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.