Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

Beyond the Extreme

"Skydive Sunset Blue" (2005) Photo Credit: Rick Neves

“Skydive Sunset Blue” (2005) Photo Credit: Rick Neves

Would you climb an 8000-meter mountain? Descend in a submersible seven miles under the sea? Pilot a shuttle back to earth at 17,000mph? Most of us choose other paths. The astronaut who arcs around the earth every ninety minutes seems to trace out a life faster and wilder than ours down below, where we make the slow orbit from home to work and home again. It’s understandable, then, why we place explorers and adventurers in a category by themselves, honor them with statues, magazine covers, and tickertape parades. Those who take such risks, these travelers of the extreme, seem to shine with a different light. They do otherworldly things and appear, at times, born of other worlds themselves, brought up within the same towns perhaps, attending the same schools, but made alien through the crucible of perilous experience. Or, perhaps, they were alien to begin with, living among us, sharing our food and oxygen, but pushed by different winds, compelled like Icarus to fly towards the sun. We laugh at Tom Wolfe when he tells us that astronauts are made of the right stuff, but we believe him. Whether by nature or by experience, explorers seem set apart. They are different.

Shuttle Discovery Cockpit,  STS 33, November 1989

Shuttle Discovery Cockpit, STS 33, November 1989

If this is so, what makes them different? Is it their endurance of risk? Among modern day explorers and adventurers, astronauts experience the most risk. As they enter their spacecraft, they know that they have a one to two percent chance of not coming back. This is a much higher risk than piloting a commercial plane, hand gliding, or bungee jumping. Still, it is not beyond other earthly perils. Most astronauts only make one or two flights into space. Seen as a cumulative risk over the course of their careers, astronauts endure about the same odds of death as loggers and fishermen. Yet the dangers of exploding space craft, sinking ships, and falling trees are dwarfed by the perils of getting old, perhaps the riskiest human activity of all. Being 80 years old for six months carries with it twice the risk of death of suiting up for a flight on the space shuttle. If we value risk as a measure of mettle, then, we should be looking to verandas and nursing homes rather than the void of space.

This comparison falls short because it ignores the question of motive. Risk attends many things. We need to work. We cannot help getting old. But explorers and adventurers choose risk over safer pursuits, accept danger in their quest for something else. If risk, by itself, signifies little, risk freely accepted represents a conscious commitment. Yet commitment to what? Historically, explorers have offered many motives. The Arctic explorers of the International Polar Year (1882-1883) spoke of their desire to advance science. Henry Morton Stanley, David Livingstone, and Richard Burton all pursued geographical discovery, suffering malarial fevers in their quest to find the source of the Nile. The Mercury Seven, who strapped themselves to the top of Atlas rockets, spoke of their commitment to patriotism, competing with the Soviet cosmonauts for the dominance of space.

Yet these are not the only motives that draw people to the extreme. For many, the goal of the journey is risk itself. Danger is not the cost of admission, but the feature attraction. Free-solo climbing, BASE jumping, and wingsuit flying are activities that do little to advance science, geography, or national pride. Yet for disciples of these sports, these activities offer the promise of exploring inner worlds: survey expeditions to map the contours of fear, endurance, and self-control. Risk is the object of these missions, the means of expanding consciousness, the catalyst of self-knowledge. If explorers and adventurers are unique, then, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes them unique. They are a diverse group, drawn to extreme experience for different reasons.

Woman Before the Rising Sun, Caspar David Friedrich, 1820.

Woman Before the Rising Sun, Caspar David Friedrich, 1820.

It has always been this way. The oldest stories in human history — Exodus, Gilgamesh, and The Odyssey — are travel epics, stories of knowledge gained through hardship. Yet the nature of this knowledge has always been mixed, the lessons of the voyage open to multiple interpretations. If the extreme is an oracle that offers wisdom, it is one that speaks in riddles. Does the journey give us knowledge about the world, as the work of Pliny, John Mandeville, and Marco Polo suggest? Or does it function, as Plato, Siddhārtha Gautama, and St Francis seemed to think, as a way of gaining knowledge about oneself? In practice, these two motives for travel – worldly knowledge and self-knowledge – were never mutually exclusive. Three thousand years of travel literature have combined elements of both.

