20 May 2010
The "explorer" analogy and US spaceflight
Posted by Ryan Anderson
The other day, the blog Sociological Images had a thought-provoking post about a Canadian ad campaign which invokes the idea of exploration and discovery to promote Canadian tourism. It got me thinking about one of the most common defenses of U.S. space exploration: that it is the natural next step for a nation founded on exploration to start exploring space. So, are we really a nation of explorers if all we really did was displace the natives who came before us?
The whole “manifest destiny” argument for space exploration always did make me a little uncomfortable when framed in U.S.-centric language, but I think that the basic sentiment is correct if you phrase it as a human endeavor, not just a U.S. endeavor. Humans really are natural explorers, expanding from the African rift valley to every corner of the world. I think of the bravery of early pacific islanders who set out into the unknown sea to settle new islands, or the first tribes to cross the land bridge between Asia and North America, and I feel okay with invoking that spirit in the context of space exploration.
I also think that it’s still fair to describe the Europeans as explorers, even though they tended to explore places where other humans had lived for thousands of years. I understand taking issue with the use of the word “discovery” but there’s no denying that the European explorers took risks and set forth into a vast unknown (to them), and those qualities are certainly relevant for space exploration.
So, yes, we need to be careful about drawing parallels between space exploration and European exploration of the “new world” or American exploration of the “frontier”, but I think as long as exploration (space or otherwise) is framed as a human trait, it’s a great analogy to use.
Have you seen http://timetoeatthedogs.com? It’s a fascinating blog by a history professor about exploration, science, culture, and their intersections. He and an astronomer from UT Austin presented a paper about “exploration” to the Augustine Committee last summer–their main point was basically, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” You can find it through this post, I think: http://timetoeatthedogs.com/2009/08/15/visions-of-exploration/
Yeah, I think that the issue isn’t that the argument is invalid per se, just that making it can betray your prejudices, and so alienate part of the audience. If the person making the argument is also saying, as they so often do, that “we need to maintain our nation’s competitive advantage through space exploration” then that reinforces the unintended message.
Of course, if we infect Mars with bacteria, the parallel becomes more exact…