Tag Archives: frontier

Risk Averse

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During my travels I always carry a paperback to read.  A book that I finished recently was a history (my usual subject) concerning some German emigrants to America in the 1840’s.  Their story was entirely typical:  conditions in their village had deteriorated and they were lured by glowing stories of the opportunities in the United States.  So they sold their houses and all their goods and made their way to the port at Antwerp.  Unscrupulous characters soon fleeced them.  Broke and alone in a country where they had no resources and did not speak the language, the putative emigrants were forced to beg for food and shelter.  Some died.  A shipowner agreed to provide them passage to the new world in exchange for indentured service upon arrival.  The ocean voyage was miserable, the crew was inept, they ran out of food, water, encountered storms, and about a third of the party died during the voyage.  Shortly after arrival in port, a smallpox epidemic took another third of the company.  The survivors were marched off to indentured servitude; the remnants of families torn asunder.  Only the strongest, or the luckiest, survived.

 

As I said, a story that was very typical.  Few people made it easily to the “land of opportunity.”

 

My great-grandfather was of German emigrant descent; that book could have been the story of his parents.  I never knew him since he died before I was born, but I knew my great-grandmother, and I’ve written about her before:

 

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As a very young boy my parents would take me to visit her in central Oklahoma.  As a young girl, she had walked alongside the family wagon as they moved west to new territory in search of land and a better life.  Yet she lived will into her 90s and saw the beginnings of the space age.  

 

And I had to wonder, as I thought of her and of the difficulties, dangers, and hardships of the pioneers who made this country strong, affluent, and powerful, do we still have what our pioneer ancestors had?  My grandmother was old, small, and frail when I knew her.  What shone through during those visits was a strength of character, a clarity of purpose, and a directness in communication that made you forget the frailty of old age.  Her stark assessment of those pioneer days is still fresh in my memory:  “The cowards never started, and the weak ones died along the way.”  She faced that hardship and danger and had a better life than if her family had not taken the risk to move west.

 

What is it, I wonder, that has made America a great nation?  Abundant natural resources are part of it.  The availability of cheap labor was a factor.  But other peoples have had cheap labor and abundant resources and have not succeeded in building a strong nation.  I believe that it is due the American character; an innate optimism and the bold willingness to take on risks if they hold the promise of a better tomorrow.  We have become the envy and wonder of the world not because of our wealth and power, but because of our character.

 

My great-great-grandparents certainly had some appreciation of the risks they incurred by moving west, but they could not have fully understood it.  They knew Risk in the Big Sense: danger, hardship, and death threatened their way:  accidents, disease, wild animals (wolves, bears, and snakes), hostile natives, terrible weather, and the difficulty of travel through the wilderness, all of these they must have recognized.  But the details would have been only vaguely understood.  The details of hardship were of secondary importance, they knew the Big Risk well enough.  They took what preparations they could, and they set out.

 

My great-grandfather made mistakes; he literally lost the ranch in the great depression.  But overall, they avoided the Big Mistake:  not taking a worthwhile risk.  Martin Luther once said “Sin boldly.”  That is not permission to do what you know is wrong, but it is an admonition not to be paralyzed to inaction by the prospect that you might be doing something wrong. 

 

Today we live in the luxury of their legacy.  Our greatest hardship may be mowing the grass; our greatest risk may be driving on the freeway.  These challenges just don’t compare with what our great-grandparents faced every day.  Have we lost the capability to weigh risk and reward, hardship and hope, difficulty and opportunity as they did?

So the fundamental question remains, do we have those qualities that made our ancestors successful?  Do we have the judgment to weigh it all in the balance?  Do we have the character to dare great deeds? 

 

History is watching. 

 

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Recently, I was in a public meeting where NASA was castigated as being “risk averse”.  Is that a fair assessment, I wondered?  

 

Then I remembered the words of one of my heroes, Capt. John Young:  “We put seven people on top of 6 million pounds of high explosives and launch them into orbit at speeds six times faster than a rifle bullet.  What part of that sounds safe to you?”

 

Well said.  I couldn’t add to that statement.

 

It is easy to accuse someone of being risk averse when you personally don’t have to make tough decisions with real consequences.  At NASA we make hard decisions every day and the whole world gets to watch and see if we got it right.

 

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

I think my great-grandparents would have approved.

The Way West

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I recently read a magazine article by Cornell professor Jim Bell who is the lead scientist on the Mars Exploration Rover Panoramic Camera team.  The final picture of his article took my breath away:

Opportunity on Sol 114 looks back at its tracks through

 

 

This picture is so reminiscent of views of wagon ruts still visible on the Oregon trail in Nebraska and Wyoming!  Pioneers on the American west a hundred and fifty years ago would feel right at home.

Well, they probably had a bit more oxygen, so lets not push the analogy too far.

Four hundred years after Columbus, American historian Fredrick Jackson Turner lamented the US Census bureau declaration that the western frontier was “closed”, all settled.  In 1893 Turner presented a controversial paper which has come to be called “The Frontier Hypothesis”.  His paper asserted that having a frontier was the most influential factor in American history.  The Frontier Hypothesis has been debated ever since by historians who argue that other factors were more important in American development.  But nobody argues that having a frontier wasn’t a huge factor, just what factor was biggest.

Turner wrote that having a frontier shaped the American character; always facing a challenge, inculcating innate optimism, relying on personal initiative and ingenuity, cooperating with scattered neighbors — all these things influenced who we are today.

Since the western frontier “closed” a century ago, America has become a world power, perhaps the only superpower, and has faced many other challenges.  Today pessimism seems rampant and some quarters seem to revel in painting a dark future for America and humanity as a whole. 

I don’t have the academic credentials to participate in the debate that Fredrick Jackson Turner started, but it seems at least he was close to the mark.  Having a challenge, being forced to be innovative, having the hope that the future will be better than the present — all these things are important.

I’ve overused the quotation by Sir Edmund Hillary, but here it is again:  “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”  Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay were first on the summit of Mount Everest, so I think the beekeeper from New Zealand knew what he was talking about.  Unlike Ed Hillary or Scott Parazinsky, I’ve never had the nerve or the opportunity to attempt the world’s highest mountain, but I have been on the summit of some lesser peaks:

Wayne and friends atop the highest point in Texas, Guadelupe Peak 2, 667 meters

 

 

Climbing a mountain changes the one who takes on the challenge.  When you do something hard, like pioneer a new frontier or climb a higher mountain, you come back a different person.  Generally a better person.  More creative, more resilient, and more optimistic.  After all, if you can climb the mountain, you know you can take on other challenges. 

Collectively we need a challenge that is one for good, not for destruction or competition or rivalry.  Not one for bragging rights.  But a challenge that we can take pride in accomplishing.

This time when we pioneer a new frontier we have the opportunity to do it without all the ugliness that accompanied the last great age of exploration:  slavery, racial and ethnic denigration, hideous destruction of native peoples, and wholesale damage to the environment. 

Lets do it right this time. 

But lets do it. 

It is important for ourselves.