Yet by the 1800s, the idea of travel started to fray and come apart. Those who identified themselves as travelers could be grouped into a large category that encompassed every itinerant from Joseph Banks, science officer of the Endeavour, to British lads on vacation. As the concept of traveler lost definition in the eighteenth century, “explorer” entered the vernacular to delineate it, to distinguish the extreme traveler and scientific investigator from more quotidian voyagers, the doe-eyed ingénues of the Grand Tour. At the same time, artists of the Romantic Period, who worshipped nature as an untamable force, identified the essence of extreme travel, the force which pulled travelers towards waterfalls, cliffs, and active volcanoes. They called it “the Sublime.”

Our ideas about the extreme were forged in this historical moment. Since the 19th century, we have expected our explorers to be researchers, to bring back specimens and samples. Yet in truth, we pay little attention to their scientific work. (For example, can you name one scientific discovery made by astronauts on the moon?). Instead, we marvel at the experience of their journeys, their perilous escapes.  We read books about Shackleton, the explosion on Apollo 13, and Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. We remain conflicted about the meaning of the extreme. We expect our astronauts to be astrophysicists, but we want to them to speak to us like Major Tom. Through their eyes, we see other worlds too.

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Our attempts to define the limits of the extreme will always be fraught; not merely because the diversity of motives which draw people towards it, but because of our own mixed feelings about what it means. We read books about polar explorers, attend IMAX films about disasters on Mt. Everest. We watch YouTube videos about skydivers, cave divers, and BASE jumpers. We do this, not because we seek to place these people in a special category, but because we feel drawn to this category ourselves. We imagine ourselves on the razor’s edge, on the lip of the abyss, at the boundary of life and death, and marvel at it. Sitting in beach chairs near the life guard tower, we recognize the absurdity of our condition, reading Into Thin Air as we apply SPF 50 sunscreen, projecting ourselves on the slopes of Everest as we eat gluten-free snacks. We do so in spite of the incongruity between the lives we live and the lives we imagine. We suffer these ironies because the explorer still speaks to us. We read, we watch, and in doing this, we feel more alive.

“Beyond the Extreme” was originally published in the online arts journal Drunken Boat, volume 16, available here.

Lessons From The Last Frontier, Part I

Here is an account of an era in U.S. exploration. You will probably be familiar with the details:

The United States finds victory in war, increasing its power and reputation on the global stage. Still it remains locked in competition with international rivals. One rival, in particular, has become adept at the geopolitics of exploration, boosting its international standing through dangerous, breathtaking expeditions that capture the world’s attention. Despite the success of the United States on the battlefield, then, it lags behind in the theater of discovery.

Eventually the President of the United States makes an appeal before Congress: the country should enter the expeditionary race for reasons of science, humanity, and national prestige. Yet before this goal is realized, he dies in office. The new course is set, however, and the resources of the federal government enjoined. American military personnel lead the first expeditions, albeit with considerable input from civilian and scientific agencies.

After early missteps, the United States becomes the world leader in this new theater of discovery. Its geopolitical rival bows out of the fight. Yet at its moment of triumph, America seems to lose its way. The ultimate goal is reached, but it struggles to find new missions at the frontier. Two missions end in disaster, leading to intense criticism of federal agencies by press and public. The scientific community grows restless too, frustrated with mission priorities that tilt towards heroism, politics, and flag-waving rather than basic research.

Eventually the United States government begins to ramp down its discovery missions, unable to justify the risks and expense to a public that has grown frustrated, and at times disinterested, in the project of exploration.  Increasingly the mantle of exploration passes to wealthy individuals and private corporations.

