What Makes an Explorer?

A view from above the clouds of Earth. Image Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Dec 22, 2011
11:36:06 AM

There is a type of social deviant who doesn’t fit in, and who naturally seeks the freedom of the wilderness. The American frontier was settled by that kind of spirit. Ironically, the wilderness of space requires a high degree of social conformity before you are allowed to enter, so today’s pre-selection of candidate explorers effectively requires a different personality type from those who historically ventured into the frontier.

Exploration by individuals or small groups dates from the Stone Age, and is principally responsible for humanity’s infestation of the entire globe. It is undirected and seemingly random, and social progress is achieved more by accident than by design. This is exploration in its purest form—exploration to satisfy human curiosity, in a constant search for new places to live and resources to use. To partake in this kind of exploration is simple: You just go.

Preparing a Russian Soyuz capsule. Image Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Another type of exploration is more organized, and is done by countries and governments. Historically such explorations were made for exploitation: the taking of natural resources, the control of key geographic regions, and eventually, colonization. Exploration was a wealth-creating enterprise that, if consistently pursued over decades, returned orders of magnitude on the initial investment. This kind of exploration is no longer possible on Earth.

Society-sponsored exploration has therefore shifted from exploitation to knowledge acquisition. We explore today for science, for new knowledge that will tickle our imaginations and enrich our minds. This exploration is well planned and conducted by professional explorers selected in part for their ability to conform. At the same time, exploration has shifted from a wealth-generating activity to a wealth-consuming activity.

One aspect of this gentler age of exploration is the difficulty in maintaining a consistent level of effort over a period long enough to make progress. Meaningful exploration on today’s frontier requires about ten years, sometimes more, of consistently directed effort before significant scientific returns are seen. The shift from wealth generation (exploitation) to wealth consumption (knowledge) creates a constant battle for justification of the investment.

As space technology advances, we will reach the point where we started in the Stone Age: Exploration with no more justification than individual curiosity. Such an eventuality will open the Petri dish of Earth and allow this infestation called humanity to contaminate our solar system.

Preparing a Russian Soyuz rocket. Image Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

A One-Way Ticket
Dec 22, 2011
11:44:11 AM

Unlike my previous trips, this time I arrived in Russia on a one-way ticket. My bridge has been burned. And now I’m in Kazakhstan, awaiting our December 21 launch.

Scuttling your ship is a historically proven method (think Cortés) to close the door to the known and force yourself to face the unknown. Now there is no way home, at least by the usual route. Only up; into the frontier. Blasted into space or blasted into bits, in either case you are no longer on this planet. Are there Dark-matter Dragons and Sirens of Space, patiently waiting for another hapless crew to venture by? We keep our wits, we reason, we act, and we will prevail.

I am thankful for all the pearls so tirelessly drilled into my brain by a whole array of instructors. Unlike on Earth, a naked human cannot survive long in space. We were never meant to be there. However, with a little techno-help, we can make machines that supply us with all the necessities of life. We can make vehicles capable of taking us there and bringing us back.

The basics of food, clothing and shelter take on new meaning. If you want to survive in space, you must understand how these machines work and how to keep them operating, and that requires a strong understanding of math, science, and engineering. A little Yankee (and Russkie!) ingenuity helps. Students must master these hard subjects if they want to follow in my footsteps.

Six Months Turns to Ten
Dec 22, 2011
11:51:04 AM

Space Station expeditions are planned for six months. Some may be a few weeks shorter, some longer. Malfunctions in your spacecraft can impact the mission duration either way by two months or more.

There is more to your mission than just the time in orbit, however. Launching on the Russian Soyuz rocket, the only current means to get to and from Station, requires crews to be in Russia two months before launch. And there is that last week of ESA training with our European colleagues that is tacked onto the beginning of the trip.

Space Station expeditions are planned for six months. Image Credit: Don Pettit/NASA

Upon your return to the confines of earth’s gravity, there could be a rehabilitation period of up to a week, living in crew quarters under the watchful eye of the flight doctors. The length of door-to-door time away from home easily extends the mission to eight and a half months. Then, once you are home, the next month does not belong to you (or your family). Your body is subjected to post-flight medical experiments; all are necessary to complete the before, during, and after science that is extracted from your soul. So it’s more like 10 months before you are truly able to relax.

Still, thanks to radio, video, and Internet, our ability to stay connected with our families and mission control while in space is unparalleled. We may no longer be on the planet, but we have not vanished from Earth. Compared to the historic exploration experience, we have it good.

Expectations are important. Expedition 6 in 2002 was going to be one of the shortest missions to date, somewhere between 1½ and 2½ months. Because of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which happened while we were on orbit, our mission was extended to nearly 6 months. As my commander told me before launch, “When going to space station, it is wise to be mentally prepared to be gone for a year.” It turns out he was half right.