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Explorer 1
William Pickering, James Van Allen, and Wernher von Braun hold a model of Explorer 1 after its successful launch. The three represented different reasons for carrying out spaceflight, with Pickering the supporter of space flight as an extension of past terrestrial exploration. (credit: NASA)

Space travel as exploration

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Corps of Discovery: the Enlightenment explores

By the early eighteenth century, exploration had found itself becalmed, even moribund. Discovery had achieved its purpose: it had found serviceable routes—the only ones, really—to the wealth of the East. Its sponsors felt little need to search for more, or to probe remote regions of the globe without prospects for commerce or plunder. Mariners did more poaching and piracy than original questing; the explorer blurred into the fantasist and fraud, promoter of the Mississippi and South Seas bubbles. Expeditions of adventurers persisted largely because interlopers tried to outflank established competitors.

By almost any index, exploration sagged. Although missionaries and bandeirantes had worked through the rivers of South America, and fur traders had done likewise for the main lakes and rivers of northern Asia and North America, few new islands were unveiled, and nothing of the interiors of Africa, and nothing of the outlines of Australia and Antarctica; and what was learned was often hoarded. They had not of course surveyed the Earth in its fullness; until the late eighteenth century, even the world’s coastlines still had unmapped gaps. But the implacable will (or the internal furies) that had driven explorers now flagged. Exploration seemed destined to be left marooned on the shore of a fast-ebbing historical tide. As with a Titan/Centaur launch, the saga of exploration also had its coasting periods.

As with a Titan/Centaur launch, the saga of exploration also had its coasting periods.

Then the historical dynamics changed: cultural engines again burned and boosted a new stage of exploration upward. The long rivalry between Britain and France, the penetration of high culture by the Enlightenment, and a hunger for new markets, all combined to move Europe again out of dry dock and onto the high seas of commerce and conquest. The Grand Tour became a global excursion around the Earth. Perhaps most extraordinarily, the missionary emerged out of a secularizing chrysalis as the naturalist. Increasingly, scientists replaced priests as the chroniclers and observers of expeditions—Linnaeus’s Apostles supplanted St Francis Xavier’s Jesuits—and scientific inquiry substituted for and justified the proselytizing that had helped sanctify an often violent and tragic collision of cultures.

The era’s annunciatory events were two sets of expeditions. The first was a paired undertaking sponsored by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1735 to measure an arc of the meridian. One expedition went to Lapland under Maupertuis and one to Ecuador under La Condamine. For the first time abstruse questions of natural philosophy, in this case involving the shape of Earth and competing theories of gravity, drove expeditions. The second cluster proved significantly more impressive: an international campaign to measure the transit of Venus, first in 1761 and again in 1769.

Here was a scientific campaign urged by scientists, to be conducted by scientists, aimed at simultaneous global surveys that would measure a critical value needed to understand models of the solar system, whose calculated working had become the exemplar of Enlightenment science. It was, to advocates, a unique opportunity, a passage of astronomical alignments across a suitable civilizational setting. In its request for funding, the Royal Society of London appealed to two principal “Motives”: the “Improvement of Astronomy and the Honour of this Nation.” There was national glory to be gained from success, and national shame to be endured from failure, and of course one could necessarily expect economic spinoffs from the inevitable improvements in scientific knowledge that would result. The 1761 transit featured 120 observations, of which 106 were in Europe; the 1769 transit, 150 from European outposts around the Earth.3

The swarm of expeditions helped rouse geographic discovery from its long slumber; they defined the terms by which exploration, empire, and Enlightenment might find common causes; they midwifed a transition from an exploring science welded to natural philosophy to one bonded to natural history. The expeditions of Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche to Tobolsk and then to Baja California, of Legentil de la Galaissière to the Indies and Alexandre-Guy Pingrè to Rodrigues and Haiti, and especially the voyage of the Endeavour under Captain James Cook to the Pacific galvanized public opinion and helped spark a revolution in scientific discovery—a model less for measuring the distance of Earth from the Sun than for inventorying the splendor of Earth. Here in cameo was demonstrated the ambition and means to inspire a new age of discovery.

Over the next century every aspiring great power dispatched fleets to seek out new wealth and knowledge, to loudly go where others had not yet staked claims. Once again, the rivalries among the Europeans were as great as anything between Europeans and other peoples. In 1769 James Bruce reached Lake Tana, the traditional source of the Blue Nile, while James Cook arrived at Tahiti to measure the transit of Venus. One journey represented rediscovery, a reconnection by a new sensibility with classical lore; the other, a new land for a new vision.