If this seems like an account of the Space Age, it is really a history of the Polar Age, a period that witnessed intense U.S. exploration of the Arctic Regions from 1850 to 1910. Here are some extra details to the chronicle above:

When the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War in 1848, it gained territory, but still trailed other powers, particularly Britain, in international prestige. One way that Britain had gained this prestige was through geographical discovery – from the Pacific voyages of James Cook to the Arctic search for the Northwest Passage by James Ross, John Franklin, and others.

"The Great Race." Late 19th century cartoon of John Bull and Uncle Sam

Indeed, it was in sending an American expedition to search for John Franklin, who had gone missing in the late 1840s, that President Zachary Taylor hoped to include the United States in the project of Arctic exploration, an activity that had greater symbolic heft internationally than expeditions to the American West. Expeditions to find Franklin and explore the high Arctic met with broad support from elected officials, scientists, and the public, even after Taylor died suddenly in 1850.

The Search for Franklin. Published the 'Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep' 1880s. Credit: Science Photo Library

After explorers established Franklin’s tragic fate in the 1850s (he and his party on 129 men perished in 1848-1849), the goal of Arctic exploration shifted to geographical discovery, particularly the Polar Sea and the North Pole. Yet expeditions by George Washington DeLong (1879-81) and Adolphus Greely (1881-1884) resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven Americans. These catastrophes led to a great deal of soul searching by Congress, the press, geographical societies, and the general public. In particular, scientists had grown weary of supporting expeditions that returned very little in the way of usable data. By the early 1900s, then, the age of federally supported Arctic expeditions was over. The “Race to the Pole” relied entirely upon wealthy patrons, Arctic clubs, and commercial ventures.

The Loss of the Jeannette (under the command of George Washington DeLong) 1881

Why do I emphasize these parallels between Arctic exploration and space exploration? Because polar exploration offers a better analogy for the American space program today than the others regularly invoked by NASA and the space community. While astronauts are routinely compared to Columbus and Lewis and Clark, they are closer in roles to Elisha Kane, Robert Peary, and other explorers of the high Arctic. As much as space has been described as a New World and a New Frontier, it bears greater similarity to the Frozen North, not simply as an extreme environment but also as a geopolitical project, a subject I will take up in my next post.

Even Better Than the Real Thing

X-15 attached to a B-52 bomber prior to release.

We’re free to fly the crimson sky
the sun won’t melt our wings tonight
take me higher
you take me higher

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” U2

In 1996, professor Richard Bartle wrote that explorers “try to find out as much as they can… mapping [the world's] topology.” Bartle was not talking about astronauts or cavers, but gamers.  A developer of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), Bartle challenged the idea of MUDs as games in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they were complex social environments that attracted different players for different reasons: to gain points, to socialize with others , to kill opponents, or to explore the game environment.

Richard Bartle

To call a basement-dwelling, pajama-wearing gamer an explorer might seem absurd. There is difference between exploring virtual worlds and real ones. Still Bartle’s paper raises interesting questions. Is an explorer defined by places traveled, by worldly action? Or is “explorer” an identity, something that exists as a mode of personality? If the latter, does the real world matter at all? If so, how much? What is the role, if any, of simulation within the field of exploration?

This last question may seem better suited for science-fiction literature than sociology. The sci-fi world is populated by virtual travelers: Ender Wiggin of Ender’s Game, Neo of The Matrix, CLU of Tron, Henry Case of Neuromancer, and Jake Sully of Avatar. The list is long.

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

Yet simulations exist in the “real world” of exploration too. NASA conducts a number of “analog” expeditions: in the desert, in the Arctic, and underwater to provide training and allow trouble-shooting for other missions. Says NASA:

Analogs provide NASA with data about strengths, limitations, and the validity of planned human-robotic exploration operations, and help define ways to combine human and robotic efforts to enhance scientific exploration.

They have other functions too. Anthropologist Valerie Olson points out that analog missions function as justifications for the broader idea of human spaceflight. The analog mission community tend to see these simulations as more “real” than others, authentic human programs rather than robotic expeditions or computer simulations.

The NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO), for example, takes pride in the danger and scientific rigor of each expedition. Says one NEEMO technician “This is a real and real shit happens.” [Quoted from Olson, "American Extreme: An Ethnography of Astronautical Visions and Ecologies," Ph.D Thesis, Rice University, p. 63]

NEEMO's Aquarius Habitat

Yet “mere” computer simulations also contribute to modern exploration in ways that cannot be ignored. X-15 test pilots such as Neil Armstrong (yes that Neil Armstrong) used flight simulators to train, preparing themselves for the difficult conditions of hypersonic travel 65 miles (100 km) about the earth.

In the end, however, simulators could not adequately prepare pilots for the challenges of flying in the upper atmosphere. At lower altitudes, the X-15 behaved like a plane, and pilots relied on wing surfaces to steer through an ocean of air. At higher altitudes the X-15 acted like a rocket,  and pilots used reaction thrusters to change direction. Moving from one set of controls to the other at the boundaries of space, however, proved extremely difficult especially when traveling 4000 mph (6500 kph).

X-15 cockpit

Engineers at North American solved this problem by placing one of the X-15 flight simulators (the MH-96) into the X-15 itself. The pilot would, in effect, fly the simulator. The simulator then translated the pilot’s actions to the aircraft. As Steve Mindell writes in his book Digital Apollo:

The MH-96 could cause the “real” X-15 to fly like an “ideal” one, which would make it behave exactly the same under all flight conditions, from the vacuum of space right down to the ground. It would automatically mix the reaction controls and aerodynamic controls, so that the pilot only needed one control stick, whether flying in the atmosphere or in space, or during reentry. [Mindell, 58]

In short, simulators were not just for practice: they were an integral part of the mission itself. As for the test pilots, they were not entirely unlike the pj-clad gamer holed up in the basement. Humans can only survive at the boundaries of space by being protected from space. While the pilot/astronaut is going to places never traveled, she is doing so cocooned within a space suit, cockpit, and environmentally controlled capsule. Says Mindell:

The X-15 was an unusual craft to fly. The pilot could not see the nose, and he could not see the wings. His full pressure suit wrapped him up tight and isolated him from the outside world. He could not feel or touch anything directly other than the suit and gloves. He could smell nothing other than the pure oxygen he was breathing. In [test pilot Milt] Thompson’s words, “I was in my own little world. I was comfortable and secure and protected from harm.” [Mindell, Digital Apollo, 54]

This is the irony of exploration technology in general, and simulation technology in particular: they allow us to go longer, further, and faster even as they prevent us from experiencing such feats directly. They take us higher into universe even as they keep it out of reach.

Exploration Roundup

Old Montreal

Notes from Montreal
Montreal: place of cobblestones and canals, of spicy Pho and this year’s History of Science Society (HSS) meeting (and Philosophy of Science Association meeting, PSA).

The conference was my introduction to the Toronto bloggers who are tearing through the HSS/PSA neighborhood. I met Jaipreet Virdi who writes From the Hands of Quacks and Aaron Wright, author of False Vacuum. Justin Curtis and Mike Thicke from The Bubble Chamber were also in attendance but we didn’t cross paths. To all of you: keep up the excellent work!

Of the travel and exploration panels I attended, I was most impressed with a talk by Christopher Parsons (University of Toronto) on 17th century French settlers in North America. He argued that these settlers organized species according to a generalized “folk taxonomy.” While exploration scholars often highlight reports of marvels and wonders, Parsons described the reverse: settlers cataloging new plants and animals according to the most general and conventional of categories.

A Short Rant
One thing I also appreciated about Christopher’s talk was the way he delivered it: framed by issues, guided by images, and given from notes. Some other presenters did not do these things adequately: giving little context,  offering no images or outlines, and reading from the text.

I don’t understand this.

Most historians make their living by teaching. Most of the ones I know are attentive, innovative, passionate teachers. They care about communicating ideas. They engage their students and foster their interests in history.

What happens when we go to conferences? What force transmutes vibrant instructors into paper-reading scholastics? Who decided that the best way to present one’s ideas was to sound like a medieval instructor lecturing at the University of Paris?

