As we look forward to a next generation of human exploration over the next century or more, the legacy of Magellan’s epic circumnavigation of our home planet Earth 500 years ago stands out as a reminder of one of the rare paradigm‑shifting moments of our collective history. Celebrating the first “human” orbit of our planet established by Magellan’s voyage provides a sometimes overlooked perspective from which to evaluate where we are going as explorers in the 21st century.


Today, a diversity of frontiers stands before us, each with seemly insurmountable challenges, yet none as physically daunting as those which Magellan and ultimately Elcano faced and conquered. The so‑called “final frontier” is often defined as Space, namely that which humanity has barely experienced with limited voyages only as far as the Moon in all of history.


Magellan’s first orbit by sea of our home planet, the miraculous pale‑blue dot on which the only life within the universe Is currently known to exist, Is testament to the courage and creative Innovation associated with frontier‑bashing moments In history that are often too rare In these times of pandemic and climate change.


Humanity’s first orbit of the ocean world we call “home” was a generation ahead of its time, just as the voyages of a few brave men to the Moon over 50 years ago by Project Apollo were in the twentieth century. It profoundly punctuated the equilibrium of what humanity thought was achievable by opening the tangible frontier of transoceanic navigation, exploration, and ultimately economic benefits to everyone.


Looking ahead over the next 50+ years, a new frontier stands before us, with challenges not unlike those of Magellan’s epic voyage, and requiring transformational breakthroughs In technology to project human presence and experience in what I define here as “the forever frontier”, the countably Infinite cosmic ocean of Space.


Five hundred years ago Leonard da Vinci passed from this Earth with his monumental contributions in the arts, science, and engineering, just as Magellan commenced his first orbit by ocean of our planet. In that time of transition, humanity dared to extend the hope and inspiration of da Vinci to the courageous exploration of an entire ocean planet, and succeeded. Yet it required another 60 years for Drake to repeat Magellan’s achievement, and another century or more before transoceanic voyages were routine and part of the human experience.


Today we stand naïvely on the shores of a wondrous cosmic ocean with prospects of realizing our place in the universe at hand. The forever frontier will soon by challenged, as Magellan and Elcano challenged the boundaries of an ocean‑covered planet, by science‑driven exploration via a great observatory named the James Webb Space Telescope or JWST. This human‑defined and constructed robotic wonder will expand our vision and experience in ways that are somewhat unknown by projecting our human vision literally to the stars. Via JWST we will explore the cosmic ocean of the forever frontier in ways that perhaps only explorers such as Magellan dared to imagine 500 years ago.


In some ways, Magellan’s achievement of five centuries ago has now given humanity the courage and hope to expand our human imagination across the accessible universe, riding on the waves of photons that describe different times and places where someday we must go. Magellan and his ships carried human imagination with them and via Elcano returned with great stories captured in diaries and chronicles in an era without Instant communication and Information transfer.


The world‑wide‑web of today had not even been Imagined, and yet the history of that first circumnavigation was told and remains today as one of the great monuments of human exploration. As the space business frontier expands how we share Information and learn to utilize the powers of nearby space, it is thus essential that we compare the state of our exploration circa 2020 to that of the Magellan era (1519‑1522). In that era of cathedrals and rebirth of human scientific Imagination that catalyzed Newton and later Darwin, there was an optimism that catalyzed great feats of transportation engineering and navigation that enabled Magellan’s epic voyage. The epic voyages that can now be imagined and implemented 500 years later share the curiosity‑driven hope of discovery that was a hallmark of Magellan’s vision.


We cannot predict the transcendental discoveries of the next 50 years, but thanks to the recognition and celebration of Magellan’s ocean‑based circumnavigation, a new hope is at hand as we, the people of planet Earth, dare to expand our vision of our cosmic ocean via great space‑based observatories like JWST that are akin to cathedrals of the mind.


Who is to say how we will look back from the year 2520 to assess what we accomplished circa 2020, but my hope is that we will say that we captured the wonder of Magellan’s 16th century voyage by expanding human exploration across the cosmic ocean to reveal our future in space. Thus, Magellan at 500 years gives me the faith that humanity will never cease from exploring new frontiers, and that one of them will be Space, the forever frontier.


Thanks to Magellan we are ready to voyage farther than he could ever have imagined. Never wait to wonder!


Dr. James B. Garvin Chief Scientist NASA Goddard Space Flight Center 8800 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt, MD 20771 USA