Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

A Place to Plant the Flag

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.

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

Five Lagrange points relative to the Earth, Moon, and Sun (L1-L5)

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.”

Peary Team Claims Attainment of the (very solid looking) North Pole
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.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

Youth instruction. Photo by Bentley Beetham

I have been burning the candle at both ends this summer. I just finished an article about Lewis and Clark & Alexander von Humboldt two weeks ago, wrote a review of Graham Burnett’s book, Trying Leviathan, started a review of Robert McGhee’s book, The Last Imaginary Place, and have started a new article on the work of Frederick Cook. That this seemed an excellent time to pick up blogging says something about me, I’m not sure what exactly, but it would involve words such as hubristic and harebrained. I’ve loved writing the blog to be honest…but on days like today there’s no gas left in the tank. So no grand thoughts tonight, just pictures.

George Mallory in Tibet

George Mallory in Tibet

I have been making up a list of visual archives. Here are three of my favorites. Bentley Beetham was a British traveler and photographer who got hooked on mountain climbing in the 1910s. His path converged with the Mount Everest Committee in the 1920s and led to his inclusion on the 1924 Everest Expedition. Mallory never returned from the mountain, but Beetham did, bringing with him hundreds of photographs of the mountains, climbers, and Tibetan life. The Bentley Beetham Collection offers 2000 of his works, a combination of brilliant lantern slides and photo prints.

Morning in Orbit, Apollo 7, JSC Digital Image Collection

Morning in Orbit, Apollo 7, JSC Digital Image Collection

NASA gets beat up a lot here at Time to Eat the Dogs. As much as I complain about its policies, though, I admit to some weak-knee moments when I see images of the Saturn V hurling itself into space. The NASA Johnson Space Center has archived nine thousand images of the manned space program online on the JSC Digital Image Collection. It represents half a century of human missions, from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.

Test driving the lunar Lander in Earth orbit, Apollo 9, JSC Digital Image Collection

Test driving the lunar Lander in Earth orbit, Apollo 9, JSC Digital Image Collection

BibliOdyessey is a digital cabinet of curiousities authored by the Australian “PK”. PK must be in good with the Sydney archivists. Not only has he gotten some serious archive time, he’s also managed to bring his hi-def scanner along with him.  BibliOdyessey offers stunning scans of the amazing, the obscure, and the bizarre. These are usually good tags for voyages of exploration – which are also well represented here.

"Christmas in the Colonies," Illustrated Sydney News, 1882, BibliOdyssey

"Christmas in the Colonies," Illustrated Sydney News, 1882, BibliOdyssey

I’ll be on the road for the next few weeks updating when I can. Happy Voyages.

Digital Archive: Strange Maps

NASA map of astronaut routes over the Moon, superimposed over soccer field

Blogs are living things. They have their own cycles of growth, promiscuity, maturity, and senescence. Some rise above the tangled bank to reach the sunlight of popularity. Most crowd against each other in fits of collective navel-gazing. They soon decline in daily hits (the holy measurement of blog vigor) and die quietly in the shadows of the over-committed author. Given this instability, do blogs have the staying power to be archives?

Thomas Jefferson’s proposal for dividing territories into ten states

Certainly not. While the political blog DailyKos may outrank the Library of Congress in daily web traffic, I am confident that L of C will still be hosting their Lewis and Clark materials in 2020. I don’t know what DailyKos will be doing (running a small country near Seattle perhaps). In short, blogs are not archives. Now that this is established, let me announce an amazing blog archive: Strange Maps. It is weird, historical, and snappy. If its mondo collection of bizarre maps is not exactly comprehensive, it is far-reaching in scope.

Not all of these maps have to do with exploration of course. So why feature Strange Maps here? A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which scholars weighed in on the various meanings of exploration. William Goetzmann and others view it as a process of continual re-discovery rather than a single moment of impressive flag-planting. In this spirit, Strange Maps is a place which discovers and rediscovers information about the world and projects these ideas in space. Perhaps this is an abstract and delirious way to describe the site – so to get a better idea, visit it yourself.

Strange Maps

Dutch map showing the oceans of Mars

The Discovery of France

The muse is a strange bird. We try to ignore it, focus on the work at hand, and remember the mantra that “ninety percent of any project is hard work.” (The Puritans must have coined this phrase. Or Reader’s Digest? Joseph Stalin?). The muse leaves me alone in these moments of productive toil, waiting until I am without pencil or palm pilot, usually in the shower or out running in Elizabeth Park. These are, for some reason, my brightest moments. There must be a good psychological explanation for this. Whatever it is, these places form the mystic triangle of my intellectual life: study, shower, park.

But it was my son Theo who played muse yesterday. We were at the public library and I was headed downstairs with my kids when he broke away, running towards the New Books Section with the lurching gait common to 18-month-old children and drunken elderly men. I caught him in New Non-Fiction, and stood there long enough to notice Graham Robb’s new book, “The Discovery of France.”

I’m only 40 pages in, but have seen enough to realize how nicely Robb’s project connects to the ideas of exploration I wrote about in my last post. To recap: the modern era (1789-present) is filled with those who have viewed exploration narrowly as the engine of geographical discovery, a way to put people in places where they haven’t been before (or, if that’s not possible, to put white people in places where white people haven’t been before).

