Why don’t we have as much funding for underwater exploration as we do space exploration?
That question has haunted me since I was a little kid who wanted to be a marine biologist. The ocean is unbelievable: two-thirds of the planet, millions of species undiscovered, some 95% simply unexplored. It’s so big that after making the Planet Earth series, which had multiple segments on the oceans as it was, Discovery and BBC put together Blue Planet, there was just so much to talk about and to show us. Over and over the message of Blue Planet is: there is so much yet to learn about our own world.
Jacques Rougerie’s concept for a marine equivalent of the space station, called appropriately the SeaOrbiter, is one of those ideas that makes me not just wonder why no one thought of it before, but why it doesn’t already exist.
There are lots of reasons to explore the oceans and, given our current Earth bound problems, further travel into space seems best something left to Richard Branson and John Carmack. Where is the X Prize for a new paradigm shifting submersible? We fret about the rain forests while our plankton and algae populations, not to mention the marine ecosystems that depend upon them, go relatively unlamented. It’s a very strange blind spot for our society to have.
Perhaps what shocks me most about this situation is the amount of interest and love people have for the ocean is enormous. Snorkeling, sailing, scuba diving, aquariums, and beach holidays all put us in contact with the ocean every day. Science and nature programs constantly portray the wonderful weirdness of creatures from the deep, the potential value of understanding non-sunlight based ecosystems, and the intelligence and majesty of dolphins and whales. There are no bottle-nose dolphins in space.
Space exploration and space travel is exceedingly dangerous, difficult and expensive. So is deep-sea exploration. Yet one of the two requires hundreds of thousands of pounds of thrust generated by enormous, controlled explosions, the other requires tens of pounds of thrust generated by fans and a few ballast tanks; yet we choose the latter. It’s difficult to know if Kennedy, H.G. Wells, or Von Braun is to blame for biasing us towards space, or we are to blame for not treating Jacques Cousteau and James Cameron with the same degree of awe.
What I simply do not understand is why we are biased towards space as a culture and society. Military and national interest might have initially driven the development of N.A.S.A., and no one can doubt the amazing feat of putting men on the moon, but that was forty years ago. The international space station does amazing research and I believe is as much a symbolic gesture of post-cold war unity and human scientific progress as it is a practical and useful endeavor, but I do not see why it need carry on that task alone. More so than gorillas, dolphins demonstrate intelligence, social behavior, and linguistic abilities that begin to parallel humanity’s, yet we desperately scrape at the ice of Mars hoping for a trace of a sign of what once might have been life. In a strange turn of Orwell’s classic phrase, “it is a constant struggle to see what is in front of one’s nose” it seems it is equally difficult to remember the marvels and mysteries of our own backyard.
I don’t have an answer or solution. At this point, I’m merely confused. I hope Rougerie’s idea comes to fruition in some shape or form, because I believe it will serve us better than we can possible imagine. Perhaps some combination of scientific grants, X prizes, and seasteading experimenters will make it happen. Or maybe some wonderful discovery about the fauna of the deep or the intelligence of sea creatures will inspire a Mariana Trench equivalent of the moon shot. Or maybe necessity will force innovation.
All I know is I get the same feeling looking up at the stars from the wilds of Idaho as I do looking down into the ever blue depths off the coast of Hawai’i and cannot understand why the more distant of the two is more fully explored.
Update: I wrote this post yesterday and, an hour or so after as I was eating lunch, I found the answer to the central question “why space and not the oceans” in Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind. The long version I’ll leave to Tarnas, but the short version is that the entire scientific revolution was kicked off by astronomy. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, all working on the problem of the movement of the planets in their own way, fundamentally altered the cosmology of the Western mind by positing, proving, defending, and explaining a moving earth rotating a central, material sun with other, material planets. When we think about space, we’re reminded of science as a whole, our thoughts are literally universal, thanks to this heritage.
Space may lay bare the marvels of physics, but I suspect the oceans may still hide the central secrets of life. Methinks it’s now time for some planetary introspection.
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