Exploration: Americans must wander

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Curiosity and commerce are two distinguishing traits of the American character. When it comes to exploration and trade, no one does it better than our great nation.

In Clark County, these two American traits first coalesced on Nov. 3, 1805, when Lewis and Clark arrived here. But a lesser-known date that was vital to this region was Jan. 18, 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson secretly asked Congress for $2,500 to pay for the expedition.

Carlos Arnoldo Schwantes, in his 1996 book “The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History,” explained how Jefferson “spoke of the need to extend the external commerce of the United States and to learn more about the unknown lands of North America. Curiosity and commerce were thus inextricably part of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and not mere idle curiosity, but carefully planned scientific reconnaissance.”

A century and a half later, another distinguishing trait of the American character — national resolve against military threats — accelerated our wanderlust. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy, facing rapid progress by Russia in outer space, vowed to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade. Oh, how preposterous, doubters harrumphed continually … until the goal was reached on July 20, 1969.

These milestones of American ingenuity help us understand why many people are anguished that the U.S. space shuttle program has ended with Thursday’s landing of the 135th mission. It seems incredible that no American under 30 has known a day when he or she could not boast of this country putting a shuttle in space. NASA’s most ardent supporters say Thursday marked the end of an era. But I say it’s more like a transition, one seen often before in our country, where government steps aside and turns the curiosity and the commerce over to the private sector.

Why begin with taxes?

Would the American West have been settled without President Jefferson and Congress providing $2,500 to Lewis and Clark? Of course, but not as quickly. Could the United States have sent astronauts to the moon and back without President Kennedy’s inspirational speech and the billions of tax dollars that followed? Likely not.

Despite the complaint that “government IS the problem,” people simply explore better collectively. That takes money. But why taxes? The answer lies in the definition of government. Essentially, it is us. Government is what we choose to make it, and one thing Americans do real well is R&D. Not all taxpayers are smart enough to be scientists. Not all are brave enough or in good enough physical condition to be astronauts. But all American taxpayers are franchise holders. We’re empowered to participate in the R&D.

Strangely, many who preach the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” are unwilling to ignite such a force through public funding. Others of us are more willing. If I can’t be an astronaut, I like being an investor in space travel. Later, I’m willing to step aside and let the private sector take over.

Venturing into the unknown is never easy. Because we are humans, Americans explore imperfectly. Our march westward was stained with countless broken treaties, de facto genocide and publicly subsidized thievery of land. And in exploration, heroes die. As enamored as many of us have been with space shuttles, we cannot forget that 14 lives were lost in two shuttle disasters. That is part of the cost of exploration.

But the alternative — merely spectating — is unacceptable. And that is why some of us are troubled that, for the next few years, U.S. astronauts will hitch rides on another country’s spacecrafts. We’re even more perturbed that this other country is the one whose space adventures led President Kennedy to muster our march to the moon.

As the curtain falls on active space shuttles, NASA’s role in space will continue, although diminished because of the economic crisis and more-pressing public needs. But there’s ample reason to believe the private sector can be just as successful in space, perhaps more so as the spirit of entrepreneurial competition kicks in. Embracing that dream is what makes us Americans.