The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Earthrise photo
This “Earthrise” image from the Apollo 8 mission communicated far more about the experience of space exploration than any NASA report. (credit: NASA)

Because it’s there

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On May 29, 1953, the explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers known to have reached the highest point on the Earth’s surface, the summit of Mount Everest. The last great challenge in the exploration of the world had been met by two men of great courage.

It would have been natural to think that, apart from one two obscure corners, people had now visited every part of our planet’s land masses and there would be no need for any more great expeditions. Conquering the summit of Everest was the period ending the last sentence in the narrative of human exploration. From that moment on no part of “Terra” would be “Incognita” anymore.

Was the ascent of Everest the end of the history of exploration? No, it wasn’t. A new age of discovery would shortly begin with a new type of explorer.

On his return to London, Hillary was interviewed by the press clamoring for the story. He was asked, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” He famously replied, “Because it’s there.” This is a disarmingly simple statement but also deeply profound. It speaks to one of the great motivators for human exploration: the desire to go beyond the horizon, climb the mountain, venture out across the ocean, to discover something because it’s there (or rumored to be there).

People are hard-wired to do this no matter what the hazards may be. Recent research into human DNA has shown that whatever ethnic group a person belongs to today, all people in the world share certain markers that indicate common ancestry. In fact, some scientists believe that today’s 6.7 billion people are all descended from as few as 200 individuals. From that small band, mankind has developed, exploring and settling in every place where life can be sustained. Not all the motives for exploration were honorable, but there have always been those who wandered over the hill into the next valley to see what they might find “because it’s there”. It has become part of human existence.

Was the ascent of Everest the end of the history of exploration? No, it wasn’t. A new age of discovery would shortly begin with a new type of explorer. This time it wouldn’t be restricted to bold adventurers plunging into unmapped continents on expeditions funded by wealthy patrons; now, ordinary people from all walks of life would be embarking on their own journeys of discovery using their own money. This time, millions of explorers would respond to their inherited urge to venture into the unknown. We know them as tourists. Such people had been around for a long time, but they were mostly the wealthy few. Now everyone could join in thanks to rising prosperity and enabled by the Boeing 707 and then the 747. Exploration was becoming democratized.

Every tourist is an explorer with his or her own agenda. No matter how much an individual reads about, say, the wonders of ancient Rome, nothing equals the experience of discovering them in person using all the senses; seeing, touching, smelling, and hearing bring deeper understanding and lasting memories that are infinitely greater than any picture-book or TV documentary could offer. In the original sense of exploration, tourists aren’t breaking new ground for the world, but it is new to them.

At the same time that mass tourism was developing, the space age was moving into high gear as the race to the Moon got underway. This produced two events that captured the imaginations of people around the world more than anything in history: The “Earthrise” photo and the image of the first bootprint in the lunar dust.

With no means to travel beyond Earth, the artistic people have been excluded and space has become the private preserve of engineers, technologists, and scientists.

The photo of “Earthrise” over the lunar horizon was taken by the Apollo 8 crew in December 1968, showing Earth for the first time as it appears from deep space. There were broadly two reactions to this stunning image. Some people saw the isolation of our planet and its breathtaking beauty, turned inward, and began to focus on human stewardship of Spaceship Earth. This was the genesis of environmentalism, “Because this is all we’ve got.” Others saw the Earth and thought: “This is all we’ve got—for now.” In this thinking, people saw that humans could survive being launched into space and had traveled to the Moon, so how much further could we go, what else could we discover, what might we see, touch, feel, hear, and (subject to the restrictions of a spacesuit) smell? Earth was not the final destination for humankind—it was a launch pad.

The first bootprint off Earth was a seminal event. That picture appeared on the front page of newspapers around the world. The evidence was in: humans had the capability to reach the Moon, which itself was just a stepping-stone into the solar system. That second group who yearned to explore now believed the door was open and all we had to do was step through it. A Golden Age of exploration was about to begin, or so they (and I) thought. But last 40 years have followed a less satisfying path.

In the past, journeys of discovery were not always restricted to the hardy adventurer, although they were the trailblazers. Once the path was opened up, many other types of people followed in their footsteps. Folk such as writers, painters, poets, philosophers, photographers, and even the simply curious explored as well. They provided interpretations of what they saw that were illuminating, often thrilling, and even artistic masterpieces. Antonin Dvořák composed his New World Symphony in 1893 during his three-year visit to the United States—his own personal voyage of discovery.

With no means to travel beyond Earth, the artistic people have been excluded and space has become the private preserve of engineers, technologists, and scientists; brilliant people, but not always gifted with the ability to excite and energize non-technical folk, preferring that space exploration should be conducted by their robot avatars who faithfully obey orders and do not require regular intake of food and water, or frequent trips to the bathroom.

