In the Wake of Captain Cook


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“Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.” ― James Cook

From the beginning of my time with NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ve been putting together presentations with some version of this chart — a picture of one of the ships Captain James Cook used in his voyages of exploration.

But as many times as I’ve seen it, today was special.

Cook has been a touchstone for the SLS Program, and has been for NASA for years. Two space shuttles, Discovery and Endeavour*, shared names with ships used by Cook. It’s easy to draw parallels between Cook and the work we’re doing:

Cook’s ships were robust vessels, which allowed him to take the same ships anywhere from the Antarctic to the tropics (and, in other lives, they were merchant ships or military vessels or prison transport). SLS is designed to enable a wide variety of missions, from speeding robotic probes to the outer solar systems to landing humans on Mars.

Cook’s missions were prime examples of how exploration enables science and science enables exploration. As he traversed uncharted reaches, he enabled the study of the transit of Venus, teaching us more about the scale of our solar system. He carried a botanist, Joseph Banks, who brought back a wealth of information. He used the latest ideas about nutrition, that eliminated scurvy deaths on long sea voyages for the first time. It’s very much the NASA vision — we reach for new heights and explore the unknown for the benefit of all humankind.

Cook and others went into the unknown, and because they did, it became known. He travelled new paths, and today, at any time, 50,000 ships are able to transport cargo. Where explorers dare, commerce follows. Already, this is happening in space in low Earth orbit; the voyages of the space shuttle have paved the way for orbital missions by SpaceX and Orbital ATK and Boeing and Sierra Nevada. SLS will take us farther, a blaze a new trail behind it.

That’s why we talk it. So why was today special?

Because today, we shared that chart as part of a presentation at the Reinventing Space conference. Held in London at the Royal Society.

As in, the organization that (along with the British Admiralty) commissioned James Cook to study the transit of Venus, his first voyage of discovery. The same Royal Society presided over by one Joseph Banks, after returning from voyaging with Cook. A telescope used to study the transit of Venus is displayed in the building. The roots of our shared story run deep in this place, and we had the honor of sharing how we are building on that story. It was simultaneously exciting, humbling and inspiring.

A statue of Cook stands within a tenth of a mile from here. His story is remembered, and inspires. I can only hope that the story we shared at this same Royal Society, the story we continue to make a reality, does for exploration and history the same service.

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*I was forwarded a note after publishing this from astronaut Al Worden with a reminder that his Apollo 15 command module was also named for Cook’s Endeavour.

The Starship and the Rocket: Star Trek, NASA & Me


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“Space… The Final Frontier…”

I am not where I am because of Star Trek.

You’ll see interviews sometimes with NASA folks, including astronauts, who say Star Trek inspired their love of space.

For me, if anything, it was the opposite.

I grew up in a golden era for space. The first Star Trek movie came out when I was four. “Empire Strikes Back’ was the next year. The first space shuttle launched the year after that.

The idea of space, the excitement of exploration, the siren call of the stars and the adventure that lay between them was a thread woven liberally and integrally into the fabric of my childhood. It fed my love of Star Trek and Star Wars, of the Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica, and it fed my love of NASA and the real world of space exploration.

For years, I’m not sure if I leaned more toward the lightsaber or the phaser, but by middle school, Star Trek had won out. I was Spock for Halloween. I built model starships. I read new Star Trek novels voraciously as they came out each month. I eagerly awaited the launch of The Next Generation, and then followed this new crew’s adventures each week, even if they were clearly inferior to the classic.

At one point, I began writing my own Star Trek novel. It’s long since lost now, but my memory is that I got decently far into it for a middle schooler. The plot involved a hole in space that turned out to be a temporal anomaly, such that the probe the Enterprise fired into it went back in time and landed on the Klingon homeworld, causing the Klingons in the Enterprise’s time to suddenly be technology advanced. What are the odds, you know?

I was writing in a time when the Star Trek canon consisted of 79 episodes and four movies. Today, there’s probably some continuity bible that officially proscribes the name of the first wife of Sulu’s second cousin, but back then, the universe was largely unexplored, and there was room for writers to fill it out. Some of my additions in retrospect were cringeworthy, but back then, they weren’t wrong. There was no official reason to preclude the possibility that Klingons often drank a beverage called “kol’tuns,” other than good sense.

I never finished my Star Trek novel.

I have written two books about actual space.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel, but I still watch every Star Trek movie that comes out, and I’m very interested in the new TV series. But today, my favorite space vehicle has neither S-foils nor warp-nacelles, but two five-segment solid rocket boosters.

It was an incredibly experience writing books not about the fictional future of space, but about actual accomplishments of real spacefarers. But even more amazing is now getting to do in real life what I sought to do with that book — to be part of adding to the story, of filling out the next chapters. Of exploring a little bit more of that universe.

Because, on this 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the work we’re doing in the real world echoes back to the work of Kirk and his crews.

I get to sit in on meetings regularly about such topics as the first human landings on Mars, or sending probes to icy Europa, and the plans scientists have for studying the past or current habitability of those places.

Or, to put it less prosaically, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life.

But there’s more to it than that. A big part of the appeal of Star Trek was always the idea of a brighter future, and of the call of the unknown. It’s the part that resonated with me; it’s the part that has inspired others. It’s the part that I aspire to in my own work.

NASA, like Star Trek, offers the idea that we can be more than what we are, as a society and as individuals. It encourages and challenges us to reach further than we have. To know all that is knowable. To learn, to build, to explore.

To boldly go where no one has gone before.

“Following the Light of the Sun, We Left the Old World”


I’ll cede that Christopher Columbus is a historically challenging figure (and apparently was a challenging guy even in his own day), but one also has to cede that he left behind a legacy that has inspired explorers for half a millennia.

Honestly, Columbus Day is usually one of those holidays that I’m grateful for the day off but think little about, but this year it is a little more special to me. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to walk ground that Columbus had walked, and to step foot in water that Columbus had sailed.

Columbus is one of those figures who is so far removed that it’s easy to think of him as a historical figure, a larger-than-life story that’s central to our national creation myths, so the experience of being where he had been — and not as a legend but as a young man — was one of getting a glimpse of the flesh-and-blood man who was Cristoforo Colombo, a very brave and very human individual who changed the world.
The experience was made richer by the fact I was there for a space exploration symposium, gathering with others from around the world united in a desire to sail further into the new ocean of space, to again visit New Worlds.

Regardless of how one feels about this day as a celebration of the past, it should stand as the embodiment of a holiday our calendar otherwise lacks — a celebration of exploration, and a challenge for the future to dare, to sail, to find, and to continue to seek.