Walt Whitman, Poet of ... Space Exploration

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Behold: "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" narrates the final frontier.

In 1865, as part of an updated edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman published an ode to the explorers of America's Western expansion. "Pioneers! O Pioneers" was a typically Whitmanesque tribute to exploration, to progress, to the people who, risking themselves, "take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson."

Now, via the pioneering platform that is YouTube, the poem has been repurposed -- as an ode to the contemporary incarnations of Whitman's pioneers. And as an ode to the space on which they've trained their gazes. As its creator notes, "This video was conceived before the passing of Neil Armstrong, but it seems a fitting tribute to his legacy as the first human pioneer to set foot on another world."

The video, yes, is also incredibly cheesy. Just as, read with modern minds, Whitman's poem may be. But there's something wonderfully and appropriately poetic about it, too. Whitman in a new context puts space in a new context. The video's fusion of past and present, of American dreams and global ones, is a reminder that as new and as epic and perhaps as final a frontier as space may be, it's also the simplest thing in the world and beyond it: the next step. History will always have its pioneers, the poet's repurposed words suggest -- people driven to travel and travel and travel some more until finally their steps turn into leaps.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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