NASA Spinoff

Modern Exploration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Originating Technology/NASA Contribution

One of the forces that propels scientific and cultural advancement is exploration. The mission of NASA is to pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research. Through this mission, NASA leads the Nation in pushing the boundaries of exploration and discovering new frontiers, and, as a secondary benefit, pushing scientific and cultural advancement.

altMuch as the early American frontiersmen charted new territory and created the new independent American culture, NASA is at the forefront of the continuation of this pioneering spirit. It is not surprising, then, that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin is fond of drawing the comparison between the work done under his stewardship of the Space Program and the expeditions of such trailblazers as Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark and their Corps of Discovery.

In an address to the 2005 graduating class of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Griffin told the students of a plan to use available atmospheric elements on Mars to fuel rockets. He made this comparison: “The requirement to live off the land will be crucial to our future in space, just as it was to Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery as they made their way from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the West Coast and back, from 1803 to 1806.”

Four months later, while addressing a group at the 22nd National Space Symposium, a commercial space meeting hosted annually by the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Griffin went on to say, “I believe that the benefits of exploration are, similarly, an emergent property of our inquisitive human behavior. We can study the great explorations of the past, and we can conclude that such ventures did in fact benefit the societies which sponsored them. But no society can reasonably predict that a given venture will prove to be worth its cost. Sponsorship of such a quest is always an act of faith, not an act of science.

“In this regard I enjoy recalling that, as expressed in his instructions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, President Jefferson’s primary goals for that venture concerned the expedition’s diplomatic mission to the Indian nations, the establishment of the United States as the sovereign power in the region, and the enhancement of the fur trade. Particularly important to the latter was the effort to find a route between the headwaters of the eastward-flowing Missouri River and the westward-flowing Columbia, thus (it was hoped) enabling a waterborne route for the fur trade between the east and west coasts. Who, today, believes that these purposes—though they were accomplished—constitute the most significant results to have come from the Lewis and Clark Expedition?”
altIt is not only the Administrator who is in awe of the explorations of Lewis and Clark. Their story inspires many. In a preflight interview with Dr. Kalpana Chawla, mission specialist aboard STS-107, when asked what had inspired her throughout her life, she answered, “Lewis and Clark’s incredible journey across America to find a route to water, if one existed. And, the perseverance and incredible courage with which they carried it out.”

Just as Lewis and Clark faced the great unknown, harsh conditions, and unexplored territories, which secured their page in history among the world’s great explorers, so too, have NASA’s astronauts and visionary scientists. Through its endeavors, over 200 years later, NASA has managed to contribute to modern recording and understanding of Lewis and Clark’s historic expedition through a unique, collaborative initiative with other government agencies, academia, and private industry. NASA provided a wealth of satellite imagery to help preserve and explain the route taken by Lewis and Clark.