Exploration at its Greatest and more

Exploration at its Greatest

My friend Jim Cameron is best known as the filmmaker who gave us epics like Titanic and Avatar, but in his heart he is an explorer, as he explained in his foreword to my book A Passion for Mars. A few days ago, Jim did something that had me thrilled and terrified at the same time: He made the first solo dive to Earth’s deepest point, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench.

Using a submersible of his own design, he reached a depth of more than 35,000 feet—almost seven miles—at pressures of nearly 16,000 pounds per square inch. There, where only two humans had been before, over half a century earlier, he found a landscape so desolate that it reminded him of the surface of the moon. He said later that it felt as if he’d literally gone to another planet and returned the same day. He’d planned to spend six hours on the bottom, but malfunctions in the craft’s robotic arm and maneuvering thrusters cut the dive short.

But this is just a beginning. Jim says he’ll be going back to the Challenger Deep to make further observations and collect samples. Another friend, NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand, will be studying any creatures Jim is able to bring back from the abyss. To me, this is exploration at its greatest: Going where almost no one has ever been, seeing what no one has ever seen, and expanding our knowledge of the universe. To me, Jim is a planetary explorer, probing the remaining secrets of our own precious world, and inspiring us all to join the quest.

Human Spaceflight: A New Paradigm

Last month, I was invited by the Federal Aviation Administration to give the final talk at their conference on commercial human spaceflight. I can’t recall a time that has felt more exciting, or more critical, in the last several decades. I was glad to have the chance to talk about how we got here, and where we need to go. What about you–where do you think we should go?

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My Colbert Report Appearance!

Post image for My Colbert Report Appearance!

I had a fantastic time appearing on the Colbert Report. You can watch the video of my segment of the show here.

Bulletin: I’m on the Colbert Report on April 4th!

Post image for Bulletin: I’m on the Colbert Report on April 4th!

I’m getting ready to appear on one of my favorite TV shows, The Colbert Report, on April 4 on Comedy Central (tune in at 11:30 p.m. Eastern/Mountain/Pacific Time and 10:30 p.m. Central Time). I’ll be talking about the current and future space program, and my book, A Passion for Mars.

Paul Calle, 1928-2010

Post image for Paul Calle, 1928-2010

The great space artist Paul Calle died yesterday at age 82. As a NASA artist he documented the early space program with a rare mix of passion and precision. With works like the portrayal of the first space rendezvous shown above, Paul captured as no one else the excitement of that incredible time. I was fortunate to have known him and to have enjoyed his warmth, wit, and tremendous spirit. Here is the introduction I wrote for an collection of his Apollo works, published last year.

You don’t usually know years ahead of time that the most incredible event of your life is coming up. But if you grew up in the 1960s and you were a space nut, you knew. I remember thinking sometime around the summer of 1966 that there were less than four years to go until Apollo astronauts would be walking on the moon. In the summer of 1966 I was ten years old, and nothing mattered more to me than the space program. (Okay, the space program and the Beatles.) The missions of Project Gemini, NASA’s “bridge to the moon,” were going strong. Astronauts were walking in space, and doing space rendezvous, and staying in orbit for a week or even two weeks at a time. I couldn’t have asked for a better time to be a kid.

And the best part was the pictures. If the latest issue of LIFE or National Geographic arrived and it had a new set of space photos, the rest of the family didn’t get to see it very much, because I had it. I stared at the images from space, letting them transport me into a realm of black skies and brilliant sunlight, of white spacesuits and mirrored visors, of spaceships afloat in the void, with the Earth’s bright panorama beyond. But there was one thing those pictures could never do: They couldn’t document the feeling of that incredible time. They couldn’t record what it was like to be alive when humans were taking their first steps into an endless frontier, seeing what no one had ever seen, doing what had never been done. For that, we needed Paul Calle.

When I first encountered his work, in a NASA booklet on the Gemini missions that came out in 1966, I was immediately hooked. I had never seen anyone draw the way Paul did, with those bold pencil strokes defining shape and movement, capturing men and machines with uncanny realism. In his rendering of Gemini 6 and 7, nose-to-nose in history’s first space rendezvous, I could almost feel the blinding intensity of the unfiltered sunlight of outer space. And when he portrayed Gemini 7’s Frank Borman and Jim Lovell just back from their record-breaking, two-week space marathon, I sensed the mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that they must have felt as they stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier, bearded and weak-legged, savoring their triumph.

And it wasn’t just the astronauts I saw; it was the life force of everyone who sent them into space, from the engineers who created their magnificent flying machines to the orbital-mechanics wizards who figured out how two spacecraft traveling at 17,500 miles per hour could fly to within a foot of each other. Somehow, Paul’s vivid line work transmitted the electrifying excitement of the entire adventure; even the void of space seemed to vibrate with some kind of fantastic energy, like iron filings tracing the contours of a magnetic field. In those days, with the endless frontier opening up before us, it was almost impossible not to feel swept along by that same magnetic power, pulling you into a spectacular tomorrow. After all, we were going to the moon.

And when the day of that ultimate voyage finally arrived in the summer of 1969—the summer of Apollo—it was like the entire world stopped in its tracks to witness it. On that muggy July morning, as Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin ate their last meal on Earth and put on their spacesuits, I was glued to the television. I could not have known that Paul Calle was there, with the three men who were about to leave the planet, quietly capturing his own unique pen-and-ink snapshots of the moment. But the next day, when I was poring over the coverage of the mission in the paper, I came to a full-page ad for one of the TV networks, featuring Paul’s superb pencil drawing of the first human footstep on another world—an event still hidden in the unknowable future, now only a few days away, but rendered as if it had already happened. And in the mind of Paul Calle, it had.

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