At Reagan Library, a celebration of exploration’s bounty
In 1254, a Venetian teenager by the name of Marco Polo journeyed across Asia to the court of Kublai Khan. Two hundred fify years later, Magellan circumnavigated the globe — barely. And just a few days after Christmas in 1831, the HMS Beagle sailed out of Plymouth harbor with a 22-year-old naturalist, Charles Darwin, suffering from sea sickness and an acute curiosity about the order of living things.
Not to be outdone, even American presidents get in on the act. Long before taking the oath as our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson dreamed of sending explorers across North America. Teddy Roosevelt soothed his political wounds in 1912 with the most punishing physical challenge he could find, the first descent of an unmapped, rapids-choked tributary of the Amazon. And looking beyond our Earthly limitations, John F. Kennedy laid down the gauntlet in May 1961 when he asked our nation to commit itself to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Eight years later, Apollo 11 fulfilled the challenge when Neil Armstrong landed the Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility. Not many Americans will ever forget that moment in history.
What did we get from our journey to the moon beyond landing on a rock and bragging rights that we were the first to make it there? I suggest there is a “law of unintended consequences” in the drive to discover. But rather than the usual negative connotations of such a law, consider the collection of positive and unforeseen gains of the lunar landing alone. Spinoff inventions from the space program range from TV satellite dishes to fire retardants to medical imaging devices, GPS mapping, freeze-dried foods and many more.
When you gaze at the moon tonight, take yourself or your children back to that place where you watched America’s heroic astronauts 48 years ago. Remember how Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin brought their lunar module down from nearly 10 miles above the moon, orbiting at a speed of several thousand miles per hour, down to the surface in a controlled fall. Conditions? Well, no atmosphere, no wings or parachutes to guide the descent and, by the way, only enough fuel for a single try.
It seems we are hard-wired to find out how far we can go. Like Christopher Columbus, we follow the light of the sun to “leave the old world” behind. Now well into the 21st century, exploration is ingrained in the American character. Great things have been achieved in its name, each effort leading to another. In the words of Isaac Asimov, “There is not a discovery in science, however revolutionary, however sparkling with insight, that does not arise out of what went before.”
Through each step, through the successes of the Mercury and Gemini programs, to the tragedies of Apollo 1, when a cabin fire took the lives of three fine men, and Challenger, which exploded while bearing the souls of seven extraordinary explorers, it is in our character to push the limits.
“The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted,” declared Ronald Reagan, our 40th president, following the Challenger disaster. “It belongs to the brave.”
President Reagan’s pursuit of the unanswered brought about a historic discovery. In 1982, a top-secret Navy mission was initiated to investigate the remains of two nuclear submarines located at the bottom of the North Atlantic, at depths of nearly 15,000 feet. The USS Thresher sunk in 1963 with 129 men on board, the USS Scorpion, in 1968, losing 99 men. Questions about any environmental impact and the status of their nuclear reactors required answers. So the Navy met with Robert Ballard, explorer and oceanographer, about funding his new deep water imaging technology.
With the development of sophisticated exploration equipment supported by the Reagan administration, a classified mission under Ballard’s leadership discovered the submarines.
How’s this for unintended consequences? With 12 days left on his mission, Ballard made another major discovery: the Titanic.
These top-secret missions were never discussed until 2008. Thus, the Titanic was their cover story.
Through Jan. 7th, this riveting story is told in an exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. “Titanic at the Reagan Library” documents how Ballard found the “unsinkable” ship that sank on her maiden voyage. It’s a fascinating look at underwater exploration, combining real artifacts with the real stories of the people onboard the ill-fated ship and told in a way no museum has done before.
“Most of the southern hemisphere is unexplored,” Ballard observed, “We had more exploration ships down there during Captain Cook’s time than now. It’s amazing.”
For a first-hand account, Ballard will speak at the Reagan Library on Monday, Sept. 11, to discuss the questions of discovery and exploration. Not whether to go but when, where and how. The public is welcome.
John Heubusch is the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute and author of the new novel, “The Shroud Conspiracy“.