Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Archive for Space

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

Let’s Get Geophysical

As some of you know, we are in the midst of the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007-2009, a global program to coordinate research in the Arctic and Antarctic. This IPY follows three earlier ones: in 1883-1884, 1932-33, and 1957-1958 (which was, technically, the International Geophysical Year IGY). The first IPY was the brainchild of Carl Weyprecht, an Austrian explorer who had grown tired of watching explorers race into the Arctic on bids to attain “Farthest North,” lose their toes to frostbite, then return home with pockets empty.

Carl Weyprecht

The “Race for the Poles” was, Weyprecht realized, a race but little else. As such, it was at odds with the needs of polar research, which required observers to stay in one place long enough to take note of what they were seeing, record measurements, and collect data. Only in this way would scientists begin to figure out how the polar regions functioned holistically, and then, how they influenced the rest of the world, particularly global weather and climates.

For over a century, science and transnational collaboration have been the twin pillars of the IPY philosophy. In combining them, scientists hoped, they could uncover the mysteries of the polar regions, all the while avoiding the need to subject their projects to the demands of the glory-hungry explorers and jingoistic leaders.

Yes, well, it was a lovely idea. In truth none of the IPYs were free from megalomaniacs (on sledges or in political office). During the first IPY, the United States outpost at Lady Franklin Bay, under the command of Adolphus Greely, dutifully collected research.

The Greely Party in 1881

That is, until, Greely saw an opportunity to beat the record of “farthest north” held by the British. Two months of sledging and 600 miles later, Greely’s party established a new “farthest north” record of 83°24,′ exactly three nautical miles farther than the one set by the Nares Expedition in 1875. Science and latitude records were forgotten, though, with the expedition’s demise from cold and starvation. The failure of relief ships to reach Greely resulted in the deaths of most of his party. Nor did the spirit of the IPY carry on after the expedition’s rescue. The impressive pile of data collected by stations all over the Arctic could not compete with reports of Greely’s incompetence, evidence of cannibalism, and the execution of a crew member for stealing food.

The Greely Party in 1884

Fifty years later, an international meteorological congress tried to resurrect the idea of scientific collaboration with IPY-2, which took a new set of questions about magnetism, the aurora, and radio science, to the poles. Yet coming as it did in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, IPY-2 fell short when the money ran out.

The IGY of 1957-1958, conceived in the midst of the Cold War, seemed just the kind of feel-good, collaborative effort needed to reduce tensions between East and West. Unfortunately the first offspring of IGY was Sputnik. As the tiny satellite beeped its way over the Western hemisphere, it brought tears to the eyes of Russians, and visions of nuclear-tipped ICBMs to anxious Americans.

Despite talk of science and collaboration, then, the legacy of the IPYs has featured much of the vain-glorious and nationalistic pap that Weyprecht had been trying so earnestly to avoid. What then, can we hope to achieve in IPY-4? If my experience at the IPY-sponsored North By Degree conference is any indication, I think the ultimate benefit of getting people together is, well, getting people together. No one can offer a guarantee of future accomplishments. Most IPY subjects and discussions are too wonky to make good headlines. But ultimately the international IPY is a form of social communion, a way of building relationships. We had tense moments in Philadelphia – but we all stayed in the room – and continued to talk and argue about our positions for the extent of the conference. It is from this messy back and forth, I think, that real collaborative projects grow.

Famous Falling Objects

An update on Saturday’s post: The Mars Phoenix Lander successfully touched down on Sunday and has started unpacking its bags. Like any good tourist, it has started taking pictures of itself.

It’s also taken some lovely shots of the polar surface. They show a delicate pattern of polygons etched into the dirt, strongly suggesting the presence of water.

Michel Fournier has had less luck on his quest to become the first human meteor. On Tuesday, his crew began filling up the massive balloon that would be used to carry him to 130,000 ft. But for unknown reasons, the balloon decided to leave without him. After shooting upwards, it began to lose helium, eventually plummeting to earth, tearing itself to shreds on the way down.

I am not sad to see this mission fail. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Fournier’s seems like a project better designed for spectacle than science (though, as a student of the history of science, I admit the line is blurry). Fournier gets points for bravery. And this kind of jump had serious application once, in the early days of space flight, when no one knew what would happen to astronauts bailing out at high-altitude. But at 64, Fournier hardly offers science the best physiological model of a 35 year old astronaut. More to the point, for this sort of testing has been done before. Fifty years ago, Joseph Kittinger set a jump record of 96, 760 ft as part of the Man High I Project. In 1960, he set the altitude jump record that still stands: 102, 800 ft. Now, Fournier will have to decide if he really wants to continue with “Le Grand Saut,” as they call it in French, or “The Man Seriously High Project” in the lower 48.

Col. Joseph Kittinger’s seriously high jump in 1960

Touchdown! Mars Phoenix Lander

Touchdown! The Mars Phoenix Lander transmitted this image a few minutes ago. Congratulations to the University of Arizona. Go Wildcats. See yesterday’s post for more.