We’ve been to the moon and just about everywhere on Earth. So what’s left to discover? In September, Future Tense is publishing a series of articles in response to the question, “Is exploration dead?” Read more about modern-day exploration of the sea, space, land, and more unexpected areas.
“What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one’s ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt happiness like this—so intense and yet so pure. That brown rock, the highest of them all, that ridge of ice—were these the goals of a lifetime? Or were they, rather, the limits of man’s pride?”
- Maurice Herzog, 1952
When Maurice Herzog wrote these words, he was recalling his historic ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna—the first time anyone had stood more than 8,000 meters above sea level. On the summit, gasping for air, Herzog was testing the limits of strength and endurance, and bringing vast regions of the high Himalaya into the realm of human knowledge. He was tired, wind-whipped, oxygen-starved, but clearly exhilarated. After all, he was exploring.
Such was the reality of pre-21st-century exploration. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, this life-risking blitz of derring-do, but it was the only way to grasp at the outer edge of the known world, to try and make sense of the universe through knowledge acquisition.
But as humanity’s technical prowess gained on our insatiable curiosity, something strange happened. It was no longer necessary to go places, dragging our corporal beings around, with their demands for oxygen, water, and an inconsiderately narrow temperature range. Instead, we could send robots to do the work, beaming back streams of 1s and 0s, seeing new vistas for us, enduring environmental hazards without complaint. And the digital spoils have been stunning: The Kepler spacecraft discovered more than 3,500 putative new worlds in four years. The Hubble Space Telescope peered 12 billion years back in time to the early stages of the universe. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter can spot rocks the size of a dinner plate on the surface of the Red Planet.
Exploration is, most certainly, not dead. On the contrary, more of the universe is open for our perusal than ever before, and the data deluge only continues to grow, a veritable Moore’s Law of curiosity-driven knowledge.
But is this modern, screen-mediated form of exploration recognizable as the same enterprise that led our ancestors to the ends of the Earth with poetry on their lips?
Historically, our first knowledge of a place (What plants grow here? Is there gold? Any savages in need of salvation?) has been coincident with our first feeling of it (Why does the light look different here? Why is it so hard to breathe at this altitude? Are these blood-sucking insects bad?), intimately linked with a humanistic, highly personalized quest for self-realization (What has my suffering taught me about the human condition? What are the limits of my abilities?). This cocktail of intellectual, sensory, and emotional discovery infused the ventures with an intoxicating blend of novelty: This was life at its most essential, a distillation of our caveman roots and hardwired wanderlust.
But the future of exploration will be different: From here on out, our first experiences of new places will be virtual, not physical. By the time the first person walks on Mars, we will know every pebble of the landing site. The subsurface contours of new caves may be mapped by ground-penetrating radar or acoustic backscatter. New oceanographic environments will first be seen through the cameras of a remotely operated vehicle, as scientists watch from a shipping container on a boat.
We’ve entered a fundamentally new realm of exploration, one that divorces the intellectual jolt of new knowledge from the visceral thrill and personal fulfillment of self-transportation to new places.