The Way West

I recently read a magazine article by Cornell professor Jim Bell who is the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Panoramic Camera team.  The final picture of his article took my breath away:

Opportunity on Sol 114 looks back at its tracks through



This picture is so reminiscent of views of wagon ruts still visible on the Oregon trail in Nebraska and Wyoming!  Pioneers on the American west a hundred and fifty years ago would feel right at home.

Well, they probably had a bit more oxygen, so lets not push the analogy too far.

Four hundred years after Columbus, American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner lamented the US Census bureau declaration that the western frontier was “closed”, all settled.  In 1893 Turner presented a controversial paper which has come to be called “The Frontier Hypothesis”.  His paper asserted that having a frontier was the most influential factor in American history.  The Frontier Hypothesis has been debated ever since by historians who argue that other factors were more important in American development.  But nobody argues that having a frontier wasn’t a huge factor, just what factor was biggest.

Turner wrote that having a frontier shaped the American character; always facing a challenge, inculcating innate optimism, relying on personal initiative and ingenuity, cooperating with scattered neighbors — all these things influenced who we are today.

Since the western frontier “closed” a century ago, America has become a world power, perhaps the only superpower, and has faced many other challenges.  Today pessimism seems rampant and some quarters seem to revel in painting a dark future for America and humanity as a whole. 

I don’t have the academic credentials to participate in the debate that Fredrick Jackson Turner started, but it seems at least he was close to the mark.  Having a challenge, being forced to be innovative, having the hope that the future will be better than the present — all these things are important.

I’ve overused the quotation by Sir Edmund Hillary, but here it is again:  “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay were first on the summit of Mount Everest, so I think the beekeeper from New Zealand knew what he was talking about.  Unlike Ed Hillary or Scott Parazinsky, I’ve never had the nerve or the opportunity to attempt the world’s highest mountain, but I have been on the summit of some lesser peaks:

Wayne and friends atop the highest point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak 2, 667 meters



Climbing a mountain changes the one who takes on the challenge.  When you do something hard, like pioneer a new frontier or climb a higher mountain, you come back a different person.  Generally a better person.  More creative, more resilient, and more optimistic.  After all, if you can climb the mountain, you know you can take on other challenges. 

Collectively we need a challenge that is one for good, not for destruction or competition or rivalry.  Not one for bragging rights.  But a challenge that we can take pride in accomplishing.

This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration:  slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment. 

Lets do it right this time. 

But lets do it. 

It is important for ourselves.

14 thoughts on “The Way West”

  1. Very good points, Wayne. And opening up a new frontier forces the participants to unify, to put aside functionally irrelevant differences in order to face and overcome the daily challenges that a new frontier invariably serves up. If members of earth’s various races, ethnic groups, religions, and countries could see their own representatives assisting, cooperating with, and supporting others in high-profile space exploration and development activities, who knows what barriers of mutual intolerance, hatred, and suspicion could be breached?

  2. Yes, space is a frontier (or at least a very nascent one) but I think we have to look at previous frontiers for guidance on how to open this one. Those individuals who loaded up their Conestogas had individual motivations that made the effort justifiable. Very few went west for altruistic reasons of science or a sense of wonder. That may have been part of it but at the end of the day it had to pay for itself somehow.

    Take the Mormon expansion out west for example. Here is a great discussion of why they did it and how:
    The Mormon community didn’t settle the Utah frontier because of some inherent desire to “explore”. They did it because their members were being violently persecuted in Illinois: “The theory being that the area was pretty much unpopulated, nowhere near as nice as Oregon and California, and therefore they might finally be left alone.” If they had been left alone in Illinois, then Utah would probably be part of another state and extremely unpopulated.

    Other parts of the west were opened because of gold or the wide expanse of free grazing area for cattle. The railroads in many places only existed to bring gold miners to the west and to transport beef and timber back east.

    But even if religious persecution is a reason to flee for a frontier, it _still_ has to be economically justifiable. All of the settlements in the New World were financed by venture capitalists looking for a very large return. They took the religiously persecuted along as labor because it would generally pay for the ride itself. If the investors didn’t have ready access to cheap labor then many of those ventures would not have happened.