To illustrate how artists contribute, consider the following extracts from a letter written in 1830 by the actress Fanny Kemble, at the time a pin-up girl of the London stage, describing her experience of traveling behind the first steam locomotive at the opening of the Liverpool-Manchester railway:

We were introduced to the little engine which was to drag us along the rails. She (for they make the curious little fire-horses all mares) consisted of a boiler, a stove, a small platform, a bench, and behind the bench a barrel containing enough water to prevent her from being thirsty for 15 miles… This snorting little animal, which I felt rather inclined to pat was then harnessed to our carriage and… we started at about ten miles an hour.

She continues to describe her feelings as the journey progresses:

You cannot conceive what that sensation of cutting the air was… I stood up, and with my bonnet off ‘drank the air before me’… When I closed my eyes this sensation of flying was quite delightful… yet, strange as it was, I had a perfect sense of security, and not the slightest fear.

A NASA-style press release would have read: “The inaugural journey of The Rocket was nominal.”

Fanny’s description of the engine was woefully short on technical details but she made the engine live in the mind of the reader. Her words make us fall in love with this snorting beast just as she did. Read that letter today and you yearn for a time machine so you can travel back 180 years and experience the thrill, the joyousness, the wonder of speed, and the sense of freedom that she felt on that day.

If, as Arthur C. Clarke suggested, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then it should be treated as such and every launch made into an irresistible theatrical event (at least until launches become commonplace). Perhaps the NewSpace firms might bring in some Disney-style Imagineers to add sizzle to the engineers’ steak and inspire the general public to line up for tickets to ride.

Without humans exploring the solar system there can be no humanity in it or new realms for studying the humanities. It will be cold and impossibly remote, both literally and figuratively.

Robots have their uses but they cannot replace humans. Every picture sent back by the two Mars Rovers presents a huge problem. All photos suffer from a major disadvantage: they have edges. Whenever I look at one, I take in the view then immediately I’m frustrated. What is off to the left, to the right, behind; is there something even more fascinating over the horizon that I’m not going to see? That is a wholly inadequate way for someone to explore my home town let alone a planet. Marshall McLuhan said, “The photograph reverses the purpose of travel, which [hitherto] had been to encounter the strange and unfamiliar.”

The problem with relying on robots is that there are no humans nearby to help them out. Engineers have yet to build a machine that doesn’t benefit from someone wiping it over with an oily rag occasionally and knowing exactly where to kick it when it malfunctions. The rover Spirit became stuck in a sand trap because there were no humans there to dig it out—its permanent disablement might have been avoided with a few minutes of manual effort.

Without humans exploring the solar system there can be no humanity in it or new realms for studying the humanities. It will be cold and impossibly remote, both literally and figuratively. There will be no connection with or relevance to ordinary people because there will be no emotion or inspiration involved. Believing they are excluded from space, voters will elect their representatives for a thousand reasons but not because the candidates offer a strong, believable, enduring commitment to opening up space access for all; politicians are as detached from notions of space exploration as anyone else.

Given the political control of NASA’s agenda and budget, can it ever be the enabler for human space exploration? One argument put forward is that taking all and sundry into space is not in NASA’s charter. But that is not a sacred document. Thomas Jefferson suggested that even something as fundamental as a constitution should be reviewed every 20 years or so and amended as the people desired to reflect the needs of each new generation. Amending the space agency’s charter could be carried out for the same reason.

However, the greatest challenge is wrenching the space program free from the Washington gravity well once and for all. I have suggested before how this might be approached. We must now look to the commercial space firms to provide us with the means to follow our primal urge to explore; in time they will do so at an affordable price resulting from greatly increased production of space-going hardware (Henry Ford noted that reducing unit costs through mass production was the essential forerunner to creating a mass market).

Those who dream of exploration rely on engineers to provide the means to go where they will. For the longest time people traveled on foot. Then pack animals and, eventually, oceangoing ships eased the way. However, the great age of mass exploration—tourism—depended on the railroads, the automobile and bus, airplanes, and powerful ocean liners and cruise ships. It is inevitable that we should add “spaceships” to the list. Whatever problems exist in going into deep space, they will be solved by engineers just as every other challenge has been conquered by them in the past. It’s just a matter of time and ingenuity, both of which are infinite.

We’ve arrived at the moment, here on Earth, where we can say, “Been there, done that” for any place on the world map; there are now traffic jams on Mount Everest. The urge to explore, deeply embedded in our collective psyche after countless millennia, is as strong as ever and seeking new worlds to discover. All types of people must be allowed to go so they can return and give the rest of us a thousand interpretations that paint a picture more wonderful than a statement that tells us the trip was merely “nominal”. We humans are emotional, irrational, illogical, unpredictable, and downright messy, but we live and bring to life the places we visit.

Now is the time to prepare for people to go out and explore space.

Why? Because it’s there!