As measured by the number of exploring expeditions, a slight increase appears in the latter eighteenth century, and then erupts into a supernova of discovery that spans the globe.

Circumnavigation revived, but ships proved mostly a means to reposition explorers, who promptly moved inland. The world’s continents replaced the world sea as a primary arena for discovery, and the cross-continental traverse substituted for circumnavigation as its boldest expression. The voyaging conquistador metamorphosed into the Romantic naturalist. The transition matters because, as the nineteenth century ripened, Europe was no longer content to remain as a trafficker on the beaches of the world sea. Like its exploring emissaries, it shoved and swarmed inland. Trading ventures became imperial institutions, coastal colonies became continental nations, and the politics of commerce gave way to outright conquest. Exploration as a reconnaissance for trade segued into surveys for settlement; imperialism moved from founding coastal trading factories to establishing states over which they would rule, and some of which they would populate with émigré Europeans.

The outcome was a fabulous era for exploring naturalists. New scholarship, particularly sciences, bubbled up out of the slush of specimens shipped home. The returns from the earliest explorers to a particular place were often phenomenal—the scholarly equivalent to placer mining or, in the First Age, to the sacking of Tenotchtitlan or Malacca. A revolution in geographic discovery again accompanied a revolution in learning, aptly symbolized by the simultaneous recognition by two exploring naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, of evolution by natural selection.

The moral drama changed accordingly. Secularization and science translated Vasco da Gama’s famous declaration that he had come to the Indies for “Christians and spices” into a cry for civilization and commerce. The deeper drama concerned that fraction of Europe’s imperium colonized by European emigrants. These settler societies tended to look upon discovery as part of a national epic, and to honor explorers as vital protagonists—a Moses, an Aeneas—of those founding events. Their subsequent folk expansions proceeded hand in glove with formal exploration, such that Daniel Boone, not George Washington, became America’s folk-epic hero. These were new worlds, premised on the prospects for a new order of society. America truly was, in William Goetzmann’s words, “exploration’s nation”; but so were Russia, Australia, Canada, and others.4

Discovery metastasized. As measured by the number of exploring expeditions, a slight increase appears in the latter eighteenth century, and then erupts into a supernova of discovery that spans the globe. In 1859 the last unknown Pacific island, Midway, was discovered; by the 1870s, explorers had managed comprehensive traverses—cross sections of natural history—of every continent save Antarctica. With the partition of Africa, expeditions proliferated to assess what the lines drawn on maps in Berlin libraries actually meant on the ground. Exploration had become an index of national prestige and power. The first International Polar Year (1882) turned attention to the Arctic. An announcement by the Sixth International Geographical Congress in 1896 that Antarctica remained the last continent for untrammeled geographic discovery inspired a stampede to its icy shores; even Belgium and Japan sponsored expeditions. (America’s attention remained fixated on the North Pole and that other stampede to the Klondike.) Ernest Shackleton’s celebrated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was, after all, an attempt to complete for that continent the grand gesture that had crowned every other.5

But Antarctica was the last: there were no more unvisited lands to traverse, other than such backwaters as the Red Centre of Australia, the crenulated valleys and highlands of New Guinea, and the windswept Gobi. The enthusiasm for boundary surveys and natural history excursions—for imperialism itself—waned with the slaughter of the Great War. Plotting the number of exploring expeditions reveals the Second Age as a kind of historical monadnock, rising like a chronological volcano above a level terrain. The peak crests in the last decades of the nineteenth century, as exploration crossed the summit of the Second Age. Then it began a descent down the other side.

Like a cycle of economic boom and bust, what had ramped up now ramped down. The process went into reverse—exploration’s equivalent of deleveraging. The reasons are many. One is simply that Europe completed its swarm over the (to it) unknown surfaces of the planet. There was nowhere else for the Humboldtian explorer to go, and there were no more lands to meaningfully colonize. Antarctica, the deep oceans, interplanetary space—these arenas for geographic discovery might be claimed, but they would not be settled.

Exploring accounts and traveler narratives were bestsellers; explorers became cultural heroes; exploration was part and parcel of national epics; exploration was a means to fame and sometimes fortune. The Second Age, in brief, braided together many of the dominant cultural strands of its times.

