NASA and the Ghosts of Explorers Past


NASA has always stood at the fulcrum of the past and future. It is the inheritor of America’s expeditionary legacy, and it is the leading architect of its expeditionary path forward. Yet the agency has found it hard to keep its balance at this fulcrum. Too often, it has linked future projects to a simplistic notion of past events. It has reveled in, rather than learned from, earlier expeditionary milestones. As NASA considers its future without the Constellation program, it is time to reassess the lessons it has drawn from history.

For example, when U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, the administration and NASA were quick to link it to the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, stating in the vision: “Just as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark could not have predicted the settlement of the American West within a hundred years of the start of their famous 19th century expedition, the total benefits of a single exploratory undertaking or discovery cannot be predicted in advance.” In Lewis and Clark, NASA saw a precedent for the Vision for Space Exploration: a bold mission that would offer incalculable benefits to the nation.

Yet this was a misreading of the expedition. The Lewis and Clark expedition did not leave a lasting imprint on Western exploration. The expedition succeeded in its goals, to be sure, but it failed to communicate its work to the nation. The explorers’ botanical collections were destroyed en route to the East Coast, their journals remained long unpublished, and the expedition was ignored by the press and public for almost a century. In 1809, 200 years ago last September, a despondent Lewis took his own life. NASA might do well to reflect on this somber anniversary in addition to the more positive one used to announce the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004. Doing exploration, Lewis reminds us, often proves easier than communicating its value or realizing its riches.

NASA should also remember the anniversary of Robert Peary’s expedition to reach the North Pole, completed a century ago last September. Peary’s expedition, like the ones envisioned by the Vision for Space Exploration, was a vast and complicated enterprise involving cutting-edge technology (the reinforced steamer Roosevelt) and hundreds of personnel. Peary saw it as “the cap & climax of 300 years of effort, loss of life, and expenditure of millions, by some of the best men of the civilized nations of the world; & it has been accomplished with a clean cut dash and spirit … characteristically American.”  

Yet Peary’s race to the polar axis had little to offer besides “dash and spirit.” Focused on the attainment of the North Pole, his expedition spent little time on science. When the American Geographical Society published its definitive work on polar research in 1928, Peary’s work received only the briefest mention. Indeed, the Augustine committee’s statement that human exploration “should begin with a choice about its goals — rather than a choice of possible destinations” would have applied itself equally well to the race to the North Pole as it did recent plans to race to the Moon.

But the most important anniversary for NASA to be considering is the recent 400th anniversary of Galileo’s publication of “SidereusNuncius” (“Starry Messenger”), a treatise in which he lays out his arguments for a sun-centered solar system. Was Galileo an explorer in the traditional sense? Hardly. He based his findings upon observations rather than expeditions, specifically his study of the Moon, the stars, and the moons of Jupiter. Yet his telescopic work was a form of exploration, one that contributed more to geographical discovery than Henry Hudson’s ill-fated voyage to find the Northwest Passage made during the same year. Galileo did not plant any flags in the soil of unknown lands, but he did something more important: helping to topple Aristotle’s Earth-centered model of the universe.

As NASA lays the Constellation program to rest, the distinction between “expedition” and “exploration” remains relevant today. While its plans for human spaceflight would have led to any number of expeditions, it didn’t follow that these would have constituted the most promising forms of exploration. Given our technological expertise for virtual presence — an expertise that is advancing rapidly — exploration does not need to be the prime justification for human spaceflight anymore. The Augustine committee has shown the courage to challenge the traditional view of astronauts as explorers in its “Flexible Path” proposal, a plan to send humans at first into deep space, perhaps doing surveillance work on deep gravity wells, while rovers conduct work on the ground. Critics have derisively called it the “Look But Don’t Touch” option, one that will extend scientific exploration even if it does not include any “Neil Armstrong moments.”

Yet perhaps 2010 is the year when we challenge the meaning of “exploration.” For too long, NASA has been cavalier about this word. Agency budget documents and strategic plans continue to use it indiscriminately as a catch-all term for any project that involves human spaceflight. Yet this was not always the case. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, the formal constitution of the agency, doesn’t mention the word in any of the eight objectives that define NASA’s policy and purpose. Rather, NASA’s first directive is “the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Perhaps the best way forward, then, starts with a more careful look back. The world has changed since Lewis and Clark, with technology that would have stunned the young explorers. In the year of “Avatar,” we need to think differently about the teams who direct rovers across the martian landscape, pilot spacecraft past the geysers of Enceladus and slew telescopes across the sky. These technologies are not static in their capabilities, as are the humans who control them. Their capabilities advance dramatically every year, and the public increasingly accepts them as extensions of our intellect, reach and power. As Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole illustrates, toes in the dirt (or in his case, ice) don’t necessarily yield new discoveries.  

Of course robots and telescopes can’t do everything. A decision that representatives of the human species must, for reasons of species survival, leave this Earth and move to other places would make an irrefutable case for human spaceflight. But that need has never been an established mandate. It isn’t part of our national space policy. As NASA begins its sixth decade, do we have the courage to look beyond our simplistic notions of exploration’s past to find lasting value in the voyages of the future?

Michael Robinson is an assistant history professor at the University of Hartford’s Hillyer College in Connecticut. Dan Lester is an astronomer at the University of Texas, Austin.