    Let’s take Antarctica as a counter-example: it is harsh and empty. One could consider it a “frontier” of sorts. So why aren’t there any wagons full of settlers heading there? There may be oil down there but it is currently unexploitable due to treaties. But beyond that there is no justifiable reason for anyone to live there permanently.

    IMHO, frontiers are pioneered because of six basic societal motivations:

    God: “My religion says to do it”

    King/Nation: “For King and Country!”

    Wealth: “I can become fantastically rich”

    Fear: “I am being persecuted/killed/starved where I am now”

    Glory: “I can become fantastically famous”

    The Other/The Enemy: “Our enemy is coming here or going there and we have to stop them” (this is what motivated the United States to justify Apollo)

    Most of these tend to follow a rough societal version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And some of them aren’t sustainable since the motivation goes away once your enemy is vanquished.

    You also have to be very careful that you don’t confuse personal reasons with societal reasons. They do not scale because they aren’t universal enough. Climbing a mountain is a personal experience/motivation that only a very tiny number of people can justify. There’s a reason why mountain climbing is a sport and that there isn’t a Federal Mountain Climbing Agency.

    So, yes, space is a frontier worth pioneering. But for those of us who are working on doing that, we really must be honest about the motivations. “Exploration” is an action taken as a result of some other motivation. If that motivation isn’t strong enough to justify the cost to the individual/society, then there won’t ever be any Conestogas.

    IMHO, pure science and personal curiosity (what some called “the desire to explore”) aren’t societally sufficient.

  3. According to the Discovery documentary, it took 400,000 people to put humans on the moon. Some other source 10 years ago said it took 300,000 people to build the space station. Just going by Lockheed’s total headcount, it probably takes 140,000 people to put a robot on Mars. Now we’ve photographed enough water on Mars to produce massive amounts of rocket fuel & sustain human colonies, something the moon & space station lacked. Wonder how hard a Mars colony would be.

  4. Wane,
    Appreciate this blog and the dialog it enables. Your comparison of space exploration with the trek to the American frontier is a good one. A person and a people grow when successfully overcoming challenges.

    I believe that for the desire to overcome a challenge to expand from small groups of individual explorers to sizable parts of the public, the goal has to be more than the exhilaration found in standing on that mountaintop. The settlers of the West set off on this dangerous trip not out of sense of adventure, but out of a hope to better their lot in life, should they survive the trip.

    Analogously, I believe for NASA to continue to receive and expand public support of its efforts there has to be a credible vision of the benefit that might be found at the destination. That benefit does not have to be material to energize the public.

    I do not work in the space business and do not know anybody who does. Yet at the office in the lunch room I more than once overheard delighted conversations about this or that stunning “space telescope” picture or some rover digging up evidence of standing water on Mars.

    Conversely, the comparatively few times indeed that Shuttle, Station, or heaven forbid a future Moon base is mentioned, the comments are best described as unfavorable.

    The reason for this unfavorable view is not that the speakers see no value in manned spaceflight. Far from it. Manned spaceflight is understood to be of critical importance to humanity.

    What is missing from those endeavors is a convincing goal. At one point the supposed purpose of Station was to provide a place to develop new medicines and alloys. It wasn’t a very convincing claim even back then and I haven’t heard it mentioned much lately.

    I know following may sound harsh, it isn’t meant to. I am a huge supporter of space exploration, have missed few mission briefings broadcast on NASA TV in the last several years. I consider NASA underfunded.

    But honestly: folks just can’t figure out what Station is good for other than give the Shuttle a reason for existence. Building Station from little pieces. And now, with VSE, it appears the plan for the next 20 or 30 years is to repeat that process on the Moon, building a Moon base from little pieces. With the purpose of the base being unclear, though mining water at great expense has been suggested as potential goal. Sounds like Shuttle and Station all over again, only at a much higher price tag.

    Without a credible goal that goes beyond maintaining an industrial base while giving the astronauts something to do to keep them sharp – both undoubtedly important objectives – gathering additional support or funding for NASA will be impossible.

    Please do something, especially in human spaceflight, that genuinely matters and where human presence adds real value. Make the receptionist in the lunch room take note. If a few telescopes in space and a little rover can, surely so can the larger endeavors of NASA.


  5. Wayne,

    I agree it is important … I feel that it is important deep down inside. That being said we have to be careful to manage expectations. Speaking of a frontier as you do suggests that we can push that frontier out and settle part of space, the moon or Mars, and we certainly cannot do that in any large scale way as America did on it’s western frontier. It’s just too hard.