No less important, the dynamic behind exploration changed. The Second Age had kindled with a rivalry between Britain and France, much as the contest between Portugal and Spain had powered the First Age. Thereafter virtually every competition featured Britain, which is why its explorers so dominate the age. Britain and France clashed in India, the Pacific, and Africa; Britain and the United States in North America; Britain and Russia, the Great Game, across central Asia; Britain and all comers in Antarctica. But after the Great War, Britain and France could no longer afford the enterprise. Russia turned inward with revolution. The United States had few places other than Antarctica in which discovery had geopolitical meaning. The Second Great Age of Discovery, like the First before it, deflated. Moreover, the old rivalries, once projected outward, now turned inward, and brought the colonial wars home in what ended with near-self-immolation. By the mid-20th century, after two world wars, a global depression, and the sudden shedding of colonies, Kipling’s “Recessional” had become prophetic: Europe was rapidly disengaging itself from its imperial past, and thus from the exploring energies that had, like lampreys, attached themselves to the institutions of an expansionist era.

When the crisis ended, the critical players were exhausted, especially Great Britain; and Europe sought to quench its internecine wars by severing its colonial ties. Decolonization accompanied an implosion of exploration; Europe turned inward, quelling the ancient quarrels that had restlessly and violently propelled it around the globe, pulling itself together rather than projecting itself outward.

And as in the past, there were cultural factors also at work. The Second Age had served as the exploring instrument of the Enlightenment. Geographic discovery had bonded with modern science: no serious expedition could claim public interest without a complement of naturalists, while some of the most robust new sciences, such as geology and biology, relied on exploration to cart back the data that fueled them. Science, particularly natural history, had shown itself as implacably aggressive as politics, full of national rivalries and conceptual competitions, and through exploration, it appeared to answer, or at least could address, questions of keen interest to the culture. It could exhume the age of the Earth, reveal the evolution of life, celebrate scenic monuments to nationalism and Nature’s God. Artists such as Thomas Baines and Thomas Moran joined expeditions, or as John James Audubon did, mounted their own surveys. General intellectuals eagerly studied narratives of discovery (even Henry David Thoreau, nestled into his Walden Pond cabin, read the entire five volumes of the Wilkes Expedition). Exploring accounts and traveler narratives were bestsellers; explorers became cultural heroes; exploration was part and parcel of national epics; exploration was a means to fame and sometimes fortune. The Second Age, in brief, braided together many of the dominant cultural strands of its times.

By the early twentieth century, however, this splendid tapestry was unraveling. A Greater Enlightenment found itself challenged by a Greater Modernism: in field after field, intellectuals turned to subjects that no longer lent themselves to explication by exploration. Natural scientists looked to the very large and the very small, to redshifting nebulae and subatomic particles or molecular genes. Artists turned inward, probing themselves and the foundations of art, not outward to representational landscapes. High culture was more inclined to follow Sigmund Freud into the symbol-laden depths of the unconscious, or Joseph Conrad into a heart of imperial darkness, than to ascend Chimborazo with Humboldt or to trail John Wesley Powell through the gorges of the Grand Canyon. The Second Age sagged not simply from the exhaustion of closed frontiers but from a more profound weariness and ironic dismay with the entire enterprise of Enlightenment and empire.

Once more Western exploration began to coast. In the early nineteenth century an intellectual could claim international acclaim by exploring new lands. By the early twentieth he could not, if he could even find suitable lands. There were a few spectacular exceptions: the gold prospecting Leahy brothers trooping into the unknown highlands of New Guinea; Richard Byrd wistfully erecting Little America on the Ross Ice Shelf; Roy Chapman Andrews, with carbine and Model T, whisking across the Gobi in search of dinosaur eggs, the very model of a Hollywood action hero (and inspiration for Indiana Jones). But there was overall a rueful, forlorn quality to the striving, aptly expressed when the American Museum of Natural History, with Andrews in command, dispatched an expedition to Shiva Temple, an isolated mesa within Grand Canyon, to look for exotic creatures, as though it stood somewhere between the Galapagos and Shangri-La. Sixty years before, the Canyon had claimed center stage not only for geographical discovery but for what it said to fundamental questions about the Earth’s age and organic evolution. Now the press boosted a minor foray into a journey to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Lost world, indeed.

Into the abyss: Modernism explores

Then it happened again. New lands became available; new technologies and ideas made them enticing; and rivalries between institutions, companies, nations, and personalities would not leave them alone.

