Recently I've been reading Stephen Ambrose's last book To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian. The thing I like most about Ambrose is that he breathes life into history. Instead of deluging you with dates and easily forgotten factoids, he allows the makers of history to tell their own stories.
History, he says, is people, and people enjoy reading about other people.
Among his favorite subjects are Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their courageous exploration of the Louisiana Purchase. His book about their journey — Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West — will be one of the next books I buy. Ambrose marvels at the pluck and raw nerve that had to have been woven into the very fiber of Lewis and Clark's being.
The two explored the “western two-thirds of the continent,” Ambrose wrote in To America. “They did it by foot, by canoe, by pirogue, by keelboat, by horseback, without any maps. With no idea of what lay ahead, they marched across a land inhabited by strange and presumably hostile Indians.”
Explorers like Lewis and Clark possess something in their genes that compel them to discover what's over the next hill, around the next bend, across the next river. They pave the way for the rest of us, more timid souls, who prefer our paths well trod, our perils less life threatening, our safety more assured.
I was reminded of Lewis and Clark and countless other explorers and pioneers last Saturday morning as the horrible reports of the Space Shuttle Columbia's disintegration shattered a peaceful, balmy winter Saturday morning. Those seven astronauts, as surely as did Lewis and Clark, responded to some inner calling that bade them leave the comforts of home to discover what wonders exist among the stars.
That they died in the endeavor in no way diminishes the importance of their mission, in no way detracts from their contribution, in no way negates the necessity to send others as soon as possible to continue to quest.
Some will complain that the effort is frivolous, that we have more than enough problems on earth to soak up all the money we invest in space exploration. Some will use the deaths of seven of the world's brightest minds to justify scrapping a program that may never yield tangible results. And some may point to the horror of terrorism and the cost of national/world security as reason enough to abandon jaunts into space until we stabilize earth.
They would be wrong. When humans abandon the desire to learn, to explore, to create, they will abandon most of the reasons for life itself. Perhaps we could live in a world without exploration, inquiry or question, but would we really want to?
I recently received a new release regarding success with soybean seeding and growth in the International Space Station. I had intended to write a light-hearted piece about the problems of crops in space, but will put that aside for a later time. But such investigation may prove invaluable at some point in the history of the world.
We don't know what's out there, beyond our limited ability to peer into the heavens. Perhaps there are cures for most human maladies; perhaps there are lands as lush as the Great Plains, as beautiful as the South Pacific as breathtaking as the Swiss Alps.
We may have good neighbors we haven't met yet.
We'll never know unless we explore, and every time we send another shuttle, or the next generation of space vehicle, into the unknown, we honor the courageous explorers who took the first tentative steps.
And we grieve for those lost last week, but at the same time we applaud their courage, their will, their selfless sacrifices for mankind.