and settlement of the American West, is the absolutely critical need to develop and nurture a grand vision of the future. Space exploration cannot exist in a void, but only in the context of such a vision. To study this question, we turn to one man, for the Lewis and Clark Expedition would never have taken place had it not been for the farsighted and extraordinary mind of Thomas Jefferson.

The year before the expedition set out, Jefferson had engineered the Louisiana Purchase, by which the United States gained control of vast territories of the American West by purchasing them from France. The amount paid by the government for this feat was about $15 million, a truly staggering sum for the time. The Louisiana Purchase was bitterly opposed by the opposition Federalist Party, but Jefferson stuck to his guns, and through deft political maneuvering pushed it through a reluctant and concerned Congress.

The cost of the Lewis and Clark expedition itself was relatively small and Jefferson had little difficulty convincing Congress to approve the operation once the Louisiana Purchase had gone through. Nevertheless, the Federalist Party ridiculed the purposes and usefulness of the expedition. In 1804, the United States was at war with Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean (today, we would doubtless call them terrorists), the economy was shaky, the nation was politically polarized and the threat of a serious conflict with Great Britain was very real. Why, it was doubtless asked, should we spend money sending men to the other side of the continent when we have so many other problems?

Fortunately for the future of his nation, Jefferson did not listen to such detractors. He was an idealist visionary who was, more than almost any major figure in American history, formed and molded by his vision of what his country could become. A product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson dreamed of a new civilization that would stretch across the American continent, an “Empire of Liberty.” In this civilization, free people would be governed by a responsible government and thus be able to enjoy, as he had earlier promised, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This utopian vision was ridiculed by people considered to have common sense, but Jefferson believed in his dream, fought for it and thus became one of the key architects of the modern American nation. If modern America has not lived up to every ideal of Jefferson’s dream, we have certainly come closer to it than anyone in 1804 had a right to reasonably expect.

Jefferson’s vision was not only idealistic, but it was farsighted. He was a man with an astonishing ability to view matters in the long-term, something sadly lacking among modern political leaders in our country.

Today, to express a vision of a vigorous, spacefaring civilization, opening up the vast wealth of the solar system, is to invite ridicule and disbelieving laughter. To imagine a civilization living on many worlds, developing new and amazing patterns of culture and forms of government, making use of the energy resources of the Sun or the material resources of the asteroids to give everyone a decent life, is to be branded as utterly unrealistic, even delusional.

When we consider the detractors of Jefferson’s vision, surrounded as we are today by the fruits on his work, it is almost impossible not to conclude that the critics were uninformed, shortsighted, or motivated by petty political concerns. It is far from a coincidence that the critics of Jefferson’s plans for westward expansion were mostly sympathetic to the Federalist Party, just as the critics of the Bush administration’s current plans for space exploration are mostly sympathetic to the Democratic Party (founded, ironically enough, by Thomas Jefferson).

I wonder what the historians of two centuries hence, when humanity will perhaps be living in vibrant communities on many worlds, with poverty and disease reduced to distant memories of a troubled past, will make of the politicians and journalists who are today asking why would should pursue space exploration when our society faces so many other problems.

Jefferson’s vision was not only idealistic, but it was farsighted. He was a man with an astonishing ability to view matters in the long-term, something sadly lacking among modern political leaders in our country. He knew perfectly well that he would never live to see his dream fulfilled; if it ever was fulfilled, it would be long after his death. However, such was his faith in the Enlightenment view of humanity and its ability to improve itself that he dedicated himself to starting the journey. As he put it, “The work we are now doing is, I hope, done for posterity. Those who come after us will fill up the canvas we began.”

The solar system is to us what the American West was to them, and, showing the same vision and courage they once did, we should go forth boldly into the new frontier.

One argument that is often made against space exploration is that whatever benefits it might bring will only come far in the future. Why, it is asked, should we spend money now, if the truly great benefits to humanity will only arrive after the death of the present generation? To me, this not only reflects a rather callous disregard for the welfare of one’s children and grandchildren, but is an affront to the Enlightenment vision upon which our nation was founded. The great founders of America did their work on behalf not only of the people alive at the time, but on behalf of all the generations yet unborn, including us. We should follow their example, and work to benefit those who will come after we ourselves are long gone from the scene. Only then can we look at ourselves with respect.

The political leaders of the current generation seem unable to see past the next election cycle or fiscal year, just as they seem unable to stop arguing about school uniforms or the Confederate flag. What are these issues and concerns worth, when there are new worlds above us awaiting exploration and settlement?

The ghosts of Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are looking over our shoulders and whispering in our ears, reminding us of all we once were, and which we could be again. We should remember them and not disgrace their memory. The solar system is to us what the American West was to them, and, showing the same vision and courage they once did, we should go forth boldly into the new frontier.


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