Of a sudden, new realms had appeared. Places previously off limits because of hostile peoples, rivals of comparable power, technological feebleness, or ignorance or timidity had opened up: these were the ice sheets (and sub-ice terrains) of Greenland and especially Antarctica, the deep oceans with their hidden seamounts and immense trenches, and of course a solar system, full of worlds that beckoned beyond the vision of Earth-bound observatories. As powerful instruments and remote-sensing technologies emerged, as manned vehicles and unmanned probes plummeted to the depths and beyond the atmosphere, the prospects for a revival of exploration became possible. Suddenly, a Pacific Ocean that had seemingly yielded its last island to discovery a century before revealed hundreds of new islands in the form of submerged seamounts.

Antarctica was the transition. It was an abiotic landscape not much accessible to Enlightenment art and science, with no prospects for colonizing settlement, the last of the continental frontiers and the one where the Second Age exhausted itself. Twice before—in 1882 and 1932—a global science had rallied for “polar years,” roughly modeled on the eighteenth-century campaign to measure the transit of Venus. The earlier versions had focused heavily on the Arctic; this time, after a half century of world wars, proponents hoped to concentrate on the Antarctic.

Without the Cold War, however, there would have been scant incentive to erect bases on the Antarctic ice, scour the oceans for seamounts and trenches, or launch spacecraft.

The scheme soon snowballed into a call for a more general eighteen-month resurvey of the Earth, what became known as the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958). Here, for the first time, the contours of a new age of discovery came together. Its explorers would visit places inimical not only to humans but to life itself. They would rely on remote-sensing instruments, tracked vehicles, rockets, and robots. They would inventory a planet whole, of which Earth would be the prototype: voyages to Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune would carry essentially the same instruments and ask the same questions as IGY did for Earth. The International Geophysical Year thus did for the Third Age what the voyages of Columbus and da Gama did for the First, and the transits of Venus did for the Second. But where the successors to the transits belonged with Enlightenment and empire, the successors to IGY looked, however uneasily, to a greater modernism and a postcolonial age. The character of exploration morphed, for IGY did not simply revive the Second Age but assembled the pieces for a Third.

The roster of IGY participants was a veritable United Nations of science—some sixty-eight nations in all. Through the infrastructure provided by IGY, noted J. Tuzo Wilson, the “science of the solid earth” was “absorbed into the broader framework of a new planetary science.” It is no accident that these are the themes that instrumented satellites would carry in their reconnaissance of other worlds. The Earth became, intellectually, a new world, the first of a dawning age of discovery that would propagate to the fringe of the solar winds.6

The founders peered particularly into the upper atmosphere—geophysics, after all, was embedded in the project’s very name. Auroras in particular pointed to Antarctica as an insufficiently exploited platform for earthly observation, which was where a third polar year was headed. But the fast-morphing capabilities of rocketry made it possible to send instruments directly into the auroral belts. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had long-extant, if semi-dormant, plans to launch instrumented missiles beyond the realm of high-altitude balloons, leaving rockets as a new means to ask inherited questions.

IGY escalated that scientific yearning into a political probability. The International Geophysical Year was barely three months along when, under its auspices, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. Twenty years after Sputnik leapt into earthly orbit, the Voyagers were flying toward a rendezvous with the moons of Neptune.

Still, dazzling technologies and an invigorated curiosity are not enough to spontaneously combust into an era of exploration: cultural engagement also demands a sharp rivalry. Those competitive energies flourished with the Cold War.

In retrospect, the Great Game between the United States and the Soviet Union lasted far less than those between Spain and Portugal, or Britain and France, but the era is young, and if it does in fact mark a Third Age, some other competitors, keen to secure national advantage or prestige through sponsored discovery, may emerge. Without the Cold War, however, there would have been scant incentive to erect bases on the Antarctic ice, scour the oceans for seamounts and trenches, or launch spacecraft. Two geopolitical rivals, both with active exploring traditions, chose to divert some of their contest away from battlefields and onto untrodden landscapes. The cold war allowed a controlled deceleration of exploring energies, a complement to the British-French rivalry that helped accelerate the Second Age. The Cold War was the final propulsion module that boosted planetary exploration out of Earth orbit.

Most observers assumed that technology drove discovery. Surely without rockets and remote-sensing devices, the age could not have unfurled. But the critical concern was cultural. The pioneering rocketeers had envisioned migrations off Earth and experimented with rocketry as a technological means to move their enthusiasm into space. Nor was the apparatus of the Enlightenment designed to cope with the realms of the Third Age: it broke down on ice, abyss, and space as it did with atoms, relativistic quasars, and self-referential logic. The Second Age had neither the technology nor the software to plunge into those uninhabitable domains; but the intellectual revolution that we might lump together as modernism could. The most successful explorers of the Third Age would be modernists, whether they willed it or not.

