Commentary | Lessons from Terrestrial Exploration for Earth Orbit


It is a truism known to all that the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, funded Christopher Columbus’s voyages of discovery as a national program for the good of their emerging European power. It is also trite to enumerate the many expeditions, from Henry Hudson to La Salle to Lewis and Clark, that various national leaders supported for the public good with blood and treasure. In every case, I hasten to note, these European monarchs sought tangible results — usually wealth, often geopolitical advantage, and sometimes less-specific positive outcomes — that accrued to the nation through the exploration paradigm. 

Wherever they went, explorers sent out by their sovereigns incorporated new territory and resources into the normal realm of their nation’s everyday activities. Sometimes it took centuries for the full realization of this to be accomplished; in other cases the results were virtually instantaneous. The wealth acquired by Spain in the Western Hemisphere during the first decades of the 16th century, for instance, catapulted that nation from an also-ran in the European community into arguably the greatest power in the world. Similar spectacular results remade France, Great Britain and even the Netherlands. 

In the Space Age we have not seen a corresponding infusion of wealth to the nations undertaking its exploration in comparison with that obtained by the exploring European nations of 500 years ago. The United States was already a superpower when the Space Age began and has remained one to the present, but not directly because of space exploration. The Soviet Union collapsed from economic overstretch and both internal political turmoil and external pressure, but its space exploration agenda had little do with that collapse. Both nations, and others that have become spacefaring since that time, have gained geopolitical advantage in certain ways and a modicum of monetary returns on commercial activities in space — especially communications and other applications satellites — but none has reaped a harvest anywhere near as great as Spain enjoyed in the 1500s. 

What has happened, however, is that certain parts of space are now well incorporated into the normal realm of human operations, just as European explorers incorporated the Western Hemisphere into the continent’s normal realm of activities. In an irony of the first magnitude for those who insist that humans are not truly engaged in space exploration because they have been confined to low Earth orbit for the last 40 years since the end of Apollo, the space shuttle turned orbital space into a place that was no longer a frontier. The first astronauts and cosmonauts, of course, truly were explorers in the traditional sense of the term, pushing back the frontiers of knowledge about this unusually strange, harsh and hostile environment. They learned how to operate there and to do useful things in the region.

I will give those with the “right stuff” of the 1960s high marks for pioneering operations in space. But I will give the astronauts and cosmonauts of a later era — those flying on the space shuttle, Mir and the international space station — equally high marks for turning orbital space into a place for routine useful activities. There is no longer any mystery about what we will experience in this region, and we understand well how to use it effectively and economically for a range of activities. This was what happened in terrestrial exploration as well; government-funded pathfinders preceded those engaged in a range of commercial and other private activities in the new region.

When I think of this I am reminded of the famous 1968 film by Stanley Kubrick, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I remember when I first saw it as a teenager and how mesmerized I was by its complex, sometimes surreal story. Thinking back on it, however, I am transfixed by something treated as almost a side note to the broader story: the private-sector operation of virtually everything in low Earth orbit. One of the enduring images from the film was of astronauts shuttled from the Earth to an orbiting space station aboard a commercial spaceplane, in this case operated by Pan Am, and private firms carrying out a range of functions in low Earth orbit, including a Hilton hotel on the station.

That has been the norm in human history as explorers have turned unknown regions into known ones and exploration has given way to frontiering. We are in the frontiering stage of low Earth orbit and there are all manner of possibilities for exploiting it for commercial purposes. The range of possibilities is breathtaking: commercial microgravity research on all manner of products, applications both well-known and still in the process of becoming, and even tourism. The efforts of Virgin Galactic to create a suborbital space tourism capability almost certainly will find realization in the near term, but the partnering of Bigelow Aerospace and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. for orbital tourism also has potential. Who knows what might flow from commercial beachheads in Earth orbit?

Most assuredly, we will see more entrepreneurial activity there in the next few years. New and unexploited regions have always attracted entrepreneurs — some succeed and others don’t — and orbital space does not look particularly different from previous terrestrial frontiers in that regard.

Not since 1972 has any human being been beyond low Earth orbit, and it appears that no one will go beyond for the foreseeable future. I’m not at all sure this has been a bad thing, for in the years since the conclusion of the Apollo program we have made Earth orbit a human domain usable for a wide range of private-sector activities. NASA’s role in Earth orbit, as an exploring organization, should decline in the future. I hope it will be able to raise its sights toward exploring cislunar and translunar space, performing the same function there that it has been successful in doing in Earth orbit: incorporating the lunar region into the normal realm of human activity.  


Roger D. Launius is associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.