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.