Renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle gives this defense of ocean exploration. The space community should also pay attention.


Dr. Earle is the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and currently explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society. She has led more than 60 research expeditions and spent over 7,000 hours underwater. Dr. Earle has set women’s depth records in a hard-shell diving suit (1,250 feet) and a submersible (3,300 feet), as well as leading a team of female researchers during an extended underwater stay in the Tektite II habitat in 1970.

No one denies that Sylvia Earle is an explorer.

Yet, there are people in the space community who insist that astronauts (especially citizen astronauts) are not explorers. Ben McGee discussed this in his recent treatise. “Particularly amongst the old guard of space science,” McGee says, “‘exploration’ is reserved for those pushing the frontier in higher orbits, cislunar space, trips to near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and beyond.” In other words, almost no one.

Near-Earth spaceflight in general, and suborbital spaceflight in particular, have been derided as mere tourism, joyrides, “going around it circles” — anything but exploration.

McGee explains the reasoning behind this argument: “Low-altitude portions of outer space, referred to collectively as ‘suborbital space,’ have already been traversed hundreds of times by astronauts. Indeed, more than 250 times during the Space Shuttle Program alone…. Hence, arguments against the concept of private suborbital space exploration typically conclude that, with all of this in mind, there’s no more exploration to suborbital spaceflight than driving down a paved road.”

For example, there’s Jason Rhian, editor of the Americaspace blog, who rhetorically asks, “How is retracing the footsteps we’ve taken above our world for more than four decades space exploration?”

Rhian would have us believe exploration is finished the minute a human first sets foot in a new territory. In reality, it’s just started.

“What of our oceans as a parallel?” McGee asks. “They have been traversed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of times in the last several centuries. Does this mean that no exploration may be conducted on the Earth’s oceans in the 21st century…? Context is key. One may explore climate effects, seek out undiscovered ecological niches, probe poorly-mapped coastlines, explore archaeological evidence of our past activities, wield new technology to tease new data from an old environment, and that’s not even scratching the ocean’s subsurface.”

The volume of suborbital space is greater than the total volume of the world’s oceans. It is folly to think the potential for exploration has been “used up.” In just the last few years, scientists have discovered a number of unsuspected phenomena taking place in the suborbital region: blue jets, starters, ELVES, sprites, antimatter emissions, and dark lightning. It would be hubris to assume that there is is nothing else left to discover.

Additionally, human spaceflights have taken place from only a few launch sites — notably central Florida and Kazakhstan. The suborbital regions above other parts of the Earth, including the North polar region and the entire Southern hemisphere, remain completely unexplored by human beings. Even unmanned launches into those regions are rare.

As McGee says, “Objections to suborbital spaceflight as legitimate space exploration logically fall apart. In even greater degree than with Earth’s oceans, there is ample room and conceptual research justifications for the legitimate continued exploration of suborbital space.”

Limiting space exploration to a few rare trips beyond Low Earth Orbit would be like limiting ocean exploration to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. (Although, Rhian might argue that even visiting the Mariana Trench is not true exploration, since that has been done, twice, over a period of 52 years.) It’s useful to note that the people who want to limit space exploration in this manner are generally not explorers themselves. We very rarely hear a real astronaut make such arguments.

If we applied Rhian’s model of exploration, our knowledge and use of the oceans would be limited indeed. As limited as our use of space.

Ocean explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle during Tektite II project

Written by Astro1 on August 20th, 2013 , Citizen Exploration Tags:

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    Astro1 commented

    Yes, “traveling down the same road for more than half a century” can be considered exploration. Lewis and Clark traveled the same paths which Indians had traveled for centuries (and white men for many years), yet they are considered explorers.

    The dictionary says that exploration is “travel for purposes of discovery.” It does not put a time limit on it.

    If you visit a bookstore, you will find numerous titles such as “Exploring New York City.” The title is not to imply that no one has ever explored New York City before, nor are the authors charged with false advertising.

    If that’s not good enough, you might want to visit the Explorers Club website and look at the definition they give.

    The rest of your comment is offensive and has been deleted.

    August 21, 2013 at 4:07 pm
    Laurence Winn commented

    I would argue that exploration is a frame of mind more than a specific activity in particular surroundings. Children, for example, are professional explorers, investigating a world that seems familiar to jaded adults, but finding new things in it.

    However, there is a difference between the ocean and space as venues of human activity. The ocean is not a frontier by the definition I understand. It has no potential to be sufficiently isolated, either environmentally or militarily, from this world’s sources of power and the abuses of industry.

    August 23, 2013 at 11:56 pm