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Why We Explore

Reflections from the Past

Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of essays on exploration by Steven J. Dick.

"Why we explore" is a perennial question, and as we contemplate it now in the context of NASA's renewed emphasis on exploration, it is important to recall the ideas of previous thinkers on the subject.

In 1976, as the two Viking spacecraft were preparing to land on Mars, a panel was assembled at the California Institute of Technology to address just this question. The panel included science fiction author Ray Bradbury, novelist James Michener, explorer Jacques Cousteau, MIT physicist Philip Morrison, and the editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins. On the eve of what turned out to be a landmark in the history of exploration, what did they have to say about the motives for exploration?

Viking on Mars in 1976 Image left: The twin Viking rovers landed on Mars in 1976. Photo credit: NASA

Cousins found that the question "involves not just science but philosophy, for our answer has to come out of our view of life, out of our concept of history, out of our understanding of human progress, and mostly out of instinctive awareness that we can always do better than we are doing if we emancipate ourselves from our fears in order to search the horizon for new prospects."

Cousins saw exploration as one of the highest attributes of humans, and the Viking mission in particular as potentially helping to resolve the question of life in the universe, a research program that NASA carries on today with its robust astrobiology program.

Morrison agreed that it was "human nature" to explore, and went on to elaborate what human nature meant to him. "There is one feature -- for me it is perhaps the only feature -- which does define human nature, which parts our species (and a few vanished species of our family related to us) and has parted us from other creatures for surely tens of thousands of years, maybe for a few hundred thousand years. We are beings who construct for ourselves, each separately and singly, and as well together in our collectivities, internal models of all that happens, of all we see, find, feel, guess, and conjecture about our experience in the world."

Morrison argued that humans need to build a forever-reinvigorated internal model of the shifting natural world, and that exploration is an essential part of extending and filling in the margins of that model. We could function with an existing model and live with uncertainty at the margins, he noted but no creative society in fact does so. Rather it continually seeks the new.

Michener spoke of the "supreme epic" of exploration, and saw the Viking spacecraft in the context of epics beginning with Homer's Ulysses, the ever-searching, onward-probing adventurer. He saw the embodiment of exploration in the 16th century epic poem of Luis Vaz de Camoes, "The Lusiads," which extols the exploration of the men of Lusitania (the ancient Roman word for Portugal), in particular Vasco da Gama's discovery of the sea route to India.

In the poem an old man sits at the side of the bay watching the caravels sail, lamenting the insatiable appetite of those who must explore, often with futile results. In the end even this old pessimistic man concedes that, even if Portugal does not gain, the knowledge of the world will be extended, and exploration cannot be halted.

Saturn V and Vehicle Assembly Building Image right: A Saturn V test vehicle is moved slowly toward the massive Vehicle Assembly Building in 1966. Photo credit: NASA

Michener sees a parallel with arguments later be used against the space program: explorers always take on more problems than they solve. Although "we never gain as much from it as the wild enthusiasts promise; we invariably gain more than the frightened old men predict."

Michener had another parable from his childhood, when he lived in a small town in Pennsylvania. A remarkable road ran past his door, he noted. To the east it went a quarter mile and stopped; to the west it was limitless, all the way to the Pacific, and from there by ship to Asia and the entire world.

"As a child I looked at that road and understood its two directions -- limited and unlimited- and thought how craven it would be for a human being to devote his life to the exploration of the eastern portion, which could be exhausted in an afternoon, and how commendable to turn westward and thus enter upon a road and a complexity of roads that would lead to the very ends of the Earth. I chose the western road."

Jacques Cousteau, the world famous ocean explorer, spoke of his own experience of exploring the waters off Crete, site of the ancient Minoan civilization. He and his crew were not after resources, but knowledge of a little-known civilization. "Why would we spend one full year of our lives and over $2 million just to raise a tiny corner of the veil concealing a few episodes of our past," Cousteau asked rhetorically.

Artist's concept of Mars mission Image left: An astronaut checks out the Sojourner rover from the 1997 Pathfinder mission in an artist's concept of a future human mission to Mars. Photo credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

"What is the origin of the devouring curiosity that drives men to commit their lives, their health, their reputation, their fortunes, to conquer a bit of knowledge, to stretch our physical, emotional or intellectual territory? The more I spend time observing nature, the more I believe that man's motivation for exploration is but the sophistication of a universal instinctive drive deeply ingrained in all living creatures. Life is growth -- individuals and species grow in size, in number, and in territory. The peripheral manifestation of growing is exploring the outside world."

Summarizing his remarks, Cousteau wrote "the exploration drive, pure and natural, is associated with risk, freedom, initiative, and lateral thinking," by which he meant non-deductive reasoning that allows the mind to investigate apparently uncorrelated events and sometime find correlations. "The enemies of the exploration spirit are mainly the sense of security and responsibility, red tape, and exclusive vertical thinking," by which he meant deductive thinking that does not also allow one to explore unusual pathways, whether physical or intellectual.

Ray Bradbury argued that Americans suffer from too much data, too many facts, and often fail to realize the metaphorical importance of the Space Age. He spoke of his awe at seeing the Vertical Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, the only spaceport from which humans have departed for the Moon. (I can sympathize with the feeling, having recently visited the facility again, and seen the Saturn V, now restored but lying horizontally like a beached whale in the magnificent Apollo/Saturn V Center, where stories are told of great events).

Bradbury ended with a poem, in which he spoke about "countries where the spacemen flow in fire, And much desire the Moon and reach for Mars."

Clearly, all these thinkers deeply believe that exploration is an essential part of human nature. That rationale is at the foundation of a pyramid of motivations for space exploration that includes science, national security, technology development and jobs. The current challenge, as always, is to find the resources to continue exploration in a meaningful way.


Norman Cousins, Philip Morrison, James Michener, Jacques Cousteau, Ray Bradbury, Why Man Explores, NASA Educational Publication 123 (Government Printing Office: Washington, D. C., 1977)

Luis Vaz de Camoes, The Lusiads (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2002), translated with introduction and notes by Landeg White

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