    I have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book “By the Shores of Silver Lake” with my 8 year old daughter as her bedtime story. Wilder’s description of her family’s migration to the Dakota territory suggested the cost involved: two horses could pull the whole family plus all of their belongings across the prairie. Once they arrived at their new homestead, Pa could substantially live off the land, and purchase the few items he could not obtain locally via supply system that relied on the railroad system expanding into the west as the family did for a nominal cost – obviously well within the means of the economic power of a single family. No resources were expended to supply an atmosphere at a survivable pressure, a gravity field at 1.0g, or an effective magnetosphere protecting against cosmic and solar radiation.

    Contrast the above scenario with me moving my family a space station. At present costs to launch into low earth orbit, it would take approximately all the money I will ever earn through my engineering career just to get the mass of our bodies up there – no water, pressure hull, food etc. It’s just not practical.

    For argument’s sake, though, let’s imagine that launch costs can drop by three orders of magnitude or so, and my family and I decide to live on the moon. Will the kids grow properly with only one sixth the gravity of the earth? How do we stay warm through the 300 hour lunar night? How will we manage the radiation environment?

    So yes, let’s explore space. But let’s not suggest that anyone is going to be homesteading there.

    -Joe Fitzgerald
    Boston MA USA

  6. Your comments remind me so much of JFK’s famous Rice University speech where he said:

    “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

    We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

    I don’t think many nations have chosen to “do the hard things” in quite a few years and Kennedy correctly identifies that it is only through those challenges that we as a race can truly define ourselves.

    I think we are living in a very exciting time when America is once again looking outwards to the frontiers again. I for one and very excited to see where we go from here.

  7. Dear Wayne,

    Interesting commentary. Being a student of history, and living in Pittsburgh, once called the “Gateway to the West”, I agree with your thoughts and would like to amplify them.

    Lewis and Clark’s epic journey began here. They rode horses until they got here, then built boats. There was, and still is, a frontier fort at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, where the Ohio was born. Once upon a time, it was a lonely outpost on a dangerous frontier, but people and explorers came, and that frontier was eventually pushed all the way to the Pacific.

    Today, we have a frontier outpost: it’s called the ISS. Instead of being abandoned, it should be expanded, as well as its role. It would be nicer to have a permanent outpost in geosynchronous orbit, but that can come later.

    Serious spacecraft must be assembled in orbit, free from engineering constraints forced by gravity and the cost to get a kilogram into orbit. The place to build the new Lewis and Clark’s “boats” is already here. Perhaps allowing private industry to fund additional ISS modules and helping them get there, a public-private partnership, might be the worth investigating.

    Your final statement:
    “This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration: slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment.”
    …bears some thinking about.

    “Slavery, racial and ethnic denigration” to me sounds like we’ve found out that we’re not alone, which would be a “Big Thing” for humanity. Same with the “destruction of native peoples”.

    “Damage to the environment”…now, that’s far more likely. We take great pains to avoid introducing “smallpox” via our space probes, unlike those explorers who introduced European diseases to the world. But what about introducing Martian life to OUR environment?
    With the recent revelations about water on Mars, it can no longer be assumed that the soils are sterile, and therefore the paradigm must change accordingly.

    I’ve read of a proposed “Apollo without Astronauts” Mars soil-sample return mission. Unless those samples are thoroughly tested an an off-planet site such as the ISS, we risk having science-fiction become reality as unknown microbes for which we have no defense are loosed into our biosphere.

    So, Wayne, let’s step carefully and thoughtfully into this new frontier, but let’s not allow fear to dictate our choices or direction.

  8. Lucky,
    What do you think those same people in your office think of the various private efforts to fly non-NASA employees into space on a regular basis? Is there a difference in their eyes in watching NASA send people and the chance that they themselves will get to go soon? My hypothesis is that people only get really excited about manned space when they see how it applies to letting them go sooner rather than later.


  9. Lucky – I completely agree with you that we need to have clear sight in what our next step is to be. Russians stated the reason to go back to the moon themselves.
    “For its part, Russia claims that the aim of any lunar program of its own–for what it’s worth, the rocket corporation Energia recently started blustering, Soviet-style, that it will build a permanent moon base by 2015-2020–will be extracting He3.”

