Across Sands of Time and Oceans of Space

Laurence Bergreen is the author of "Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe"( William Morrow, 2003).

One of the great moments of the Age of Discovery occurred on Sept. 6, 1522, when Victoria, the tiny weather-beaten survivor of Ferdinand Magellan’s first-ever circumnavigation of the globe, returned to its home port of Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain.

By any conventional reckoning, the expedition was a disaster; four of the fleet’s five ships were lost, and out of the 260 men who had set out from Spain three years earlier, only 18 made it all the way around the world. Magellan himself, the captain-general, was not among them, having been killed when he recklessly engaged in battle with tribal warriors in the Philippines, where he had paused en route to the Spice Islands in Indonesia.

A hotheaded and often abrasive Portuguese nobleman sailing for Spain, Magellan sacrificed his life in the course of disproving centuries of accumulated superstition and outright ignorance concerning the nature of our world, and today we prize this tragic expedition for its many contributions to our knowledge of the planet: geography, peoples, cultures and climates, to name a few.

I think we live in a new Age of Discovery today without quite realizing it. The impulse to explore -- whether for commercial or political advantage, as Magellan did, or for mostly scientific reasons -- remains alive and well, and as controversial as always.


NASA scientists see themselves as engaged in an enterprise that, like the voyages of the past, will change history: mapping the solar system and trying to understand our place among celestial objects that seem as exotic and remote to us now as the Spice Islands seemed to Europe in Magellan’s day. “Intelligent exploration” is the name James Garvin, NASA’s senior Mars scientist, gives to their approach.

This month is particularly important in the new Age of Discovery, as two of NASA’s latest generation of Mars exploration rovers roughly bounce across the surface of Mars, slowly come to rest and gradually transform themselves into roaming scientific laboratories. The robotic geologists will be prospecting Mars for its natural history, signs of water and, by extension, signs of life. The wonders began to unfold this weekend. The first spacecraft, called Spirit, landed successfully Saturday night. Its identical twin, Opportunity, will set down, if all goes well, in three weeks. (Having learned the painful lessons of recent failures in missions to Mars, NASA has embraced the principle of redundancy.)

The parallels between our methodical exploration of Mars and the Age of Discovery begin with the efforts of Prince Henry the Navigator. This Portuguese nobleman assembled a diverse academy of shipwrights, cartographers and mariners to explore the west coast of Africa, step by step. NASA’s Mars team, from robotics experts and computer programmers to planetary geologists, are today’s equivalent of that sort of diversity and expertise.

It was a full century later that Magellan undertook the first-ever circumnavigation. Although he was convinced that he would succeed, most believed he was attempting the impossible. In those days, it was thought that ships would never make it as far south as the Equator, that boiling seas would swallow the sailors or that magnetic islands would pull the very nails from the planks of their ships. Even the size and shape of the world were badly misunderstood. The most advanced minds in Europe did not realize that the Pacific Ocean was the largest body of water on the planet. Had Magellan known its true extent, he -- or his backers -- might never have undertaken his epic voyage.


To make matters worse, the art of navigation was still in its infancy. It was impossible for mariners to determine longitude, and even the length of a degree of latitude was subject to debate. There were maps, but, as might be expected, the farther from home, the more inaccurate they became, until by the time Magellan reached South America, they contained more geographical fantasy than fact. Magellan became so exasperated with their wild inaccuracies that he threw them overboard.

Given all these hazards and difficulties, why did Magellan go? And why did his backers risk their capital and prestige on his expedition? The answer can be summed up in two words: greed and glory. If Magellan accomplished his goal, Spain hoped to seize control of the spice trade and, by extension, the emerging global economy. Magellan himself hoped to claim lands and titles and unimaginable wealth to pass on to his heirs.

NASA emphasizes science as the goal for the new Age of Discovery, but make no mistake, a political undertone exists. President Bush’s recent announcement that he wants to return to the moon didn’t come in a vacuum. It was likely a message aimed at China’s ambitious space program and designed to put the Chinese on notice that we would not cede the moon to them. (For official purposes, no country can claim a celestial object as its own, but that will change over time.) And if, for example, the Chinese took aim at Mars, no doubt NASA’s peaceful scientific pursuits would rapidly be transformed.

Now new hazards and difficulties lie in the path of human exploration, and because of them NASA understandably de-emphasizes the idea of sending people to Mars. But just as Magellan’s voyage, in retrospect, inevitably followed Prince Henry’s discoveries, human beings will no doubt launch not just robots but themselves farther and farther into space.

In the end, it would be far better for everyone if we went not just for “flags and footprints,” in the words of the detractors of the space race, but in search of treasure as precious to us as spices were to those in the Renaissance -- for minerals, or potent new medicines that can be developed only off the Earth -- in other words, for new variations on humanity’s endless quest for health and wealth, and for scientific knowledge. May we continue to pursue the course of intelligent exploration.