Tag Archives: exploration

The Audacity of Exploration

by Shane L. Larson

We are perhaps the most audacious species to ever inhabit the Earth. Our audacity is not defined by our weird physical features (as perhaps defines our cousin the duck-billed platypus), nor defined by our strange physical geometry (as perhaps defines our cousins the octopuses), nor defined by abbreviated or extenuated oddities in our life cycles (as perhaps defines our cousins the mayflies or cicadas respectively).

Humans have been on Earth a long time. Doing what humans do.

Humans have been on Earth a long time. Doing what humans do.

The existence of modern humans as a distinct biological species on planet Earth goes back around 200,000 years. At the time modern humans appear in the fossil record, we were just as smart and as strong as we are now, but we hadn’t become a society yet. The oldest known artifacts of human manufacture are roughly 100,000 years old (shell jewelry), and the oldest bit of recorded history goes back only 5500 years, to the time of the ancient Sumerians and the Early Dynastic era of Egypt.  Humans have been on Earth a long time, just existing. Living off the land much as the other plants and animals do. For most of that time, we’ve been aware of the sky over our heads. We’ve stared at the Moon and stars and wondered what they are. But the idea of visiting those otherplaces in the Cosmos was the purview of madmen and addle-minded fools.

But all that changed in 1957 when we started shooting rockets into outer space. Soaring aloft on harnessed tongues of fire redefined what was crazy and what was possible. Voyages to other worlds was suddenly within our grasp, if only we could build a machine to take us there.  And we did.

The principle requirement for flying to the sky, beyond having the audacious impulse to do so?

BELGIUM TRIAL DUTROUXPerseverance. Throwing machines into space is hard. To build a machine capable of sailing the void requires solving a lot of problems. One at a time. The race is long, but in the end, the product of your imagination and sweat stands realized on the launch pad. Girded in vaporous fumes and draped with umbilicals and support arms, it awaits those last few moments.

Three… Two… One


The great machine lifts off, straining to reach the shallows of the sea of space, ready to embark on a long journey for which it was uniquely designed. Power, fuel, sensors, computers, and memorized instructions — all accustomed to a journey far from the tradewinds of Earth, sailing in the vastness between the worlds.

Yesterday we witnessed a milestone in one of these epic voyages, when the European Space Agency probe Rosetta dropped its lander Philae to descend onto the surface of the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Philae had been carried by Rosetta for ten years across the void from Earth, like a parent carrying a sleeping child.  Ten long years, all alone in the night.

The ultimate goal of this long sojourn to a tumbling hulk of rock and ice? To understand the nature of comets — what are they made of, what is their internal structure, how are they assembled and put together, and how do they hold up?  These are all questions about the comet, to be sure, but they are the cloth draped over the true quest: we want to know about water. One of the ideas about the water on Earth is that it came from comets, the left-over detritus from the formation of the solar system. Water is the central player in the development and sustainability of life on Earth. The quest to understand this comet is part of the much larger quest to understand where we came from.

The Philae lander dropped 10km from the mothership, Rosetta.

The Philae lander dropped 10km from the mothership, Rosetta.

Philae, after a 7 hour drop from 10 kilometers above the comet, soft-landed on the surface. For the first time in human history, we landed on the surface of a comet. And you and I were alive to see it.  We know now that it wasn’t the end of the adventure. Philae BOUNCED off the surface, at a mere 38 cm/s, but it bounced and didn’t come back down for nearly two hours.  But come down it did, pulled by the weak, inexorable draw of gravity. It bounced a second time, remaining airborne for 7 minutes. Now, it is at rest, somewhere on the foreboding surface of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. We’re talking with Philae, but still trying to understand where it is and what its status is.

Grandeur, one of the principal commodities from the exploration of beautiful places.

Grandeur, one of the principal commodities from the exploration of beautiful places.

Exploration is about discovering beauty, in experiencing the grandeur of places unknown. There are few places that show us the stark and desolate beauty we are now seeing from the surface of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko — it is a barren and altogether alien landscape that you and I are witnessing for the first time. But exploration is also about seeing ourselves and our own home and our intense problems anew. If you are not moved by the great achievement of your fellow humans, if you can’t see what the big deal is with a rock in space, know that this mission is still for you and in some way is still about the things here on Earth that you do care about.

