"Exploration can't wait for perfect times and it never has." Today's editorial by the founders of ExWeb touches on the last voyage of the shuttle in a perspective of explorers.
Final countdown: Why we explore
(By Tom and Tina Sjogren)
A century ago Graham Bell and his son-in-law Gilbert Grosvenor laid out the directions of National Geographic Magazine. It would cover science and discovery; avoid politics and the negative.
In the seventies came Outside Magazine, launched by three men out of of which one was grandson of William Randolph Hearst and another son of President Gerald Ford. It focused on interviews with famous people in sports and politics and did reviews of outdoor gear.
In 2000 ExplorersWeb was set up by us, an adventure couple, in a new media format utilizing the growing internet. Coming from neither name nor money, we were one thing and one thing alone: we were explorers.
We busted false claims and shady outfitters, raged about democracy, and engaged our community in passionate debate about right and wrong. "Mountaineering is not politics and you guys should stay away," some would lament. "Read 'Seven Years in Tibet'," we'd reply, "explorers care and always have."
Still, while we touched on something deep inside most people: we knew that since the settlement of America our breed was almost forgotten, left to aimlessly wander desolate corners of our world.
"Whatever happened to romance of space?" asked CNN before today's final shuttle launch. Since we went to the moon with Apollo, we descended to orbit with the shuttle, and will only head back to Earth after today.
The scientists and engineers built and flew amazing hardware but forgot the need for explorers in Space. So here's who we are, why we explore, and why we must.
Why exploration is financed
Charismatic Astronomer and Director for the cool Hayden Planetarium on Manhattan, a few years back Neil deGrasse Tyson took a look at what it takes to get governments and very wealthy people to finance exploration.
Neil checked our entire history, all the way 5000 years back, and came up with three main motivations that have driven major projects in history. They were:
- Defense (Apollo, Great Wall)
- Promise of Economic Refund (Columbus, Magellan)
- Praise of Power (Vatican)
Ineffective investment drivers were: Wonderment, next frontier, the calling, urge to explore, curiosity, science.
A formidable explorer in science and thought, but not in flesh, Neil most likely got the sponsors right but what about the real explorers? Are the drivers the same?
Who explorers are not
Let’s start with who we are not.
We are not the typical members of the Explorers Club or the Royal Geographic Society. Some of us might attend a dinner now and then, but for an explorer the clubs are mostly a way to sponsorship.
We are neither sanctioned by nations. The British colonists of US did not allow private travel west of the Appalachian range. To control ownership, later the first president of USA - George Washington - proposed a ban on all non government sanctioned expansion into new land. Of course pioneers went west anyway.
Today treaties at Antarctica allow scientists to build airports and ice highways across the continent. Private exploration is severely restricted and forced into organized tourism. 100 years after Amundsen reached the South Pole (without a permit or clear scientific purpose), scientists are flown to the new South Pole base, where they greet modern polar explorers with hostility.
We are not yet astronauts. We were considered for the Apollo project - among scientists, pilots and monkeys. As of today, more than 500 scientists/pilots/school teachers/tourists and more than 10 monkeys have been to space. But never an explorer.
We are not rich and there are no retirement funds set up for us.
We are sometimes famous but more often not. While most of us receive occasional media recognition the greatest coverage goes to the best connected before the best achievers.
In many cases exploration brought us misfortune. Columbus and Marco Polo were thrown in jail. So was Cook, the first person to reach the North Pole. Scott died on his way back from the South Pole and Amundsen when trying to rescue fellow explorers in the Arctic. Livingstone died of dysentery in Africa.
Explorers often go violently, broke, shamed, and before their time.
Motivation: Trade before science
So if explorers almost never gain power, fortune or significant fame, why do we do it?
Are we delusional and ignorant, unable to recognize that more likely we will meet death and misfortune before riches and recognition? Perhaps. Or there is another drive, so strong that it makes us willing to risk security, wealth and life.
World dictionaries offer a very shallow definition of what is an explorer. Princeton: “someone who travels into little known regions (especially for some scientific purpose)”.
With that definition the 10 monkeys who ventured into space are explorers, but Amundsen only to a degree since his purpose was not scientific. The same goes for Columbus and even more for Marco Polo - the Silk Road was hardly unknown except to Europeans and Polo's motive was trade.
In fact, we can’t find a single explorer of importance that historically or today travelled into little known regions for scientific purpose.
Why military and science make poor explorers
Focus on military strength and science over exploration is evident in the colossal failure of the global manned Space program - showing no achievements of value since the initial success in the 50’s and 60’s.
