Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

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.


  Dan Lester wrote @

Michael –

Nice essay. The point about putting flags on prominent but otherwise irrelevant landforms like a local hilltop, in the case of the Peary expedition, offers a compelling view into the psyche of these explorers. It occurs to me, however, that this didn’t happen with the Apollo lunar missions. Those flags were just planted near the Lunar Excursion Modules, far enough away that the takeoff blast would hopefully not knock them over.

On the one hand, those Apollo landing sites were intentionally chosen as being pretty flat, so it isn’t as if a local hilltop was necessarily convenient, at least for the early missions when the traverse range for the astronauts was small. On the other hand, it may say that in the minds of these travelers, the relevant landform was the Moon itself.

The traditional focus on land as a destination for space exploration (e.g. Moon, Mars, etc.) is, as noted, scientifically constraining. Unfortunately, that tradition flows down into mission goals. That is, if you’re going to go to a rock, you’d better have good reason for doing so. For the Moon, the possibility of resource development has been a real teaser in that respect — the idea that we might be able to mine important stuff there (water, Helium-3, platinum). But the plans to return to the Moon have completely outpaced any effort to do responsible resource surveys there. We have little information about where it would be best to go on the Moon, and no credible business case for how such resource extraction would be done. We’re pushing ahead with plans to develop an outpost on the lunar pole that may well find nothing there to take away! In that case, the whole mission becomes “practice” for something else.



  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for weighing in Dan. Good points.

  John Hadden wrote @

Hi Mr.Robinson,
open water at the North Pole ? Surprising , I didn’t know that was
possible . Maybe Global Warming will totally
melt the North and South Poles in the
near future and we will lose much of the
coastal land on continents and islands of
the Earth . How will this affect the standard
of living of future populations ?
I have to
admit , after reading , The High Frontier ,by
Gerard O’Neill , it seems it would be a good
idea to pursue the construction of Space
Colonies as outlined in his book in case
the Earth becomes unable to sustain a
decent standard of living for the majority
of Human Beings . (ref : ssi.org ) .

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Thanks for the comment. When the Yamal returned south in 2000, word got out about the watery North Pole and everyone feared the worst – that the ice cap was melting fast. It turns out that the Yamal encountered a “lead” that is, a crack in the ice that exposes water for a period of time before refreezing. This is a common occurrence in the polar sea. Nevertheless, before this explanation gained traction, the photos of the North Pole had already reached the press (and the issue even gained a mention from Al Gore during one of the presidential debates).

That being said, the ice cap is melting and melting fast. The disappearance of polar pack ice will not raise sea level by itself since it rests on water and displaces it (the same way as an ice cube in your gin and tonic will not raise the level of the glass as it melts). But the ice which rests on land (Greenland, Antarctica) will indeed raise sea level as it melts.

As for finding our solution by constructing space colonies, I’m not a fan. This would be exciting work, no doubt, but very expensive work. More to the point, if we cannot manage our own 25,000 mile-in-circumference planetary space colony now (which has a number of environmental buffers, renewable sources of energy, and comes free of charge) how successful will we be at managing much smaller, more expensive colonies in space?

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