There are some who are not moved by such a great endeavour. That’s fine; some of us are not impressed by poetry, or fine French cooking, or NASCAR, or the designated hitter rule in baseball. But that does not diminish the accomplishment — we should all revel in what our fellow citizens have overcome and accomplished. They demonstrated the perseverance to solve one of the most complicated problems you can imagine — throwing a robot into space, having it survive for 10 years, and then landing a probe on the completely unknown, unseen, and hostile surface of another place. That should impress on you that these scientists and engineers are experts at solving hard problems. Someday you are going to rely on them to build a pacemaker that will survive inside your body for the remaining decades of your life. Someday they are going to build the autonomous car that can drive you to work. Someday they are going to repair the aging bridge in your town before it collapses under the burden of morning traffic.

There are some who question whether we needed to spend a billion Euros to voyage into space. That’s fine; it is right to question what we do with the pool of money that we as a society grudgingly set aside for great endeavours like this. But don’t let the idea of waste fool you; all of that money was spent here on Earth, not on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It paid for a miner to extract titanium ore from the ground; it paid for an electrician to wire the power harness that kept Philae alive for 10 years; it paid for a machinist to make a precision mounting bracket on a rocket engine; it paid a truck driver to transport the liquid oxygen to the launch facility in French Guiana; it paid for an engineer to design efficient solar cells that (in this case) can work for 10 years in the vacuum of space; it paid for a student intern who learned to program guidance computers in a basement in Germany, but is now going to use that knowledge in medical school to program micro-precision surgical robots. And a hundred thousand other parts and people.

The first image in human history returned from the surface of a comet, via our emissary, Philae.

The first image in human history returned from the surface of a comet, via our emissary, Philae.

We sent Rosetta and Philae into the darkness to be our eyes, to brave the dangers on the surface of an unknown rock 600 million kilometers from home.  Why did we do it?

Not just because we can. Not just because we want to know the unknown. Not just  because we are exploring.

We did it to remind ourselves — to prove to ourselves — that the problems we encounter can be solved. Nothing is unsolvable. We can do anything with enough imagination, dedication, and work.

We can land on the surface of a comet.  That’s Deep Blue hero stuff. That is the audacity of our species.

An Evanescent Memory of Exploration

by Shane L. Larson

On February 27, 2011, Frank Woodruff Buckles passed away at the age of 110.  Frank was the last surviving American veteran of World War I. The United States was in the war for 19 months.  In that time 116,000 Americans were killed, and more than 204,000 wounded.  In totality, more than 16.5 million people were killed during the four years of the war.  At the time, it was called “The Great War” because until World War II, no one could imagine a more terrible conflict or a more terrible cost in human lives.  With Frank’s passing, the United States’ involvement in the devastating conflict passes from direct experience into memory.  No longer will the Great War be relayed through the eyes of one who saw it; instead, it will be relegated to the history books, and spoken of from the dry voice of history like the War of 1812 and the Spanish American War.

In 1901, the year of Frank’s birth, a young 19 year old named Robert Goddard had started indulging his passion for aerodynamics, a passion that would ultimately lead him into the field of rocketry.  In 1914, the first year of The Great War, Goddard was awarded two of the first patents in rocketry, cementing ideas that would lead to the space age and the human exploration of space.  As a young man, Goddard had been enchanted with the idea that humans might make a journey to space and visit other worlds using rockets. Goddard passed away in 1945 (3 weeks before the end of World War II), before the first rockets ever plied the vacuum of space. But ultimately his dream was realized, and between December of 1968 and December of 1972, nine voyages were made from the Earth to the Moon.  In all, 24 American astronauts made the journey across the gulf of space, and 12 walked on the surface of the Moon as part of Project Apollo.

Today, Project Apollo is 40 years gone, and of those 24 astronauts, 6 have died.  Of all the rest, none is younger than 74.  The only humans ever to leave the Earth and walk the shores of another world are slowly passing away, and soon, the memory of of the voyage to the Moon will also pass into history.  Project Apollo was arguably the greatest technological achievement in human history, an exploratory endeavour to carry humans beyond the confines of Earth that was many decades ahead of its time.  But here we stand today, 40 years hence, with no permanent human presence beyond our small blue marble, and no ambitions to go.  In June of this year, the space shuttle Atlantis will make her final flight, and America’s manned spaceflight technology program will come to an end.

