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Why We Explore

Consequences of Exploration: Learning from History Part 1

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of essays on exploration by NASA's Chief Historian, Steven J. Dick.

If it is true that a creative society must explore, it is also true that the same society must consider the consequences of its exploration.

One could argue from history that exploration has led to the subjugation or decimation of cultures, and that is undoubtedly true. Historians have documented the often bad effects of culture contacts: there is no whitewashing the history of Cortez and the Aztecs, Pizarro and the Incas, or the eventual effects of exploration on the American Indians, to mention only the effect of European exploration on the Americas. But surely exploration and discovery do not have to equate with conquest.

Earthrise over the moon Image above: When the Apollo moon missions sent back photos of "Earthrise" over the lunar horizon, our perspective on our home planet was forever changed. Photo credit: NASA.

The past is not necessarily prologue. We can learn from history, and explore with sensitivity to the environment, life and culture. That is where planetary protection protocols enter, for example, in the case of a Mars sample return. That is where we need a deep and serious discussion of the ethics of terraforming Mars or changing the environments of other moons or planets. And in the ultimate case -- though we may have some time on this one -- that is where we need to consider the impact of a successful Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, if we actually do make contact with extraterrestrial cultures.

Exploration and World View

Another broader consequence of exploration is that we will all be changed by it, both as cultures and as individuals. Some people comfortable with their current world view oppose exploration for that reason -- that it may change the world view to which they have become accustomed. To me this is a poor reason indeed. In this I follow Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote in his 1951 volume The Exploration of Space that some people "are afraid that the crossing of space, and above all contact with intelligent but nonhuman races, may destroy the foundations of their religious faith. They may be right, but in any event their attitude is one which does not bear logical examination -- for a faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."

Just as the voyages of discovery changed the human world view, so will space exploration. Indeed, it already has ...
One need not discover extraterrestrials for that to be true; anything that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets. Just as the voyages of discovery changed the human world view, so will space exploration. Indeed, it already has, with the view of Earthrise from the Moon, the view of Earth as a pale blue dot photographed in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from the edge of the solar system, and the increasing awareness that space science gives us our place in cosmic evolution. I will remind you again of what Carl Sagan said in his book "Pale Blue Dot":

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you now, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every 'superstar', every 'supreme leader,' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived -- on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

The astronauts and cosmonauts have had similar, if not quite so poetic, sentiments. That is a view of Earth that we did not have before the Space Age, and though I admit it seems not to have had widespread impact so far, it cannot help but have such an impact over the long term. The societal impact of space exploration at many levels is a subject that the NASA History Office intends to explore in more detail in the coming years as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Space Age.

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Steven J. Dick
NASA Historian