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.