I’ve heard many arguments for why academics read papers: “It’s the only way to fit my material into 20 minutes.” “I need to be precise.” “I get too nervous to go from notes.””I can write my papers in a conversational style.”

All of this may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that someone speaking from notes is easier to understand than someone reading from a text; the words and cadence are more natural and, I think, better able to carry the weight of a complex argument. I don’t have hard data on this, but consider this: most of us would recoil at the idea of reading a lecture to our students. If we wouldn’t suffer this upon students, why do it to our peers? What’s the point of maximizing time, precision, or peace of mind if, in the process, we lose the attention of our audience?

Ethics of Exploration
In other news, Peter Stanford challenges the heroism of modern day adventurers in his article in the Independent (Thanks to Richard Nelsson for alerting me to this). The article complements longer treatments of this issue by Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild) and Maria Coffey (Where the Mountains Casts Its Shadow).

Curtis Forbes, writing at The Bubble Chamber, discusses the discovery of the exoplanet Gliese 581g and the hype its generated in the media as the “Goldilocks Planet.” Forbes convincingly argues that the eagerness to imagine this world as an earth-like place tells us more about culture here than environmental conditions there. Meanwhile, Cosmic Variance has raised questions about the concentration of space science funding into the James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to replace the Hubble Telescope in 2014.

As NASA enters the post-Constellation era, I think we will be seeing a lot more debates about science and space funding.

Exploration Round-Up

So much exploration news rolls through the wires that it’s impossible to write posts about all of it, even a small fraction of it.  So I tweet when I can, but 140 characters is not a lot of space to offer analysis or even useful links. So I am going to the occasional round-up here: a short, annotated, links page to developing stories. Think of it as a expeditionary snack: more calories than a tweet, less filling than a post.

Polar Regions

The biggest exploration story out of the high Arctic in recent weeks is adventurer Bear Grylls’s report of finding human bones, tools, and large campfire remains near King William’s Island. He suggested that these might have been the remains and artifacts of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845. Russell Potter has been following the story closely on his blog Visions of the North.


Roger Launius’s Blog profiles former NASA administrator Dan Goldin lecture about NASA’s efforts in astrobiology. The Journal of Cosmology just published a special issue Colonizing Mars:  The Human Mission to the Red Planet. Many of the essays are quite pro-Mars. Mine is not. In The Problem of Human Missions to Mars I discuss the reasons why plans for human missions to Mars (and there have been many) never seem to go anywhere.



Mikael Strandberg takes up the issue of Fakes and Cheats in exploration, focusing on the motives of explorers in lying about their claims. This issue has a long history, one that I’ve written about here in regards to the North Pole Controversy of 1909. Yet its a subject that never seems to goes away. The claims of high-altitude climbers routinely come into question today. In January, ExplorersWeb wrote an editorial about rampant fabrication of claims by climbers in the Karakorum. More recently, Jake Norton, author of The MountainWorld Blog, discussed the revelation of speed-climber Christian Stangl’s faked climb of K2.  The BBC also challenged Oh Eun-Sun’s claim to be the fastest women to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks. Yet not everyone’s ducking the hard routes. Those Who Dared profiles the survival stories of climbers who barely made it back. And for some brilliant photos of climbers in the field, The MountainWorld Blog features photos from Sir Younghusband’s 1903 expedition to Tibet. The Asia Society’s Rivers of Ice project offers a more sobering photographic record of the Himalaya today, chronicling, in mega-pixel detail, the effects of global warming on glaciers.

Two Visions of Mars

Here’s a teaser from an article I’m writing on Mars.  It should be coming out soon. When I sell the rights to Sony Pictures, I’m going to ask that Russell Crowe play Mars. Is there any other logical choice?

Two Visions of Mars

Before he became the Roman god of war, Mars lived a quieter life as the protector of farms, crops, and animals. He was beloved by Romans as the father of Romulus; this made him the celestial father of the Roman people. Mars began to change as the Roman Empire changed. While farmers continued to look to him for protection, so did the imperial legions which left the Italian peninsula on expeditions of conquest.