Anglo-American Hunters in Africa

Yet there have always been critics of this view from 19th century figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and Simon Bolivar to 20th century historians such as William Goetzmann. Why do we care? Many reasons. But perhaps the most compelling one is this: how we think about exploration shapes our policies on exploration. Specifically, the goal of putting humans in places they’ve never been before has gotten more difficult and more expensive. Designing craft that can hurl living beings into space and then return them, still breathing, to earth requires gargantuan sums of money. As such, they suck the life blood out of smaller, more useful, scientific projects that would give us a better, holistic, and more integrated understanding of our solar system.

People on Mars: Expensive

Robots on Mars: Cheap

Robb’s project has nothing to do with space. But it has everything to do with re-conceiving exploration in its broadest terms. We, the scholars of the voyage, usually apply our questions to westerners who are mucking around (and mucking up) places far from home. In this case, Robb – adopting a Humboldtian perspective – turns the question upside down: how do civilized societies explore their own backwaters and terrae incognitae? Specifically, how does rural 18th-century France appear when viewed through the looking-glass of the Enlightenment explorer? Robb’s answer: exotic at best, savage at worst, always dangerous, sometimes violent. At the moment when Versailles is sending expeditions to measure and catalog the world (by Condamine, Bougainville, and La Perouse), it is woefully ignorant of regions a carriage-ride away from Paris. It was here, in these rural regions of France that Jacques Cassini sent out observers to complete a massive survey of France and here, Robb observes, that “on a summer’s day in the early 1740s, a young geometer on the Cassini expedition was hacked to death by the natives.”

Gaul: Dangerous Country

But there is more to Robb’s project than this grisly, if delicious, irony. His book exposes the limits of one line of thinking that had become too popular in the academy, namely that exploration was a monolithic enterprise, the eager forward guard of empire, ruthlessly and efficiently preparing the way for conquest and colonization. Admittedly, there is some truth to this. But it is hard to believe that European empires were monolithically controlling anything when we learn that Paris was scarcely more in control of the province of Savoie than its far-flung colony of St Dominigue. For those who’ve drunk deeply from the well of Foucault and Said, this is something to take seriously. The “gaze” of the scientist alighted on many objects, local, as well as global, white as well as native. The pompadoured aristocrats of Paris found their “others” not only in souks of Cairo, but among the shepherds of the Pyrénées.

What is Exploration?

You would think I’d have figured this question out after so many years of working on it. To be honest, I don’t feel any closer to an answer than I did twelve years ago when I began a field in the history of exploration for my prelim exams. The shortest, least satisfying (and dare I say, most academic) of answers would be to say that, well, it depends.

Some think of exploration as the investigation of unknown regions, a capacious view that extends to the voyages of Christopher Columbus as easily as those of Alexander von Humboldt or Lewis and Clark. Others have given it a more precise meaning. As the OED declares, Exploration is an activity “for the purpose of discovery.” This is the view adopted by William Goetzmann in his path-breaking book Exploration and Empire (1966). In Goetzmann’s words, Exploration “is purposeful. It is the seeking. It is not the mere happenstance of discovery which “can be produced by accident.” This may not seem like an earth-shattering distinction, but it would probably be enough to cast Columbus out of the sacred pantheon of explorers. He wasn’t, after all, as interested in discovering new lands as he was finding new routes to old ones. I imagine that Columbus would have been rather peeved to learn that his West Indies were no where near Asia. Fortunately he died before Magellan figured this out.

I know where I am

There are other ways that exploration means different things to different people. Many popular books on exploration treat it, more or less, as the engine of discovery, a process that culminates in the “First Footprint” (if no one is around) or the “First Encounter” (when inconsiderate natives have left footprints of their own).

But to others, these firsts are only the beginning of a longer, systematic process of investigation which may continue for years after the initial geographical discovery. Arriving in South America in 1799, one could say that Alexander von Humboldt was about 300 years too late for discovery. He spent four years trekking through South and Central America, botanizing and criticizing the Spanish regime. Such was the influence of Humboldt that Simon Bolivar called him “the true discoverer of America.”

Simon Bolivar: Revolutionary and Humboldt Groupie

A century later, Hugh Robert Mill would voice similar views:

As exploration proceeds, and as it is followed up by detailed scientific study, wave after wave of knowledge flows over the earth’s surface, each forming, as it consolidates, the ground upon which the next will spread. (Mill, McClure’s Magazine (Nov 1894) 3:540)

Stated somewhat differently, Goetzmann applies this view of exploration to the American West:

The country beyond the Mississippi, as we now know it, was not just “discovered” in one dramatic and colorful era of early-nineteenth-century coonskin exploration. Rather it was discovered and rediscovered by generations of very different explorers down through the centuries following the advent of the shipwrecked Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca. (Exploration and Empire, x)

Differences in the meaning of exploration may seem like so much academic bean-counting, but they have serious consequences. One imagines, in reading George Bush’s 2004 Vision of Space Exploration, that the image of an American bootprint in the cold, red dust of Mars figured strongly in his calculations to ramp-up human exploration of the solar system.

Other space scientists, however, have watched this NASA directive play out with alarm. As science budgets get cut to make room for new launch and crew vehicles (on this see this post as well as this one), the Bolivarian view of exploration gets sacrificed to “we got there first.”

On ideas of exploration, see also:

The Birth of Exploration

A Place to Plant the Flag


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