Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Visions of Exploration

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

The Augustine Committee on Human Space Flight, July 2009

In these dog days of August, NASA is feeling the heat. The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka Augustine Committee) is now spell-checking its final report for the Obama Administration about the direction of U.S. space policy. With talk of exploration in the air, Dan Lester (astronomy research scientist, University of Texas-Austin) and I thought it was a good time to take a closer look at the different meanings of exploration and their use by policy makers. The full article on the subject, “Visions of Exploration” is now out in the journal Space Policy and available here.

Here’s an excerpt:

The historical record offers a rich set of examples of what we call exploration: Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World, Roald Amundsen driving his dogs towards the South Pole, and Neil Armstrong stepping into the soft dust of the moon. Yet these examples illustrate the difficulty in pinning down exploration as an activity.

If we define exploration as “travel through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it” we exclude Columbus, whose discovery was serendipitous rather than purposeful. We would also have to exclude Amundsen and Armstrong, and indeed many of the pantheon of explorers, who tended to dash across new terrain rather than investigate it systematically.

Even more expansive terms such as “discovery” sometimes offer a poor fit for the object of modern expeditions: did Robert Peary discover the North Pole in 1909, an axis point that Greek astronomers knew about 2500 years ago? Not in any meaningful sense of the word. Students of exploration, then, must make peace with this uncomfortable fact: “exploration” is a multivalent term, one which has been (and undoubtedly will continue to be) used in different ways by different people. Geographical discovery, scientific investigation, resource extraction, and high-risk travel are activities tucked inside this definitional basket.

Because of exploration’s multiple historical meanings, policy makers and administrators have often used this history selectively and out of context. Specifically, policy statements cite the history of exploration in order to make two points: first, that humans are compelled to explore, that curiosity about the world is an innate attribute of our species; and second, that this compulsion has expressed itself most fully in the United States, where exploration has moved beyond matters of trade and settlement to become a part of national identity, a symbol of American idealism, enterprise, and self-sufficiency

Let’s take these ideas in order, starting with the human impulse to explore. We cannot deny that the history of our species is a history of motion. We are all the children of travelers: of long migrations out of Africa, oceanic crossings and continental traverses. Archaeological evidence suggests that humans spent most of their prehistory, from 120,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE, on the move.

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

Possible human migration routes out of Africa ~100,000 BCE based on DNA evidence, courtesy National Geographic Maps

We bear the marks of these migrations: in the foods we eat, the languages we speak, and the places we live. Indeed, we carry traces of our itinerant past inside of us: in our dietary preferences for foods salty and sweet, our peculiar anatomy and physiology, and our unique mitochondrial DNA, which, read carefully, offers us a road map of our ancestors’ paleolithic travels.

Yet these facts, so well established, tell us little about motives. Human curiosity has a long and storied history. Aristotle begins his Metaphysics by stating “All men possess by nature a craving for knowledge”, an observation borne out in the earliest works of human literature.

Yet there is little evidence to suggest that humans traveled primarily, or even incidentally, because of curiosity. During the long millennia of our prehistory, the most obvious reason for travel was survival, following seasonal animal migrations, escaping harsh weather, avoiding predators and, perhaps, other humans.

Evidence points to exploration – in all of its incarnations of meaning – as a cultural or political activity rather than a manifestation of instinct. History’s most celebrated voyagers — Pytheas, Zhang He, and Columbus — sailed from nations with imperial ambitions. As Stephen Pyne points in his survey of the ages of exploration, “There is nothing predestined about geographic discovery, any more than there is about a Renaissance, a tradition of Gothic cathedrals, or the invention of the electric light bulb.” (Pyne, “Seeking Newer Worlds,” in Critical Issues in the History of Space Flight, 2006)

The notion that exploration expressed deeper impulses, such as wanderlust or curiosity, came much later, during the Enlightenment, when voyages took up the systematic practice of science: gathering specimens and ethnographic data, observing celestial events, and testing geographical hypotheses. These expeditions expressed a genuine curiosity about the globe, yet they elicited state sponsorship only because rulers saw political value in discovery expeditions, a form of “soft power” statecraft that could enhance national prestige rather then add to colonies or imperial coffers.

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti

James Cook's 1773 Expedition to Tahiti (in background: HMS Resolution)

If eighteenth-century audiences came to accept the lofty trait of curiosity as a driving force behind voyages of discovery, nineteenth-century audiences found deeper impulses behind humanity’s urge to explore. In particular, the Romantic Movement gave rise to ideas central to the ethos of modern exploration; first, that discovery is a process that includes, but is not contained by, practical pursuits. While geographical discovery, science, and resource extraction all have their parts to play, exploration has an intangible, ineffable quality that cannot simply be reduced to logical goals. The second idea (which follows closely from the first) is that the value of exploration is tied to the subjective experience of the explorer, a symbol of the nation at home.

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3 Comments»

  Thony C. wrote @

I always read your posts with pleasure but I think this one is, even by your high standards, something special.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks Thony!

  ragamuffin wrote @

thank you for this.


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