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Here Be Tygers

I had one of those odd I-live-in-NYC experiences today, when after covering a press conference at the Explorer’s Club I spent the day working from their board room, accompanied by, among other things, a stuffed emperor penguin and the mounted tusks of an elephant shot by Theodore Roosevelt. (A friend once gave me a tour of the Museum of Natural History’s back scenes; on the roof is a rusty iron room containing the floor-to-ceiling remains of Roosevelt’s hunts.)

In the fireplace were statues of a lion and an elephant, on the bathroom walls were 19th century drawings of English boar hunts, in the foyer a stuffed polar bear. It was alive, however sleepily, with the magic of storybook tales of grizzled men drinking cognac and planning to illustrate the blank spots on their maps. And that provided an interesting contrast to the morning’s events — the announcement by Space Adventures, a private space travel company, that Google co-founder Sergey Brin reserved a seat on the next ride to the International Space Station.

Brin’s reservation cost $5 million, with another $30 million or so to come later. The company’s CEO told us that his company didn’t provide space tourism, but space exploration — a piece of branding that didn’t sit quite right with me, though I’m not sure why. Resentment, perhaps, because I realize that I’ll almost certainly never fulfill the dream of Earth from above and the stars in their perfection, and such realizations remind one of other dreams not likely to be attained.

That aside, though, the age of exploration whose scent still lingered in the Explorer’s Club seemed to celebrate something else, something nobler and relatively more egalitarian. Some explorers, such as Charles Wilkes and Roald Amundson and Meriweather Lewis, were well heeled. But others were not. George Comer was the orphaned son of immigrants, first visiting the Arctic as a 17-year-old deck hand. Hiram Bingham was the son of a missionary and discovered Macchu Picchu during his travels as a history professor. Edmund Hillary worked as a beekeeper so he could climb in the winter. Robert Morton Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, was an immigrant and a journalist.

None could now afford to explore space, such as it’s actually exploration. And that’s another issue: explorers didn’t simply transfer funds and go for a ride, staying out of the pilot’s way and maybe conducting a few experiments that a trained chimpanzee could run. They went to little-known places; they found new species, met new races, filled in the blanks; they survived and discovered. They possessed a certain vision, discipline and élan. Of course they were often abhorrent as human beings; but their mythology is admirable, and depicts a life to which one could conceivably have aspired.

But except for Earth’s 1,100 billionaires, who can hope to explore space? Space Adventures’ CEO insists that Dennis Tito, their first customer, financial consultant to "an international clientèle representing assets of $12.5 trillion," showed the world that to be an astronaut one didn’t have to be superman. Instead you need courage, free time and $35 million in disposable income. I’m not sure this is progress.

After the conference, though, I heard another company official describing the company’s place within a larger pattern: the expansion of humanity’s economic sphere to include the solar system, mining near-infinite quantities of raw materials. He compared it to the Wild West, and his own projects to the building of railroads; and of that expansion, myths will no doubt be born, and hopefully they will again be lived by teachers and traders and, if we still have honeybees, beekeepers.

And, with any luck, by journalists.

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