Yet there was a paradox in its pith. Modernism could deal with such realms, but most modernists lacked the incentive to do so. Outside the sciences they were more inclined to look inward than outward. Software lagged behind hardware: the ability to voyage anew appeared before the capacity arose among elites to wish it. Pragmatism was a philosophy suited for pioneering; existentialism was not. Those sciences most moribund were those most closely bound with the Second Age. Geology was seemingly done more in libraries than in the field; certainly personalities such as J. Tuzo Wilson, so despairing of earth science, hoped IGY would spark a revolution. A new era of exploration might ignite, as it had in the eighteenth century, a paradigm shift. (Interestingly, the anticipated revolution occurred exactly between the dates of the two editions of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962 and 1970, which introduced the concept of scientific paradigms, and thus furnished a kind of manifesto.)7

The Voyager mission to the outer planets, launched in 1977 and still operating, may well become the grand gesture of the Third Age.

What bridged the gap, meanwhile, was popular culture. Exploration did not wither away, because the culture had not only institutionalized but also internalized geographic discovery. This was a civilization that could hardly imagine itself as other than exploring. It forged new institutions, of which the International Geophysical Year is an apt annunciation; and with spacecraft dispatched across the solar system, it recapitulated the entire half-millennium saga of Western exploration. Those vessels crossed what enthusiasts were pleased to call “this new ocean,” and in the outer planets they discovered new worlds, miniature solar systems, full of unknown seas and isles. Out of that encounter came a reformed earth science and a comparative planetary science.

The Grand Tour as grand gesture

The Voyager mission to the outer planets, launched in 1977 and still operating, may well become the grand gesture of the Third Age. They have spanned the longest fetch of Third Age terrains. They go beyond the passioned explorers of the Second Age. They offer what deep-ocean exploration has failed to find, a narrative. Yet the twin spacecraft were carried beyond Earth orbit by three ages of exploration as surely as by their three-staged Titan/Centaur rockets. In leaving Earth, they stripped exploration down to its essentials.

Interestingly, they offer a commentary on the three motives behind a national space program. They bypassed the Moon and Mars with hardly a nod, thus severing their journey from the impulse to colonize. They then conducted their Grand Tour of the outer planets, keeping the bond between geographic exploration and science. And then they have continued, moving beyond other alloys toward perhaps an earlier sense of exploration as quest. Throughout, they have looked back even as they look beyond. Their trajectory is a constant triangulation of both.

That may well be their counsel to the space program. They embody a long tradition of exploration, yet have assumed new forms and purposes as their trek continues. They show how exploration can both stand alone and with other ambitions and cultural yearnings. They are today’s exemplar of the explorer.


1 Note: The bulk of this text is an extract from my recent book, Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery (Viking, 2010), which places the Voyager mission within the long span of Western geographic exploration. On the First Age, I have relied on that doyen of the founding age of discovery, J. H. Parry. Among his many works are three that serve especially as syntheses: The Establishment of the European Hegemony, 1415–1715, 3rd ed., rev. (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); The Discovery of the Sea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); and The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450–1650 (New York: Praeger, 1969).

2 Parry, The Discovery of the Sea, op cit.

3 Harry Wolf, The Transits of Venus: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Science (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 83.

4 See William H. Goetzmann, “Exploration’s Nation: The Role of Discovery in American History,” in Daniel J. Boorstin, ed., American Civilization: A Portrait from the Twentieth Century (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co., 1972). For fuller surveys, see Goetzmann, Exploration and Empire (New York: Knopf, 1966) and New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery (New York: Viking, 1986).

5 As a useful way to summarize this explosion, see the flawed but indispensable, J.N.L. Baker, A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1967).

6 J. Tuzo Wilson, IGY: The Year of the New Moons (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1961), p. 324. Chapman characterized IGY’s mission as learning “more about the fluid envelope of our planet—the atmosphere and oceans—over all the earth and at all heights and depths.” But this was academic abstraction. Wilson came closer to the mark when he observed that it was the yet-unvisited places that mattered, that IGY proposed a planetary inventory as conceived by geophysicists. The founding geophysicists fretted particularly over the outer boundary of Earth, which is where they most wanted IGY to go. Chapman, in IGY Annals 1 (Jan. 28, 1957): 3.

7 Wilson, IGY, pp. 275, 320, 324, 219–25 passim.