As a society, we have let the wonder of those few evanescent moments of exploration slip away from us.  We have forgotten the grandeur of the Moon’s desolation, and let go of the memory that the exploration of beautiful places is good for the spirit.  Instead, we worry about the costs of projects like Apollo, and have whittled away our investment in exploration into almost nothing.  This deinvestment in exploration has been done with much political posturing and grandiose swaggering in the name of fiscal responsibility, but with a complete and callous disregard for what these programs cost and return to our country.

Project Apollo is often historically depicted as a political action, a demonstration of technological supremacy driven by the Cold War with the Soviet Union that had risen out of the ashes of World War II.  All told, the program employed 400,000 people and the United States invested $25.4 billion in the endeavour, approximately $65 for every man, woman and child currently living in the United States today.  For each of us, the cost of Project Apollo was only 16 cups of Starbuck’s coffee, less than a third the cost of an iPod, less than a monthly satellite TV bill, and only about 1/10th the average yearly cell phone bill of a typical US citizen.  These are easy cost comparisons to make, and probably a bit misleading because let’s face it: most three year olds don’t have cell phone plans, though quite a few watch quite a bit of satellite TV.  The truly misleading part of these cost comparisons is that they only represent the money saved out of pocket, and do not consider the economic returns of the program — when the fiscal axe is dropped on programs like Apollo, the economic returns are usually totally ignored.

Consider the Apollo Lunar Module.  Before Apollo, nothing as complicated as the Lunar Module had ever been constructed, nor had any machine ever been built with such stringent design requirements.  NASA and their industry partners spawned a new technology known as CNC (“computer numerical control”) machining to make the parts for the moonships.  Today, CNC machines are standard pieces in every precision machine shop in America.  Conservative estimates suggest that there are about 75,000 machining firms in the United States, employing more than 200,000 machinists and generating gross revenues in excess of $37 billion per year.  In less than one year, the American economy uses Apollo derived technology to generate enough money to pay for the entire decade long investment in Apollo.

In order to keep the spacecraft warm on the voyage from the Earth to the Moon, NASA had to develop a metal-bonded polyurethane foam insulation.  After the end of Apollo, this same foam was used to insulate the Alaskan Pipeline, keeping the oil temperature high enough that it remains fluid on the long journey from Prudhoe to Valdez.  This has allowed the production and delivery of 16 billion barrels of oil since 1977, with a gross revenue of $710 billion.  In the almost forty years since the end of Apollo, this single piece of technology has returned to the US economy more than 25 times the entire decade long cost of the Apollo program.

These are only two examples out of many technologies that have quietly infiltrated everyday life since the last walkers left the Moon.  The technology derivatives from the space shuttle program are just as numerous and have borne just as much economic benefit.  The ultimate return from America’s space program is probably incalculable, both in terms of dollars and in terms of the less tangible threads of common memory.  It has yet to be understood what the absence of an American manned spaceflight program will do to our future.  Forty thousand generations of our ancestors have led us to this place in history.  We have demonstrated the ability to transcend the limitations of the tools Nature gave us to climb trees and walk the savannah and instead journey beyond the confines of Earth using the foresight and computational power of our brains.  But that same mental tool is squandering all of our long and proud heritage, forgoing the memory of all that could be attained in favor of short term political gains without regard to the wider consequences of those actions.

On the voyage home from the Moon in April of 1972, mission commander John Young remarked, “We have seen more in 10 days that most people would see in 10 lifetimes.”  In the past 10 days, how much of your life has flashed before your eyes?  How deeply has your memory of what you did yesterday changed the world?  As the Apollo astronauts slowly succumb to time’s inevitable march, what becomes of those memories of walking on the Moon?  When the last Apollo astronaut dies, no longer will the voyage from the Earth to the Moon be relayed through the eyes of those who saw it.  Instead, we leave to our children images of the fantastic voyage from the pages of a history book, hoping fervently that their imaginations and creativity will be inspired by the memory of 12 pairs of boots that once walked the surface of another world.