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The Importance of Exploration
Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of essays
on exploration by Steven J. Dick.
exploration really desirable at a time when so much needs doing on Earth? It is
an often-asked and serious question that requires a serious answer. One could
present many arguments, from jobs and education to technology development and
national security, for undertaking a robust space program. In an ideal world
only one argument is necessary, though in the real world some would argue it is
not sufficient. That argument is exploration, and that we should undertake it
for the most basic of reasons -- our self-preservation as a creative, as opposed
to a stagnating, society.
Three Ages of Exploration
concepts of "discovery" and "exploration" are frequently found throughout space
literature, most recently in the new Vision for
Space Exploration, billed as "a renewed spirit of discovery," enunciated by
President Bush in January, 2004. The same concepts are emphasized in the
Aldridge Commission's Report on the
Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, titled "A Journey to
Inspire, Innovate and Discover." The question "should we explore" must be seen
in deep historical context, not in the context of present-day politics or whims.
Image right: America enters the Third Age
of Exploration. William Pickering (left), James Van Allen (center), and Wernher
von Braun (right) hoist a model of Explorer 1 in celebration, after it became
the first American satellite to orbit Earth in 1958. Photo credit:
Historians have distinguished three great Ages of
Exploration -- the Age of Discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries associated
with Prince Henry the Navigator, Columbus, Magellan and other European
explorers; the Second Age in the 18th and 19th centuries characterized by
further geographic exploration such as the voyages of Captain Cook, underpinned
and driven by the scientific revolution; and the Third Age beginning with the
International Geophysical Year and Sputnik, primarily associated with space
exploration, but also with the Antarctic and the oceans.
States both affected and was affected by the Second and Third Ages of
Exploration, but the important point is that each of those ages of exploration
was the product of specific decisions of certain cultures: the Europeans (and
briefly the Chinese) for the first Age, the Europeans and Americans for the
second Age, and the Soviet Union -- soon joined by the United States, then
Europe and other countries -- for the third Age.
As historian Stephen J.
Pyne has argued, "Exploration is a specific invention of specific civilizations
conducted at specific historical times. It is not ... a universal property of
all human societies. Not all cultures have explored or even traveled widely.
Some have been content to exist in xenophobic isolation."
There is a value judgment in that last sentence -- that
xenophobia and isolation are bad, but that they are in fact bad, I think, is
borne out by history. The case most often cited for a societal decision not to
explore -- with generally recognized bad effects -- is Ming China in the 15th
century. You will find this case, for example, made in Bob Zubrin's books on
Mars, and before that made by NASA Administrator James Beggs. Is it hype, or is
The historical facts are quite
clear. Historian Daniel Boorstin -- the recently deceased Librarian of Congress
-- pointed out that in the early 15th century the biggest Chinese ships were up
to ten times the size of Columbus's later in the century. While Columbus had 17
ships and 1500 men on the largest of his four expeditions, the Chinese Admiral
Zheng He had 317 ships and 27,000 crewmen on the first of his six expeditions.
Following a maritime tradition stretching back to the 11th century, from
1405-1433, these ships plied the seas of Southeast Asia, sailed to India, the
Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and down the East Coast of Africa. (And yes, these are
the voyages that Gavin Menzies addressed in his book 1421: The Year China
Discovered America, although in my view that claim is not supported by good
|Some day historians will be writing about whether or
not WE chose wisely, not only to make a proposal to explore, but also to
fund it. |
But what is important is this. Although Chinese state
revenues were probably 100 times Portugal's, after the 1430s the Ming emperors
had other priorities, and it was the Portuguese and other European countries
that led the way in exploration. As Boorstin noted "When Europeans were sailing
out with enthusiasm and high hopes, land-bound China was sealing her borders.
Within her physical and intellectual Great Wall, she avoided encounter with the
unexpected .... Fully equipped with the technology, the intelligence, and the
national resources to become discoverers, the Chinese doomed themselves to be
In their recent world history, historians J. R. and William
McNeill come to the same conclusions, and historians in general tend to agree
that the Chinese chose poorly in the mid-15th century. By the 1470s, the McNeils
wrote, even the skills needed to build great ships were lost. Boorstin called
the withdrawal of the Chinese into their own borders, symbolized by the Great
Wall of China that took its current form at that time, "catastrophic ... with
consequences we still see today." The parallel with what is happening now,
despite renewed attempts at space exploration, is striking. Some day historians
will be writing about whether or not WE chose wisely, not only to make a
proposal to explore, but also to fund it.
Steven J. Dick
NASA Chief Historian