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The Path of Exploration

The word "exploration" changed about 100 years ago. We should recover its full meaning, which included discovery, exploitation, & wealth creation

Amundsen at the South Pole, one hundred years ago today.

One of the last major milestones in the history of terrestrial exploration was achieved one hundred years ago today – the attainment of the South Pole by Roald Amundsen and his team on December 14, 1911.  His rival, Robert Falcon Scott and crew, were still more than a month away from the pole and (although denying they were in a race) destined for heartbreaking disappointment when they arrived to find the Norwegian flag flapping in the howling Antarctic wind.

The Amundsen-Scott polar drama time stamps a major shift in our thinking about the meaning of exploration.  This shift in our perception of what it means to explore holds ramifications to today’s debates on space policy.  Traditionally, exploration is a very personal activity.  It involves someone’s decision to see what lies over the next hill.  This act is exploration in its purest sense; it dates from the Stone Age and is principally responsible for humanity’s reach into all corners of the Earth.  This exploration is undirected and random –motivated by the human desire to scratch that unrelenting itch of curiosity.  You finance and outfit yourself and go, while adhering to the maxim, “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission.”

As society grew and evolved, a different type of exploration emerged.  For difficult or expensive journeys to far corners of the globe, people pooled their knowledge and resources to collectively explore the unknown by creating government-sponsored projects.  Until modern times, such exploration was considered to include not only discovery and initial characterization, but also utilization, exploitation and eventually colonization – all with an eye toward wealth-creation.  By the end of the 19th Century, the regions of the world unclaimed by western powers were all but gone, gobbled up in a frenzy of imperial land-grabs by industrially developed nations.  All that was left were the seas (whose freedom of access for all nations was guaranteed by the British Royal Navy) and the North and South Poles.

The shift of attention to the poles coincided with the rise of science and with it, a significant change in the “exploration” ethic.  It was actually thought at one point in the late 19th Century that all nature had been finally and thoroughly explained.  After numerous failed attempts to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific north of Canada (economic motivation), expeditions to the polar regions began to focus on scientific observations and measurements (knowledge gathering).  This shift in emphasis also coincided with a global rise of nationalist conscience, the idea that some nations were destined to discover and conquer remote parts of the Earth.  Given the global extent of the British Empire at that time, the English were particularly susceptible to this idea.

These various motivations were threaded together in the early 20th Century as science joined with nationalistic chest-thumping to create government-sponsored scientific expeditions to remote locales.  Important and difficult expeditions requiring teamwork and pooled resources became national exploration efforts.  Science became a fig leaf rationale for realpolitik global power projection.  There was still the occasional “because it’s there” type of expedition to some remote mountain or plateau but most often it was privately financed.

And so we come to the Space Age, which in basic terms has followed the knowledge-gathering template of polar exploration.  A new movement for national power projection in space has yet to fully emerge.  National security may be the only motivator of sufficient political power to launch an earnest, national drive into space.  Traditionally the military conducts exploration in peacetime.  In the late 18th Century, Royal Navy Captain James Cook conducted three expeditions to the Pacific – not for pure science but rather for applied science – to improve navigation for commerce and other purposes.

Perhaps this link to applied science may guide us toward a new understanding of the term “exploration,” or rather, to recover an old meaning that has been lost.  The idea of exploration leading to exploitation (currently tossed aside in the modern equation of exploration and science) could serve as the “new” guiding principle for modern spaceflight.  By making space the singular preserve of science and politics, both are ill served, much to the determent of humanity.  For now, we remain wedded to the template of launch, use, and discard – a modus suitable to an occasional, expensive and limited presence in space but one wholly inappropriate for undertaking the creation of a modern, permanent space faring infrastructure.  Instead, beginning with the creation of a reusable, extensible cislunar space faring system, we should learn how to use space for national interests by using the Moon and its resources.  This will require a long-term research and development project geared to acquiring the understanding and ability to gather and use the resources available to us in space in order to routinely access, explore and exploit cislunar space and the frontier beyond.

This model of a national space program fits the classic understanding of exploration – we go into space as a society and what we do there must have societal value.  Because cislunar space has critical economic and national security value, we need to create a system that can routinely accesses that region of space with robots and people.  Hence, I advocate resource production bases on the Moon, reusable systems, and the build-up of a cislunar spaceflight infrastructure.  Some may not consider this to be “exploration” but the great explorers of history exploited and settled after they found and described.

The attainment of the South Pole one hundred years ago today shifted the meaning of the word exploration and boxed us into an artificial separation of the concepts of discovery and use.  That modern connotation is both arbitrary and historically incorrect.  Exploration includes exploitation and we can exploit the Moon – our nearest planetary neighbor – to create a permanent space faring capability. The development of cislunar space is exploration in the classic sense – a plunge into the unknown:  Can we do this?  How hard is it?  What benefits – beyond those we can recognize now – might we realize from it?   History shows that such undertakings promote new discoveries by opening windows of innovation and generating new streams wealth creation.

Note: My friend Don Pettit has similar thoughts in his blog post today.

About Paul D. Spudis
Paul D. Spudis

Paul D. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. His website can be found at The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Smithsonian Institution or his employer.

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