Jun 12 2009

Nereus, Mohole, Apollo and the New Race to Space

Last week the Nereus — an unmanned submersible — ebulliently plunged to the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench near Guam in the western Pacific (Baltimore Sun, 6/5/09; F. Roylance). At 35,761 feet below sea level (SL), the Deep’s more than a mile farther below SL than the summit of Mt. Everest is above it, and the weight of the overlying water produces pressures 1100 times those at SL — “like having the weight of 3 SUVs on your big toe.”

Does Nereus point to a new race to “inner space”? Click nereus3.doc.

Indeed, “the deepest ocean trenches are cold and dark and hostile places, visited by humans even less often than the surface of the Moon,” (San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/3/09; S. Liewer). The last time the Deep’s frigid privacy was violated was in 1998 by a Japanese robotic craft, the Kaiko. But the ocean got its revenge in 2003 when Kaiko’s control cable snapped and it was lost. Although Nereus also has a cable, it can voluntarily separate from it and swim independently or float to the surface.

According to Andy Bowen, Nereus’ developer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “With a robot like Nereus, we can now explore virtually anywhere in the ocean… I believe it marks the start of a new era in ocean exploration.”

Although Nereus is officially a scientific and engineering project, it’s also evidence of increasing “early ebullience” as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window. Despite the global recession, early ebullience is evident around the world today — e.g., booming Antarctic tourism, architectural projects such as the Shanghai Tower, the Panama Canal Expansion Project, Spaceport America and the birth of the space tourism industry, the International Space Station itself (an “international marvel”), international plans for bases on the Moon. Widespread ebullience will fundamentally drive public interest in Apollo-style space spectaculars and MEPs and briefly become the dominant global zeitgeist from 2015 to 2025, as it did during the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window.

Despite its ebullience, or maybe because of it (!), Nereus has its critics. For example, well-known deep ocean explorer Robert Ballard — best known for discovering the remains of the Titanic in 1985 — thinks that “reaching the bottom of the ocean isn’t worth the effort,” (San Diego U-T, 6/3/09), because other submersibles can already reach 95% of the ocean floor.

But Chris German, also of Woods Hole, offers an ebullient reply to Ballard, clearly reminiscent of past Apollo astronauts on the Moon, “It’s not just a matter of planting a flag and saying ‘Aren’t we clever?’…Going to the deepest parts of the ocean means there’s no place on Earth we can’t go,” (italics mine).

And although Bowen insists that the Nereus team doesn’t aim to break the depth record of the Trieste and Kaiko, in a revealing ebullient moment, Bowen admits that indeed “we may be looking for that extra meter.”

Project Mohole was supposed to be Earth Science’s answer to the Apollo Moon program. Click mohole.jpg.

Nereus reminds us that about one long wave ago, the ebullient race to “inner space” was closely linked to the race to outer space.

1960, January 23: The Trieste. Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh — the ocean’s most daring explorers — took the Trieste 35,813 feet straight down into the Challenger Deep. It was the first and only time that humans have made the trip. Bowen, Ballard, and others still regard the Trieste mission with awe (and a little envy)!

1961, March: Project Mohole. After this ebullient brainchild of Scripps Institute of Oceanography geophysicist Walter Munk — to drill through the crust to the upper mantle and return samples — was funded by National Science Foundation in 1958, the first test drills in spring, 1961 were very successful. Drill holes reached about 600 feet into the crust through a record 11,700 feet of water, off the west coast of Mexico.

Some ebullient geophysicists envision Project Mohole returning samples from the Earth’s mantle about the same time as Apollo astronauts arrive on the Moon. Mantle rocks and Moon rocks would provide clues to the origin of the Earth and Moon.

1961, April 9: President Kennedy Congratulates Mohole. The ebullient icon of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window admired the Mohole team: “The success of the drilling in almost 12,000 feet of water…and the penetration of the ocean crust… constitute a remarkable achievement and an historic landmark…” (New York Times, 4/9/61).

1961, May 25: JFK’s To the Moon Speech. Before a joint session of Congress, President Kennedy announces that the U.S. will send an astronaut to the Moon and return him safely before the end of the decade. He wants to “catch up to and overtake” the Soviet Union in the “space race.”

1966, April 19: Congress Cancels Mohole. Due to scientific debates, political controversy, and budget stress due to the Vietnam War, Congress voted to cut off funds for Project Mohole. It’s cost estimates had finally soared beyond $ 100 M. Project Mohole sadly became Project “No Hole.”

In his 1999 book, The Executive Decisionmaking Process, Ralph Sanders criticizes the leaders of Mohole for getting caught up in the ebullience of the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window, “The scientists argued that, just as in the space program, the U.S. engaged in a race with the Soviets for discovering new and important facts about the Earth’s geology.”

Sanders asserts that Mohole failed because its leadership should have been engineers and technologists (in the style of Apollo) — not Earth scientists, and that the scientists were focused on more ebullient, and less engineering-related questions like:

“Can ocean and geologic science improve the nation’s image?”
“Can U.S. science beat Soviet science in this important field?”

My point here is not to question the visionary brilliance of Munk, Hess, and others who conceived of Mohole, but to simply illustrate the power of ebullience during a Maslow Window on even the best scientific minds, as well as on society at-large.

1969, July 20: Neil Armstrong becomes the first human to step on the Moon.

By analogy with the Trieste, Mohole, and Apollo, it’s likely that Nereus may be a precursor of the 2015 Maslow Window, when oceans, energy, and other global interests will interact strongly with human expansion into the cosmos.

One response so far

One Response to “Nereus, Mohole, Apollo and the New Race to Space”

  1. Aron Soraon 14 Jun 2009 at 12:15 am

    Is it an either or thing? Will having a deep sea program prevent the development of a space program or visa versa. Are there enough resources during a Maslow window to support both?

    Thanks for your question.

    I decided to respond in a new post at: http://21stcenturywaves.com/blog/2009/06/14/its-the-ebullience-not-just-the-economy/

    Best ebullient regards,

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