In the first century BCE, therefore, Mars represented two things at once. He was the giver of life, the guardian of agriculture. He was also the blood-stained warrior, the defender of soldiers marching at the frontiers of the known world. While Romans may have been united in their love of Mars, they looked to him for different reasons.

Despite the change from god to planet, Mars continues to mean different things for different people. On one hand, it is an archive of the past, a planetary laboratory where scientists seek answers about the history of the solar system and the origins of life. On the other, it is the landscape of the future, the next human frontier, the first real step out of our planetary cradle.

In principle, these different visions of Mars – as science laboratory and human frontier – are complementary. On the science side, mission planners have long defended robotic expeditions for their value in paving the way for human exploration. Mariner, Viking, and Pathfinder all found justification as the trailblazers of human missions. Most recently, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory defended its uber-Rover, the Mars Scientific Laboratory, as a mission that will “prove techniques that will contribute to human landing systems”

Mars Scientific Laboratory photo credit: NASA

Advocates of human spaceflight also defend the compatibility of human exploration and science, often on the grounds that humans are more effective in doing science than remotely-operated probes. As Mars Society president Robert Zubrin declares, Martian science “is a job for humans” [Launius & McCurdy, Robots in Space, 21].

image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center

In practice, however, the divide over Mars runs deep. Many space scientists express growing frustration with human space flight, which they view as an expensive distraction from scientific exploration. Lower costs, improvements in computer design and miniaturization, and the proven durability of Martian probes have encouraged their faith in robotic science and made arguments for sending astronauts to Mars less compelling.

By contrast, many supporters of human missions to Mars believe that the focus on science and robotic exploration has become too narrow, ignoring the deeper meanings of exploration, its capacity to inspire people today, and shape the societies of tomorrow. For those looking to place boots on Mars, NASA seems to be drifting in a Sargasso Sea of underfunded programs and policy revisions, never able to chart its course for the New World….


Autumn in Bavaria, Wassily Kandinsky, 1908

Poets coo about autumn as a gentle season, a time of harvests and golden light. It is Dickinson’s cool orchard where “the berry’s cheeks are plumper” and Keats’ quiet time scattered with grain “drows’d with the fume of poppies.”

But berries and poppies have no place in my autumn, which announces itself to summer like an air-raid siren. Deadlines have arrived for two articles (on Mars and the historiography of exploration). Copy edits for a third are overdue. My book project, drows’d with the fumes of neglect, crawls into a corner to die. Students flutter and spin towards my office like falling leaves. Classes begin in three days.

Wonderful, wonderful posts wait to be written, to be plucked from the golden orchards of science and exploration. They hang unripe, waiting for more fertilizer, or maybe more pesticide.

So no deep thoughts today, just some links that I’ve found:

Apollo 11 Launch, 1969. http://launiusr.wordpress.com/

Roger Launius’s Blog. Launius is a sharp historian who focuses on the history of space exploration. I’m currently reading his book Robots in Space and was excited to see that he has entered the blogosphere. If you want my recommendation of things to read on his site, check out his piece on the popularity of the Apollo Program.

From the Hands of Quacks. Jaipreet Virdi’s history of science blog covers a number of topics, from history of medicine to the challenges of being a grad student. It’s got a nice list of links too.

Bering in Mind I can’t think of a way of connecting Bering’s research psychology blog to exploration, so I won’t try. I like his pithy writing style and spin on contemporary issues from a variety of perspectives including evolutionary biology. His latest post on polyamory is also well-done in pointing out the widespread use of the naturalistic fallacy in defending human sex behaviors.

Cosmic Variance. A group blog on physics and astrophysics that is hosted by Discover magazine. The posts often give a lot more depth and perspective on astronomical discoveries than regular media outlets provide.

Ok, done. May your autumn be filled with berries and poppies – or poppy derivatives – as your needs dictate.


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