We are born explorers. A land-locked human will find any way to explore their surroundings. First by learning how to climb trees, descend into caves, scale mountains. That not being enough, we build boats to explore the rivers and seas, airplanes to soar into the sky, submarines to explore the depths of the oceans, and drills to bore deep into the earth. When that wasn't sufficient, we began to reach for the stars.
Yuri Gagarin took that first step, making a single orbit around the Earth on April 12, 1961. He of course became an instant celebrity and was honored with a multitude of accolades -- including his image on a 100 ruble coin. Alan Shepard was the second man in space, and was afforded full hero status in the United States.
But what about the third man in space? Have you ever heard of Soviet Cosmonaut Gherman Titov? Although certainly a great man, he's unlikely to be popping up as the answer to a quiz show million dollar question. While he had the distinction of being the first man to sleep in orbit, making it into space just wasn't the same the third time around.
Why? Because the first time you set foot on a new land it's exploration. The second time you set foot on that same land it's tourism.
We need that buzz of excitement that comes from exploring something new.
During the moon landing in July 1969 that was so dramatically televised throughout the world, who didn't imagine themselves in the shoes of Neil Armstrong? For that fleeting moment we all wanted to be there. But four months later we had landed again -- this time as tourists. It was undoubtedly an incredible mission filled with great science, but it couldn't capture the same sense of excitement of Armstrong's landing in the mind of the public.
And just getting there isn't enough. To be an explorer, you have to move. Poke around. Look under a rock. Climb a mountain. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492 after a five-week voyage, he didn't stop and spend the rest of his time drawing pictures of the beach. He dove in. He explored. He sailed to other islands. He didn't take photographs from 200,000 feet up. He dug through the bushes like we all did when we were kids. He got his clothes dirty and probably broke a bone or two.
Don't get me wrong -- orbiting a distant planet and taking millions of photos from space is good science. But it isn't really exploration. Thankfully, as technology improves our ability to act as true explorers without risking the lives of actual humans increases. NASA's intrepid Mars rovers are excellent examples of this.
Spirit and Opportunity were true explorers, and we were riveted to their journey. These robots drove around, drilled rocks and careened through craters. These were robots willing to get dirty. Dust storms? Rocks blocking the path? Bring it! Opportunity drove down the edge of Victoria crater and struggled to get back up to the rim. She found the first meteorite on another planet. Spirit's wheel spun in the sand and we worried about her. She never got out, but she had a good five years on Mars -- throwing herself headlong into a hostile and treacherous environment.
Why did the world pay so much more attention to these plucky rovers than the Viking missions to Mars? Because Spirit and Opportunity were explorers. We've all been stuck in the snow or had a flat tire interrupt our travels. And when Spirit and Opportunity encountered similar troubles we empathize in a way that we can't with a Viking craft that just sat there on the surface. The next rover set to head to Mars, Curiosity, already has 29,000 Twitter followers and 4,700 Facebook fans. I'm betting she will have plenty of adventures to report back.
So what is in store for us fifty years from now? Plenty of good science, sure. But the kid inside me is hoping for more exploration. Let's get a craft to splash through a coronal mass ejection. Let's drill through the ice of Europa and swim through the waters below. Let's cut an asteroid in half. Let's sail a submarine through the liquid surface of Jupiter.
For the next 50 years, let's not forget that kid inside all of us. The one that didn't mind getting an occasional bruise or scrape. I'm sure Yuri wouldn't want it any other way.