Thanksgiving, that magical day, a time of gathering, fellowship, and unrestrained serial eating. Like all holidays, Thanksgiving unfolds in the present, tethered in complicated ways to the past. “Tradition” probably best describes these personal, historical, links. Consider turkey. We eat turkey in our house because we like it, it keeps well, and can be transmuted into any number of post-Thanksgiving dishes: turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey fricasse. But turkey remains on the menu every year not only because of its tastiness and longevity, but because it’s always been on the menu, seared as it is into the mystic chords of turkey memory. I cannot think of a time when we considered having something else for Thanksgiving. Such is the power of tradition.
Exploration has its own traditions, ways that link current endeavors to historical precedents. Some of these traditions are obvious enough, such as the naming of vessels, probes, etc. in honor of previous people or ventures: Galileo, Cassini, Enterprise, and Challenger. But others are more difficult to detect without hindsight. Many explorers prided themselves on being careful empiricists, objective observers of the regions they described. Reading these works now, however, its hard to miss the imprint of culture on their narratives, the martial descriptions of exploration as a “war on nature” and the kindly, patronizing descriptions of native peoples as “children of nature.” These tropes were also traditions of a sort.
Yet some things are still hard to see with the benefit of hindsight, even when they are staring at you in the face. Consider Dan Lester and Giulio Varsi’s article at the Space Review on the current Vision of Space Exploration. Lester and Varsi observe that NASA’s tradition, implicit (perhaps unconscious?) has been to associate exploration with solid places, rocky grounds suitable for “footprints and flags.” There are good reasons for going to the Moon and Mars, particularly for astrogeologists who want to know more about, well, the Moon and Mars.
But what about those scientists who seek to uncover more about the broader galaxy? This is a form of exploration best conducted remotely, with telescopes, rather than suited-up astronauts. For these purposes, the Moon and Mars are not ideal locations. To get the most bang for the buck, telescopically speaking, NASA would send its space telescopes to one of a number of “Lagrange points,” regions of space where telescopes could remain stationary relative to larger objects such as the Earth and Moon. Freed from planetary surfaces, these telescopes could observe broad reaches of the sky, unencumbered by planetary atmosphere or blind spots.
Costs and operational simplicity seem to favor by a large margin locations in free space such as the Earth-Sun Lagrange points over the lunar surface. While lunar soil may offer a record of solar activity that is valuable to heliophysicists, realtime monitoring of the Sun and the solar wind does not need to be anchored on regolith. Overall, the lunar surface presents a challenging environment, with dust and power generation problems as well as the difficulty of precision soft landing.
Relative to the push for human exploration of the Moon and Mars, “Lagrangian exploration” is a low priority for NASA. Why? Perhaps, as Lester and Varsi observe, it’s because of the historical importance of discovering land, of sinking one’s feet into the soil and then planting a flag in it.
As I read this article, it suddenly made other pieces of historical data fall into place. When Robert Peary and Frederick Cook brought back their photographs of the North Pole, why did both men choose to plant their flags in the highest hummock of pack-ice they could find? No such location would have been identifiable so precisely from astronomical calculations (if indeed either of them reached the North Pole, which I doubt). Clearly then these men had other reasons to plant the Stars and Stripes on a high hummock, rather than, say on a flat stretch of pack ice or floating on the water of a “lead.”
Clearly “earthiness” remains a tradition in exploration, an element that remains in the western imagination of discovery. When the nuclear ice-breaker Yamal steamed north in 2000 with its burden of high-paying tourists bound for the North Pole, it found open water there. What to do? The party could have celebrated the watery top of the world from the deck. Paddled around it in inflatable boats! Instead the Yamal steamed south far enough to reach solid pack ice. There the crew planted the “North Pole” flag around which the passengers danced, celebrating their attainment (kind of) of the top of the world.
Maybe its time to break tradition.
(This is a repost of 9 August 2008′s “A Place to Plant the Flag”)