As I listened to NPR’s tribute to the space shuttle Discovery last week, I found myself getting a little emotional. And why not? It’s the end of an era. The Challenger and Columbia tragedies are “where were you when … ?” moments for my generation.
Of course, it’s not the end of space exploration. Far from it. Unmanned explorers like Hubble and the Mars Rovers have far outperformed expectations (the Hubble telescope has been in space for more than twenty years!) and gathered a wealth of scientific information about our universe that human explorers could never hope to match.
The same can be said of that other vast and largely unexplored frontier – the ocean. Satellites circle the Earth, taking photographs used to estimate the abundance of life-sustaining phytoplankton and compiling a comprehensive record of sea surface temperatures. Hundreds of buoys and thousands of floats catalog basic water characteristics – temperature, salinity, acidity – that scientists can use to improve their understanding of anything from whale feeding behavior to climate change.
And yet, it’s estimated that 95% of the ocean remains unexplored, in that it’s never been seen by human eyes. For that matter, we know more about the surface of Mars than the bottom of the ocean.
Aquanauts and astronauts face equal, if opposite, challenges – zero gravity on one hand, crushing water pressure on the other, a lack of breathable air in both cases. And let’s not forget the cost. So the reliance on robotic data collectors makes sense. Still, there’s something irreplaceable about human exploration – the thrill, even vicariously, of setting food on the moon or seeing something as unimaginably new and alien as deep-sea hydrothermal vents for the first time.
So I’m sad to see the shuttles go. But, as the old saying goes: when one door closes, another one opens. Alvin – the leader of a small pack of manned submersibles used for research – is in the process of getting a major overhaul. The bigger and better Alvin will be able to dive 2000 meters deeper than before, putting a whopping 98% of the sea floor within reach of scientists.
So maybe, just maybe, space isn’t the final frontier. Maybe it’s the ocean.