    I would like to see NASA and our space agency to have similar statements released of some of the potential out there.

  10. On the idea of the next frontier; there is always a small segment of our society that has the explorer spirit and we as a society need to embrace it. Without exploration we can not give written justification like the HE3 mentioned above.

    We need to make the distinction between exploring and settling. We have to be able to have a justifiable reason to colonize these new frontiers. I am only guessing that the resources we will find once we have a permanent settlement will completely finically pay for itself, but the initial cost will be the main hindrance to finding them.

    The difference between the two can be seen from parallels of the new world exploration. We had Spain who came over just to plunder the resources from the Indians. As such they had many short expeditions out with boats and rather primitive settlements. On the other hand, there were the English colonies that were there to harvest the resource. These colonists eventually found many great resources that were only on America, including tobacco, gold, silver, oil and many more natural resources.

  11. Great read and great first few posts to your new blog Wayne. It would be great to have an insight into NASA`s world from the emotions you must be feeling.

    Missions to Mars, missions to comets and the ISS are fantastic achievements so far and the frontiers we are yet to face must pale in comparison to NASA`s previous fifty years of space exploration.

    I`m looking forward to your future posts and you can now consider yourself bookmarked!

  12. You should remember me from the last artical about the Olysses probe. So have two more qestions on this artical. I was wondering how there could still be wheel tracks from the oregon trail, that was like 180 years ago! Also I disagree with the U.S. being the only world power, because there’s Russia, and China as well.

  13. Dear Mr. Hale.

    Please, try to understand one very important thing. I hope it finally downs on NASA, after 40 years.

    It is NOT the job of NASA to fly into space.


    It is NOT the job of NASA to fly into space.

    The job of NASA is enable the OTHERS, the “we the people” to fly into space and do useful and interesting things there.

    The “promise of space”, as invisioned by Tsiolkovsky, that powered in large part the support for initial space exploration and Apollo, never really was about few government employees becoming heroes while others watched. When people understood, after Apollo, that this is going to be the case further on, their support faded. Rightfully so. Spaceflight is only as interesting as it is personal, or at least potentially personal for “we the people”, on the individual level. And, as much as it may sound controversial, the promise of space is not about flying in space, either. It is about utilizing the space, as a whole, to further human existance and experience. This is what it means to become a spacefaring civilization. To further the goal of becoming a spacefaring civilization is what should be the goal for NASA, not just exploration for the sake of scientific interest. Space transportation technologies, whith which NASA seems to be preoccupied for the last 40 plus years, is only a relatively minor part of it, albeit important. As for the other parts… well, answer a simple question: Can we make a nail on the Moon without importing anything from Earth? A simple, plane iron nail? And what about a Moon hotel? I emphasized the difference in scale on purpose, of course. We cannot make a nail on the Moon. We cannot even dig a decent trench there. And that means, running a successful Moon buisiness is light years away from us. If we cannot do it, than we are not a spacefaring civilization yet. Therefore, it is the bringing ever closer the day when the Moon hotel may become a feasible, profitable operation, that should be the goal for NASA. Creating frontier-opening tools and technologies. Apollo was not the way to do it. Neither is, I’m afraid, ESAS architecture.

    It’s not that we want it all NOW, of course. We fully understand, that the goal is generations ahead. But we would be happy, if we saw NASA, instead of relieving the old glory “on steroids”, to begin the development of the necessary infrastructure, to begin creating the tools, the technologies, the processes, to become, some day, the spacefaring civilization. We can be patient. But we need to see that NASA is going the right way.

    There is difference in what is done now and what should be done regarding space exploration and developing spacefaring capability. NASA constantly attempts to answer the question “what can space activities give us, today, on this Earth”. While this question and the answers to it are extremely important and should be addressed, the true meaning of “spacefaring” and “space exploration” is not found within the confines of the “here, now, on Earth” paradigm. The true meaing is about extending the HERE to encompass the Solar system and beyond. This is the question that should drive the NASA exploration agenda: How do we extend the meaning of the word HERE to the Solar System?

  14. Just discovered this blog thanks to Eric Berger. Great stuff.
    Looking at the above pic I didn’t realize where it was at first. I first went up there in the late 70’s. Sad to say but the air was a lot cleaner back then – no coal burning plant in Mexico – so the view was awesome.

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