Jefferson and the West. By 1800 Europeans and Americans understood the basic geography of the world’s continents, with the exception of the western two-thirds of North America as well as the interior of Africa, the Arctic, and Antarctica. France, England, Russia, Spain, and the United States all eyed the region beyond the Mississippi River in North America for its commercial potential but never had explored it sufficiently. Even Indian communities knew only the terrain of specific subregions that they hunted or cultivated regularly. They too lacked a continental perspective. Thomas Jefferson, obsessed with cartography and natural history, understood the necessity of exploring and mapping the vast region west of the Mississippi. Through the 1790s he tried in vain to obtain funding for a scientific journey to the Pacific Ocean. At the time of his inauguration in 1801, Jefferson—one of the early republic’s most learned men—believed the Blue Grass Mountains of Virginia to be the tallest peaks in North America; the woolly mammoth and other prehistoric creatures might yet live in the Dakotas; the Great Plains held volcanoes and a mountain of pure salt; the Rio Grande, Missouri, and Columbia rivers all rose from a single source; and a navigable water route connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. While Jefferson turned out to be wrong on all of these points, his ignorance reveals the primitive state of scientific knowledge about the territory that became the West. However, his intense curiosity provided incentive for the initial outlay of government funds that set in motion a half-century of continental explorations and geographic advances.
Lewis and Clark. The expedition of the Corps of Discovery from 1804 to 1806 represented the importance of Enlightenment science in future nation building. Jefferson charged Meriwether Lewis with taking measurements; obtaining geological samples; describing the flora, fauna, and people he would encounter; and studying the soil for its agricultural potential. In preparation Lewis spent several weeks in Philadelphia consulting with members of the American Philosophical Society, one of the most distinguished learned associations in the world at that time. From its members he learned botany, astronomy, and other necessary disciplines. During his journey Lewis sent Jefferson boxes of natural specimens and described others in his journals. His writings describe animals previously unknown to whites, such as hares, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and grizzly bears. During the winters of 1804–1805 and 1805–1806 he wrote about approximately one hundred Western creatures (mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish), more than two dozen of which had never before been seen by people of European descent. Lewis considered himself a better zoologist than
botanist, yet he also described dozens of unfamiliar plants. Historians have long criticized Jefferson for not sending scientific specialists on the expedition, but many now agree that his choice of commander fulfilled the expedition’s scientific purpose. For his day, Lewis became a remarkable naturalist, and his sample gathering and written descriptions (published several years after his return to the East) made an invaluable contribution to nineteenth-century understanding of the North American continent.
Pike and Long. Lewis and Clark’s mission proved to be only the first expedition to chronicle nature in the West. In 1806–1807 Zebulon Pike led an expedition west of the Mississippi that extended into northern New Spain. Perhaps Pike’s most notable observations included his widely circulated report on the Rio Grande, his description of the Great Plains as a desert, and his discovery of the mountain peak that now bears his name in Colorado. In 1819–1820 Stephen Long’s expedition led soldiers and scientists west across the central Plains to the Rocky Mountains, also exploring vast portions of the Mississippi and Missouri River valleys. Naturalists on this trip collected and reported new information about plants, animals, soil, climate, and geology. By the mid 1820s Long’s journey had prompted a series of books, maps, and scientific articles that aided the later investigations of men such as John C. Frémont and John Wesley Powell. Long affirmed Pike’s assessment of the Plains as an unsuitable region for agriculture and domesticated livestock despite the fact that its grasses supported thousands of buffalo. In the process Pike and Long helped to establish the stereotype of the Great Plains as a “Great American Desert.” While contemporary Plains agrarians and ranchers never have forgiven them for this depiction, some agronomists and environmentalists have affirmed Pike and Long’s assertions about the region and its ability for sustaining long-term agriculture and ranching.
Frémont. Lt. John C. Fremont, known as “the Pathfinder,” led an expedition from Independence, Missouri, in 1843 that followed the Kansas River west, crossed the Rocky Mountains, and trekked over the Laramie Plain through South Pass. Fremont’s description of the Salt Lake Valley inspired Brigham Young and his Mormon followers to settle there a decade later. Fremont’s party eventually reached the Columbia River north of what he called the Great Basin. From there Fremont followed the Sierra Nevada range south into California. The expedition endured a brutal winter season before finally arriving at Sutter’s ranch, a site that in 1849 would be overwhelmed by prospective gold seekers. Like most military explorers, the potential for increasing American territory motivated many of Fremont’s explorations. However, his findings proved significant for subsequent geographical research. With the aid of Charles Preuss, a Prussian cartographer, Fremont produced the first accurate map of the overall Trans-Mississippi West as well as a special emigrant map of the Oregon and California trails with precise information on distances, landmarks, and river crossings.
