Have We Forgotten What Exploration Means?

Tourists arrive at the new world (Library of Congress)

Yet again, the U.S. space program is in the slough of despond, whereby previous assumptions are questioned, the current path is discarded, the program is re-directed, and luminous enthusiasm heralds the new direction…

And then it all tapers off to nothing.

As long as we are navel-gazing during this policy hiatus, I want to examine a topic that many think is self-evident: what activities do we mean by the word “exploration?”  NASA describes itself as a space exploration agency; we had the Vision for Space Exploration.  The department within the agency developing the new Orion spacecraft and Ares launch vehicle is the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.  So clearly, the term is tightly woven into the fabric of the space program.  But exactly what does exploration encompass?

Exploration can have very personal meanings, such as your own exploration of a new town, or a new and unknown field of knowledge.  Here, I speak of the collective, societal exploration exemplified by our national space program.  This exploration began in 1957, when the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union initiated a decade-long “space race” of geopolitical dimensions with the United States.  That race culminated with our first trips to the Moon.  Once its primary geopolitical rationale had been served, Moon exploration was terminated.  Since then, the “space program” has been astonishingly unfocused – drifting from a quest to develop a reusable spacecraft to building orbiting space stations – and despite numerous studies affirming needed direction, unfulfilled plans to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars.

When the race to the Moon began 50 years ago, space was considered just another field of exploration, similar to Earth-bound exploration of the oceans, Antarctica, and even more abstract fields such as medical research and technology development.  Moreover, many used the term “frontier” when speaking about space, touching a very familiar chord in our national psyche by drawing an analogy with the westward movement in American history.  What better way to motivate a nation shaped by the development of the western frontier than by enticing it with the prospect of a new (and boundless) frontier to explore?  After all, we are descended from immigrants and explorers.  Over time however, few recognized that there had been a shift in the definition and understanding of just what exploration represented.

Starting around the turn of the last century, while still retaining its geopolitical context, exploration became closely associated with science.  Although first detectable in the 19th Century exploration of America and Africa, the tendency to use science as the rationale for geopolitical exploration reached its acme during the heroic age of polar exploration.  Amundsen, Nansen, Cook, Peary, Scott and Shackleton all had personal motivations to spend years of their lives in the polar regions, but all of them cloaked their ego-driven imperatives in the mantle of “scientific research.”  After all, the quest for new knowledge sounds much nobler than self-gratification, global power projection or land grabbing.

Science has been part of the space program from the beginning and has served as both an activity and a rationale.  The more scientists got, the more they wanted.  They realized that their access to space depended upon the appropriation of enormous amounts of public money and hence, supported the non-scientific aspects of the space program (although not without some resentment).  Because science occurs on the cutting edge of human knowledge, its conflation with exploration is understandable.  But originally, exploration was a much broader and richer term.  Which brings us back to the analogy with the westward movement in American history and the changed meaning of the word “exploration.”  A true frontier has explorers and scientists, but it also has miners, transportation builders, settlers and entrepreneurs.  Many are perfectly satisfied to limit space access to only the former.

“Exploration without science is tourism.” – Statement of the American Astronomical Society on the Vision for Space Exploration, July 11, 2005

This fatuous quote accurately reflects the elitist, constricted mindset of many in the scientific community.  In one fell swoop, the famous explorers of history – Marco Polo, Columbus, Balboa, Drake – are consigned to the category of  “tourist.”  Overcoming great difficulty and hardship, these men sought new lands for many varied reasons.  Exploration includes obtaining new knowledge but it does not end there; it begins there.  The quest for new lands has always been a search for new territories, resources, and riches.  Historically, survival and wealth creation are stronger drivers of exploration and settlement than curiosity.

What is missing from our current program of space exploration is a firm understanding that it must generate wealth, not just consume it.  Exploration is more than an experiment.  The idea of space as a sanctuary for science has trapped us in an endless loop of building expendable hardware to support science experiments.  Once the data are obtained, of what use is an empty booster or a used rover?  We’ve “been there” and a pipeline of new inquiry awaits, to be facilitated by new spacecraft and new sensors designed to reach new destinations of study.  Hugely expensive equipment must be developed to support science while the idea of creating transportation infrastructure or settlement is branded as “budget busting” (i.e., manned space exploration cuts into science’s budget).  So “exploration” lives to enable science, period.

This is our current model of space exploration.  I contend that it is not exploration as historically understood and practiced.  Traditionally, science (knowledge gathering) was a tool in the long process of exploration, which included surveys, mining, infrastructure creation and settlement (all advanced and protected with military assistance).  This was the model of national exploration prior to the 20th Century and it is readily applicable today – if we change our business model for space.  What is needed is the incremental, cumulative build-up of space faring infrastructure that is both extensible and maintainable, a growing system whose aim is to transport us anywhere we want to go, for whatever reasons we can imagine, with whatever capabilities we may need.

These changes do not require that an ever-increasing amount of new money be spent on space.  Instead, true exploration requires only the understanding that it must contribute more to society than it consumes.  And the American people have every right to expect as much in return for their years of supporting NASA.

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