Here is an account of an era in U.S. exploration. You will probably be familiar with the details:
The United States finds victory in war, increasing its power and reputation on the global stage. Still it remains locked in competition with international rivals. One rival, in particular, has become adept at the geopolitics of exploration, boosting its international standing through dangerous, breathtaking expeditions that capture the world’s attention. Despite the success of the United States on the battlefield, then, it lags behind in the theater of discovery.
Eventually the President of the United States makes an appeal before Congress: the country should enter the expeditionary race for reasons of science, humanity, and national prestige. Yet before this goal is realized, he dies in office. The new course is set, however, and the resources of the federal government enjoined. American military personnel lead the first expeditions, albeit with considerable input from civilian and scientific agencies.
After early missteps, the United States becomes the world leader in this new theater of discovery. Its geopolitical rival bows out of the fight. Yet at its moment of triumph, America seems to lose its way. The ultimate goal is reached, but it struggles to find new missions at the frontier. Two missions end in disaster, leading to intense criticism of federal agencies by press and public. The scientific community grows restless too, frustrated with mission priorities that tilt towards heroism, politics, and flag-waving rather than basic research.
Eventually the United States government begins to ramp down its discovery missions, unable to justify the risks and expense to a public that has grown frustrated, and at times disinterested, in the project of exploration. Increasingly the mantle of exploration passes to wealthy individuals and private corporations.
If this seems like an account of the Space Age, it is really a history of the Polar Age, a period that witnessed intense U.S. exploration of the Arctic Regions from 1850 to 1910. Here are some extra details to the chronicle above:
When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, it gained territory, but still trailed other powers, particularly Britain, in international prestige. One way that Britain had gained this prestige was through geographical discovery – from the Pacific voyages of James Cook to the Arctic search for the Northwest Passage by James Ross, John Franklin, and others.
Indeed, it was in sending an American expedition to search for John Franklin, who had gone missing in the late 1840s, that President Zachary Taylor hoped to include the United States in the project of Arctic exploration, an activity that had greater symbolic heft internationally than expeditions to the American West. Expeditions to find Franklin and explore the high Arctic met with broad support from elected officials, scientists, and the public, even after Taylor died suddenly in 1850.
After explorers established Franklin’s tragic fate in the 1850s (he and his party on 129 men perished in 1848-1849), the goal of Arctic exploration shifted to geographical discovery, particularly the Polar Sea and the North Pole. Yet expeditions by George Washington DeLong (1879-81) and Adolphus Greely (1881-1884) resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven Americans. These catastrophes led to a great deal of soul searching by Congress, the press, geographical societies, and the general public. In particular, scientists had grown weary of supporting expeditions that returned very little in the way of usable data. By the early 1900s, then, the age of federally supported Arctic expeditions was over. The “Race to the Pole” relied entirely upon wealthy patrons, Arctic clubs, and commercial ventures.
Why do I emphasize these parallels between Arctic exploration and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for the American space program today than the others regularly invoked by NASA and the space community. While astronauts are routinely compared to Columbus and Lewis and Clark, they are closer in roles to Elisha Kane, Robert Peary, and other explorers of the high Arctic. As much as space has been described as a New World and a New Frontier, it bears greater similarity to the Frozen North, not simply as an extreme environment but also as a geopolitical project, a subject I will take up in my next post.