What Makes an Explorer?

Islands of blue (actually clouds), as seen by an explorer on the orbital frontier.

There is a type of social deviant who doesn’t fit in, and whonaturally seeks the freedom of the wilderness. The American frontier wassettled by that kind of spirit. Ironically, the wilderness of spacerequires a high degree of social conformity before you are allowed toenter, so today’s pre-selection of candidate explorers effectivelyrequires a different personality type from those who historicallyventured into the frontier.

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

Another type of exploration is more organized, and is done bycountries and governments. Historically such explorations were made forexploitation: the taking of natural resources, the control of keygeographic regions, and eventually, colonization. Exploration was awealth-creating enterprise that, if consistently pursued over decades,returned orders of magnitude on the initial investment. This kind ofexploration is no longer possible on Earth.

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

One aspect of this gentler age of exploration is the difficulty inmaintaining a consistent level of effort over a period long enough tomake progress. Meaningful exploration on today’s frontier requires aboutten years, sometimes more, of consistently directed effort beforesignificant scientific returns are seen. The shift from wealthgeneration (exploitation) to wealth consumption (knowledge) creates aconstant battle for justification of the investment.

As space technology advances, we will reach the point where westarted in the Stone Age: Exploration with no more justification thanindividual curiosity. Such an eventuality will open the Petri dish ofEarth and allow this infestation called humanity to contaminate oursolar system.

The Road to Space

The road to space is a long and arduous path, a meandering trip thatin many ways is more demanding than the Space Station mission itself.Training to fly into space is also the next best thing to actuallyflying into space. And flying into space is what my job is all about.

When I tell folks that I have been training for this Expedition 30/31mission for two years, they often remark about the hardship,particularly the degree of international travel, which always equates totime away from your family.

The International Space Station, which I like to simply call spacestation, was built by over a dozen different countries.  Astronauts intraining are the tip of the iceberg in the spaceflight business, andthus are in high demand to be seen in the international partnercountries.  So during this two-year (or sometimes two-and-a-half-year)period, crews in training accumulate a lot of frequent flyer miles asthey travel around the world to these various training camps forastronauts.

In this training period, you effectively put out an effort equivalentto achieving a graduate degree in engineering.  Except in this case,your dissertation defense is conducted in space.  And a mistake costsyou more than minus ten points.

I have had the good fortune to travel to Montreal, Canada (often inbitter-cold wintertime), Tsukuba, Japan (usually in muggy-hotsummertime), Cologne, Germany (I missed Oktoberfest by one rainy week),Star City, Russia (all the seasons, from smoky-hot to biting-cold), andBaikonur, Kazakhstan (either hotter than Star City or colder than StarCity, with little in between).  These are places that are steeped inproud, rich culture, with long histories that make anything back homeseem young in comparison.  For a simple country boy from a smalllogging-farming town in Oregon, the opportunity to live in these placesfor an accumulated time of weeks and months over a period of two yearsis an education in itself.

And of course there is Houston, Texas, my home with my family, infully urbanized civilization.  Houston is the center from which mystrength flows.

Our launch site: The Baikonur Cosmodrome

At these training camps, we work hard.  I typically start at 7:00 am(9:00 am when in Europe) and go until 6:00 to 8:00 pm.  After everytwo-hour block of time, the subject abruptly switches.  One block may beabout the reaction control thrusters that control spacecraft attitude,which involve these delightful mathematical constructs calledquaternions, while the next might be about installing a skullcap on yourcrewmate for recording an electroencephalogram.  Then we might learnhow to use a surgical staple gun to repair a gaping scalp wound,followed by shoving a urinary catheter up the orifice of a rubber model(for some reason we do not practice this on our crewmates).  Then we geta break for lunch and continue until evening.

International travel gives us no relief from the demands of ourphysical trainers.  Experts in exercise physiology are assigned tofollow a crew and hound us into a degree of athletic conditioning justshy of that for an Olympian.  The purpose for this is more than justdangling a ribbon-clad piece of metal around your neck.  We train to thebone literally to save our bones; we want to return from our missionand continue to live a normal life on this planet.  I cannot think of abetter motivation.  There are a number of well known maladies thatinflict havoc on human physiology when one ventures off into space forlong periods of time.  This is our modern equivalent to 18th-century seamen contracting scurvy on long ocean voyages.  What was all a big mystery then is now 4th-gradelevel knowledge.  Our current suite of space-born maladies are just asbaffling to us now as scurvy was back then, and I venture to guess thatin 200 years, a 4th grader will be able to tell you thereason why.  For now, our most informed haven’t a clue.  Such advancesin human physiology are pried from the bodies and souls of those whoexplore.

Our current thoughts for maintaining health center around a blend ofstrenuous cardiovascular and weight lifting exercises (we call it resistance exercisesince “weightlifting” in a weightless environment just does notcompute).  Again, in 200 years, this will probably be viewed with thesame disdain that we currently hold for the practice of bloodletting inpast centuries.  So I sweat and grunt in the gym wherever I happen to bein training, under the virtual eye of my trainer, who constantly nagsme to put another plate on the bar, and not one of those wimpy10-pounders.  He will be on my direct on-orbit e-mail list, so there isno relief on or off this planet.

My calling in this life is to be on the frontier.  The effortrequired to get there — the studies, the mental work, the physical work —are not the difficult parts.  I thrive on such activity, and it onlymakes me stronger.  Whenever I leave the confines of civilization, asmall but ever present spark in my heart grows into a flame, becoming abeacon that fills my soul with warmth.  My spirit is freed by the verynakedness of the universe.  But then another spark, always present butoften ignored, pulls at the fabric of my being, reminding me ofcivilized life, at home with my family.  Such is the Explorer’sDilemma.  Being thus plagued, my spirit is never at peace with where Iam.  This energy, if properly channeled, can be the source of greatstrength.

The venues of exploration come and go with time, but the human story remains the same.

If I were not assigned to this mission, I would be back in Houston,tasked as an astronaut to a technical engineering project supportingsome aspect of space flight.  Exciting of course; working on the humanexploration of space is where I want to spend my life’s energy. However, in blunt astronaut vernacular, this work is called “flying adesk.”  So when asked if I mind the long road to space, I think tomyself, “During the past two years I could have been flying a desk ortraining to fly into space. Which would I prefer?” Then, after a smallpause, I reply, “It’s a long road, but at the end I get to fly intospace.”

A One-Way Ticket

Doorway to space: Our Soyuz sits in an assembly stand, where we can go inside and check things out.Unlike my previous trips, this time I arrived in Russia on a one-wayticket. My bridge has been burned. And now I’m in Kazakhstan, awaitingour December 21 launch.

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

I am thankful for all the pearls so tirelessly drilled into my brainby a whole array of instructors. Unlike on Earth, a naked human cannotsurvive long in space. We were never meant to be there. However, with alittle techno-help, we can make machines that supply us with all thenecessities of life. We can make vehicles capable of taking us there andbringing us back.

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