Inner Space

Humpbacks feeding

Humpbacks feeding off Cape Cod

I recently read in Time magazine an interview with Sylvia Earle, the 79-year-old oceanographer. She makes the case for exploring and conserving our oceans. She doesn’t say we should do this instead of exploring space, but I will.

I also recently read an essay in Discover magazine (from a couple years ago; I’m rather behind in my magazine reading) by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the rock-star astrophysicist. He tried to make the case for reviving U.S. space exploration, why it was so important to our economy, to inspiring innovation, all sorts of really good reasons. Except one better reason not to.

I don’t usually disagree with people I admire, but in Dr. Tyson’s case, I was practically screaming at the page.

Numbers can’t tell the story. As I mentioned in Freefall, humans aren’t wired to deal with data. So mentioning that only 5 percent of the ocean has been explored is meaningless. That 14 percent of the land mass is protected, but only 1 percent of the ocean, draws blank stares.

But Sylvia Earle says, “[T]he world that I knew as a child doesn’t exist anymore. I tell people I come from a different planet, because I do. The planet I knew is gone.” This, I pay attention to.

She’s not an alien. She grew up in New Jersey. OK, well, maybe…

Why can’t we take the billions of dollars we want to spend going to Mars and use it instead to go to the sea? It’s extraordinarily difficult, perhaps harder than going to Mars. In doing so, we will learn much more that is useful for surviving here on this planet than we will from Mars.

I blame the Cold War for launching our obsession with space. Our urge to put a man on the moon was more about being a superpower than space exploration. If President Kennedy had said we will go to the bottom of the ocean, “not because it is easy, but because it is hard,” then we would have.

The whole space thing became popular because fighter pilots were the first astronauts, even though that experience was no prerequisite for sitting atop a rocket. The Right Stuff. I was a sucker for that Tom Wolfe image along with everyone else. Think about it. Lost in Space was about a family of space explorers. It didn’t stand a chance against Star Trek.

How about some X prizes for ocean exploration?

Could kids get as excited about deep-sea diving as space exploration? Why not? When I was a kid, I was enthralled with Jacques Cousteau. I watched his specials on our black and white TV in awe. Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges was the best thing ever.

In high school, my biology teacher took us to Plum Island, on Massachusetts’ North Shore, to explore rock jetties dotted with tide pools. They were filled with star fish (now called, more appropriately, sea stars), pin cushiony sea urchins, sand dollars, colorful sea anemones, crabs, and small fish.

A decade later, I went back. It was completely different. There were nothing but mussels. Nary a sea star to be seen. What happened? Was it natural or not? I don’t know. Unfortunately, I didn’t become an oceanographer.

Grey seals

Grey seals, Cape Cod

The ocean is so vast that its scale is incomprehensible. Yet it’s vastly smaller than our solar system, which we seem drawn to. The search for the missing Malaysian Airlines jet has resumed and it was described on NPR as “looking for a shoebox in the Rocky Mountains at night with a flashlight.”

Dr. Tyson wrote: when I stand in front of eighth-graders I don’t want to have to say to them, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can build an airplane that’s 20 percent more fuel efficient than the ones your parents flew on.” A laudable goal, for sure. But to attract the best students in the room, what I should be saying is, “Become an aerospace engineer so that you can design the airfoil that will be the first piloted craft in the rarefied atmosphere of Mars.” “Become a biologist because we need people to look for life, not only on Mars but in the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and elsewhere in the galaxy.” “Become a chemist because we want to understand more about the elements on the moon and the molecules in space.” You put that vision out there, and my job becomes easy; I just have to invoke the familiar vision, and kids’ ambitions rise up within them. Their engines get lit, and they become self-propelled on the path to the frontier.

I say, become an engineer so you can design the vehicle that will be the first piloted craft to reach ocean floors around the globe. Right here. This planet. Become a biologist because we need people to look for life right here in our own oceans. There are many strange life forms just waiting to be discovered. You’d get to name them! Become a chemist because we need to understand more about the elements on Earth and the molecules in the ocean. Our lives depend on the oceans, no matter where on Earth we live, so we need to know more about them.

You could argue that exploring the stars is in our DNA. And I’m not totally against space exploration. I’m as excited as the next kid about that (unmanned) probe landing on the comet. We are made of star dust after all. For as long as humans have had eyes to gaze with, we have turned to the stars—for inspiration, for religion, in wonder.

But who hasn’t also sat by the shore gazing across the waves? We are equally of the sea, having literally crawled from its depths. The stars spark our imagination because of what we can see. The ocean is unfathomable, we can’t peer into it, so we gaze across it. Fathom means both a unit to measure water depth and also understanding.

Sylvia Earle says in her TED talk, “How about some X prizes for ocean exploration?”

Exactly. Why can’t we inspire kids to study the oceans? Complete unknown. Super dangerous. What’s so different? More humans have walked on the moon than have visited the bottom of the ocean.

Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, but I believe looking inward is not a bad thing.


Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article, “Back to The Final Frontier

Sylvia Earle’s TED talk and her Mission Blue



  1. Magnificent essay, Elaine! Should be widely read. My only further thought is that it might be even more important for us to stop damaging the ocean than to explore it.

    1. Well, one would hope that in the process of exploring it, we might notice that it needs some help. Thanks for your comment!

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