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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
Image left: The twin
Viking rovers landed on Mars in 1976. Photo credit: NASA
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."
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
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."
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.
Image right: A Saturn V test vehicle is
moved slowly toward the massive Vehicle Assembly Building in 1966. Photo credit:
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
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