WHEN THE SEVEN astronauts stepped aboard the space shuttle Columbia, they saw themselves - or at least America saw them - as carrying on a tradition that began when the first human walked out of Africa looking for new lands, that continued when Christopher Columbus set sail across the Atlantic, when Roald Amundsen urged his dogs across Antarctica.

It is the tradition of exploration that, whether or not it is a fundamental human impulse or a choice of certain cultures, is certainly a part of the American experience.

The history of exploration was once taught as an unvarnished tale of heroism, of great men of the 15th and 16th centuries like Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and John Cabot conquering the unknown with courage and cunning. Though the realities of the colonialism that followed has challenged their stature, it is still remarkable to think of these men and their crews on cramped, leaky vessels going off into uncharted waters, knowing that the chance of all aboard returning safely was just about nil.

"Considering it was a somewhat glamorous thing to do, it was also very, very dangerous, considerably more dangerous than space travel," says Karen Oslund, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Entire crews, hundreds of people, never returned at all with no word of what happened to them."

Felipe Fernandez-Arnesto of Oxford University says a certain character trait helps. "I do think you need these individuals who are a bit wacky," he says. "They were very often desperate individuals, like Columbus, a weaver's son who was down on his luck and had nowhere to go except the gutter or the ocean. He chose the ocean."

That certainly is no longer the case. Astronauts are fully accomplished people. Whatever their reasons for choosing this path, they are still affected by the cultural imperatives that drove those earlier adventurers.

Even in the 15th century, when the age of exploration was beginning, the image of an explorer was that of a romantic hero. According to Fernandez-Arnesto, who has written extensively on exploration, the imagination of Columbus and his generation was fired by the pulp fiction of the day which told stories of down-on-their-luck noble souls who sailed off into the unknown and found magical islands populated by fantastic creatures that were conquered by the hero, who lived out his life as a ruling king.

Oslund says that image continued into the 17th century with the popularity of the Robinson Crusoe stories by Daniel Defoe. It seems no accident that such images became part of the character of America, a country founded by people who set off across the ocean on a voyage that may not have been uncharted, but was still quite dangerous.

Led by Lewis and Clark, Americans headed across a continent to fulfill what was called their Manifest Destiny, seeing themselves driven by the same spirit that drove Columbus across the Atlantic. Eventually it sent Charles Lindbergh in the opposite direction across the Atlantic. That image became an important part of the space program.

"The word that sticks in my mind is frontier," says Robert Friedel, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It was applied to space from John F. Kennedy to Star Trek and on up. The image of frontier is really pretty deeply engrained into American self-perception."

Joseph N. Taterewicz of the history department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County says such imagery provided the foundation for the literature that inspired the early astronauts, just as the books of his time inspired Columbus.

"When you begin to get a serious flowering of science fiction in the late '20s and early '30s, it explicitly takes the plots of Western dime novels and moves the setting to outer space," he says.

Such images continued into early science fiction movies, television series and magazine articles, as well as model kits and other aspects of popular culture.

"I have interviewed a lot of NASA engineers, astronauts and scientists over the years and almost to a person they were immersed in all this literature," he says. "Manifest Destiny, the frontier motif, was written right into all the documents sent out to soothe the American public after [the Soviet Union launched] Sputnik. It was written into the NASA charter and became very much a fixture in almost all the literature where NASA expressed its own goals and ambitions and reasons for being."

The space race - both military and civilian - between the United States and the Soviet Union fit into the traditional narrative. The explorers of the nations of Europe had raced one another to secure trade routes and claim colonies. By the time England's Robert Scott and Norway's Roald Amundsen headed to the South Pole, the races were less pragmatic, more romantic, but still fervently nationalistic, producing heroes who went where no man had gone before.

Not every culture chooses this path.

"Exploration is absolutely culturally based," says Oslund. "All sorts of cultures choose not to undertake exploration. Some European countries, and, to a certain extent, America make the choice to invest money and lives in exploration. But it is absolutely a choice that those societies make."

China, for instance, made the opposite choice in the 15th century, scrapping its fleet of ships that were pioneering trade routes in the Pacific and choosing to focus on an internal examination of its society.

"That is the classic example, but there are Polynesian and African societies that were engaging in exploration and reached a certain point, a certain island, and stopped," Oslund says. "People just settle down and do agriculture at that point, No one seems interested in exploring the next island chain and no one knows why. So there are cultural reasons for stopping and cultural reasons for continuing."

But Fernandez-Arnesto says the urge is still fundamental.

"I think there must be a sense in which [exploration] is a human impulse," he says. "We are all where we are because our ancestors got there from somewhere else. It is impossible to imagine the global migration that spread humankind around the planet without an element of route finding at every stage of the process. I suspect what cultures do is that they kill off that impulse. There have been communities that got to environments that they like and haven't bothered to look further unless and until they are constrained by necessity."

The 'route-finders'

Fernandez-Arnesto makes a distinction between what he calls "route-finders," those explorers who head off into the unknown, and those involved in scientific exploration, encountering known environments to learn more about them.

"I think what Columbia was engaged in was the latter kind," he says. "We have had route-finding in space in our time, but it was very different than route finding in the heroic ages of exploration of the past because when astronauts pioneer space routes, they know where they are going and can see ahead of them. ... That is very different than the earlier explorers whose voyages were quite literally into the unknown."

Many, agreeing with Fernandez-Arnesto, point out that the space shuttle program, while it may still fulfill the country's need for an exploration myth, does not live up to that in reality. Taterewicz says the shuttle was conceived as a piece of a huge project to build a space station that would be a platform for further exploration. But most of that was lost in the belt-tightening that followed the moon landings.

"They cut out everything except this little pickup truck that was originally supposed to be a very small part of the package," he says.

Instead of heading off into the frontier, the space shuttle - sold to Congress as a pragmatic, cost-effective, reusable vehicle - follows well-trod routes up into space and back down, conducting a variety of pragmatic and scientific missions.

"At a certain point it begins to look much less like exploration and much more like mountain climbing," says Friedel. "It's exciting, it's dangerous and it puts you on the edge in a personal kind of way, but in terms of furthering the human condition in some measurable fashion, we are not even pretending that's the case anymore."

So, the real frontiers may be found by those following the late Jacques Costeau into the depths of the ocean, or others trying to get further beneath the the Earth's crust.

Pushing the frontiers

In space, those frontiers are being pushed by people like Lucy A. McFadden, a University of Maryland astronomer working on a mission that will crash one space probe into a comet while another hovers to record the results. Such unmanned missions are the ones now taking journeys into the unknown.

She notes that there was relatively little publicity last summer when a unmanned spacecraft headed to three comets was lost early in its mission.

"The day it blew up, I felt like I had lost a relative," she says. "I had this hollow feeling in my gut. I know the loss is different than that suffered by the families of those on Columbia, but what I'm saying is that those of us who explore put our hearts and souls into exploration."

Still, McFadden knows that projects like hers will never capture the public imagination in the way that a manned flight would. However limited their current missions, the men and women who go into space are still seen as those who continue to blaze the trails of generations of human explorers.

"The human component is part of how we relate to space exploration," she says. "The pictures missions like ours can send back are pretty amazing, but I don't think we'd have the interest or the publicity if there was not the potential of someone actually going there, of becoming part of the space program.

"It's an important dream. That's why the space program will not shut down. It's too symbolic of our country."

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