While the moon might have some strategic value, Mars and other planets certainly do not. Space war will be fought in near earth orbits. Because there is no military threat from outer space, space exploration fueled by military drive is bound to stay close to home.
Academia is restricted by different reasons. A scientist spends 15 to 20 years, even a lifetime, in school to master knowledge. An explorer often drops out to travel the world.
The mind required to, at a very young age, set out on and never leave a scientific path is very different from the mind of an explorer. Respect for conventional wisdom, the patience needed for research and the ability to handle institutional administration are important characteristics for a scientist.
For an explorer the almost opposite is true: Breaking free from conventional limitations, impatience with rules and defiance of regulations are virtues.
Scientists present papers and discuss elements. Astronauts compare rockets and describe how Earth looks from space. Explorers debate illegal border crossing, go on a shoestring, and seldom look back.
If we get a chance we'll head straight for the wild planets: those with gold, hot-looking aliens, or just weird-looking topos.
Who we are
Explorers are wild and brave. Not always dependable, honest or helpful. Explorers move freely among social layers. Explorers respect native people but are seldom humanists or aid workers. Explorers often challenge authorities but only if rules and regulations restrict their freedom to travel and explore. In politics, explorers can be found both far left or far right, but the core values are libertarian.
Explorers are fiercely independent with distaste for convention (at least when it comes to themselves), but a love for planning. Money is made fast and spent quickly; wealth is valued as a means to achieve dreams but never for its own sake.
Explorers have an urge to test limits, make first prints and be vowed by new things, people and places.
In that sense, explorers are different from other people. A child first explores the face of the mother and then further away from the crib. The maturing adult finds interests, family, work and settles down.
Explorers keep moving, happy with restless curiosity a constant and natural state of mind.
We explore because our heart and soul demand us.
Why we matter
Columbus persistence and dreams opened a new world of trade and immense riches for Europe. Not until today, 500 years later, is Asia starting to make up for the lost ground.
But the value of the explorer goes beyond the material.
In 1893 the great American historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared both the significance and the end of the American frontier.
Jackson Turner identified the constant movement of the frontier (from the East, Appalachian, Rocky Mountains etc) and the adoption of values by the first pioneers and settlers as fundamentally important in forming America.
To Jackson the frontier was as important in forming the democratic values of the New World as was the constitution. Now he was concerned that the loss of the frontier and the explorers would cause a growth in government power and undermine the values that had built the country.
Jackson hoped though that the repeated movement of the frontier for several hundred years would have instilled a permanent state of mind in the American people. A state where freedom was ranked higher than stability and safety.
So how did it go?
The new America
Compared to 10% a couple of decades ago, a third of all income in US today is distributed to people by the government. Americans - like Europeans - prioritize stability on the expense of democracy.
That's why our politicians are slow to endorse the Arab, Persian and Chinese uprisings. This became evident down to the individual level on Mount Everest and in Beijing a few years ago, when during the Olympics climbers, athletes, journalists, politicians and businessmen signed off their right to speak not because they were held under a gun but because it was practical.
With no new frontiers, Americans prioritize safety on the expense of freedom. In California, most wilderness and beaches are regulated State Parks where dogs are not allowed even on a leash. People can't enter conservation land unless they have written permit. Farmed plots are fenced and fiercely guarded. Regular folks have lost the right to roam their own planet.
With no new frontiers, Americans underestimate real danger while becoming fearful of the imagined. In the pioneering days, people had bucket showers once a week. Today, seat covers are supplied by most public toilets, hand sanitizer dispensers are placed by corporate entrances, kids don't run barefoot, men don't shake hands, and women cheek kiss in the air.
A gift from the heavens
As much as people are aware of all that, some feel that before going to Space we need to solve problems closer to home.
We must stop global warming and replace diminishing fossil fuels. We must right the financial downturn and fight accelerating obesity. We must erase cancer and deal with an aging population.
The contradictory and confusing issues are typical of a shrinking world.
We are warned that unless we leave Earth we will vanish either when the sun flames out or we get hit by a rock from Space. The reality could be much simpler than that. In experiments, mice held in too close quarters eventually stressed out and turned on each other.
Exploration can't wait for perfect times and it never has. The Universe expands every second. It has no use for stagnant and anxious species.
The shuttle is parked but the death of Apollo was a bigger deal. Remember it's all still there. Some sacrifice of money, safety and stability will bring us unimagined freedom, joy, prosperity, and progress. Explorers will tell you that, and also that the new frontiers are a gift from the heavens and not to be feared.
ExWeb founders Tom and Tina Sjogren have climbed Everest, skied to both Poles, sailed from Europe to America, and walked/hiked/climbed many other parts of the world. Space is their next frontier.
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