Other Explorations. During the Mexican War of 1846–1848 and the increasing hostilities between the federal government and Plains Indians, the U.S. Army mapped large portions of the West for reconnaissance purposes. Scouts produced maps that identified the locations of water holes and mountain passes, which permitted them to deduce enemy movements. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which established the official border between the United States and Mexico, the U.S. Topographical Corps surveyed the length of the Rio Grande, producing studies that proved valuable in later railroad development. At individual military posts, army surgeons wrote descriptive reports of the local terrain and flora and fauna as well as detailed accounts of health and sanitation levels of the troops and neighboring civilian communities. Government employees—engineers, soldiers, and topographers—also prospected for water, mapped rivers and harbors, built dams, and supervised road construction. These early efforts represented an alliance between science and government that continues to the present day.
Daniel B. Botkin, Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark (New York: Putnam, 1995);
William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1959);
Roger L. Nichols and Patrick L. Halley, Stephen Long and American Frontier Exploration (Newark, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1980).
"Military Explorations." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 21, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/military-explorations
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Among the different reasons for sending space probes and satellites into orbit is the use of the space environment for defensive purposes. Military equipment such as missiles, rockets, and communications systems were among the first hardware used in the early space programs. Gradually, civil and commercial space projects developed their own purpose-built spacecraft. But the military continues to have a dominant place in the space programs of the United States, China, and Russia. The principal launching sites for rockets in all three countries are military bases, and military ships and planes are used for tracking and communications during rocket launches.
The French commercial launching site in Kourou, French Guiana, had its origins as a French military base in the 1950s. The military forces of Israel, Brazil, India, and North Korea have also been major influences in the origins and evolution of these nations' scientific and commercial space programs.
In the United States, the rockets used in the civil, commercial, and military space programs had their origins as ballistic missiles and later were first used for space purposes by the military. The first U.S. space rockets, derived from German V-2 rockets captured by the military following the end of World War II (1939-1945), were tested and flown by the U.S. Army from a military base at White Sands, New Mexico. The rocket that carried the first attempted launch of a U.S. satellite, the Vanguard, was developed by the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Air Force developed subsequent intercontinental ballistic missiles. The R-7 ballistic missile developed by the Soviet military has been adapted as a launching rocket and is still flying today.
Military forces have developed several different types of satellites in various types of orbits in space. These include communications satellites such as the Defense Space Communication System and Milstar, navigation satellites such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), early warning satellites such as the Defense Support Program satellites, and weather satellites such as the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program. During the Gulf War in 1991, space satellites, including secret reconnaissance and surveillance craft, were used by coalition-deployed forces for communicating among force locations and for tracking Scud missiles fired by the Iraqi government.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan proposed a major expansion of the military use of space in his Strategic Defense Initiative. The project called for the development of a space-based warning, tracking, and intercept system to destroy missiles attacking the United States. The program lasted from 1983 to 1993 and was discontinued following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The administration of President George H. W. Bush proposed a limited space defense system in 1989 called Global Protection against Limited Strike. This system was to feature a fleet of orbiting attack craft called Brilliant Pebbles. The "Pebbles" carried no explosive equipment but would destroy incoming missiles by colliding with them as they entered space. This project was also canceled when President Bill Clinton entered office in 1993.
A more limited space-based tracking and laser attack system is being researched by the administration of George W. Bush to defend the continental United States from a limited ballistic missile attack from Third World nations. The first test flight of a prototype antimissile space laser is set for 2012.
see also Government Space Programs (volume 2); Military Customers (volume 1); Military Uses of Space (volume 4); Reconnaissance (volume 1); Satellites, Types of (volume 1).
Frank Sietzen, Jr.
DefenseLINK. U.S. Department of Defense. <http://www.defenselink.mil/>.
Encylopedia Astronautica. <http://www.astronautix.com/>.
Federation of American Scientists. <http://www.fas.org/>.
"Military Exploration." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 21, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/military-exploration
"Military Exploration." Space Sciences. . Retrieved November 21, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/military-exploration