A Really Cool Blog

… about science & space, people & politics, various musings & other cool things too.

Month: July 2015

Turkey’s Islamic State Dilemma

Turkey has an Islamic State dilemma and, over the course of the past week, it has been getting worse. On Monday, July 20th, a suicide bomber blew himself up during a rally of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed Youth Wing in the southern Turkey town of Suruç, killing 32 and injuring hundreds others. The activists targeted were mainly university students who had been planning to travel to Syria to help rebuild the town of Kobane. The suicide bombing, one of the deadliest attacks in Turkey in recent years, has been attributed to the Islamic State. This attribution of responsibility is more significant than it may first appear: the usual reaction of Turkish officials to such attacks has been to blame them on agents of the Syrian government, however unlikely that might be. Indeed, prior to the latest bombing, three Turkish journalists had asked the local provincial governor if Islamic State militants had crossed from Syria into Turkey and had been promptly jailed for their pains. The Suruç bomber, a 20-year-old Turkish student, had reportedly had links to the militant organization, and the Islamic State had allegedly taken the decision to pursue more active operations in Turkey just days before the attack. Other than past unplanned clashes between Islamic State militants and Turkish soldiers and bombings thought to involve the Islamic State in Reyhanli in 2013 and Istanbul in 2015, this was the first attack by the Islamic State on Turkish soil.

The reaction to the suicide bombing has been strong, not only on social media but on the streets. In over 10 cities, protests have been held by thousands of people, with many chanting claims that the government has not been doing enough to combat the Islamic State. Still, the government was quick to condemn the attack and point the finger at the Islam State, and operations have recently been held in several cities across Turkey against Islamic State recruiters and would-be jihadists. Just a week ago, 30 people were detained. Yet some argued that such operations and the increasing military presence along the Syrian border could have led the Islamic State to change tactics and stage attacks within Turkish territory. Attacking university students hoping to help rebuild war-stricken Kobane may have been an attempt to create a further sense of terror inside Turkey.

Two Turkish police officers were then found shot dead on Wednesday in the town of Ceylanpinar, which is in the same province of Suruç and close to the Syrian border. The military wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it a revenge operation against “policemen collaborating with Daesh.” The killing was an ominous development, coming two years into a supposed truce between the Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces. The suicide bombing in Suruç has clearly aggravated tensions, leading to angry demonstrations and clashes between pro-Kurdish protestors and riot police. The murder of the police officers has been seen by some as revenge for the Suruç bombing, and will either way only add to the growing tension in southern Turkey.

Some opposition figures in Turkish politics say that the government’s main concern is not the Islamic State threat, but the threat posed by the increasingly powerful Kurdish presence in the north of Syria. Indeed, pro-government papers have recently come out with headlines suggesting that the Kurdish militias in Syria were more dangerous than the Islamic State. The long-standing conflict between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population has confused the situation in northern Syria and southern Turkey, where some Kurdish militias combat the Islamic State but also oppose Turkey; Ankara has watched with much concern as Kurdish groups have come to control some 250 miles of the Syrian side of Turkey’s southern border. As such, the spill-over effect of the Islamic State’s attack in Suruç will surely only serve to aggravate the Kurdish-Turkish issue at a time when Turkey’s security situation is already increasingly under threat.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, gunfire from across the Turkish border with Syria killed a Turkish non-commissioned officer and wounded two sergeants in the southern Kilis province. According to official sources, a pickup truck carrying 10 heavily armed Islamic State fighters opened fire on Turkish troops stationed at a mountain border outpost. In response, Turkish forces responded by targeting positions across the border, killing at least one Islamic State militant and capturing another. In the meantime, security forces maintained fire on Islamic State positions in Azaz town in northwestern Syria, and armored vehicles were reportedly sent to the border region.

Clearly, the situation in southern Turkey is growing increasingly tense. Many fear that the attack in Suruç could be a turning point for Turkey, a sign that the Syrian war is spilling over the border. Of course, many others argue that it already has. In a move to lessen fears and increase border security, Turkey has announced plans to construct a major wall along its southern border. Few would doubt that the ability to move backwards and forwards across long Syrian-Turkish border has been crucial for the growth of Islamist movements in Syria since 2011. Thousands of the foreign volunteers who have flooded into Syria have almost all come from Turkey. Even those unable to speak Turkish or Arabic have had little difficulty in making their way across. Of course, Turkish leaders furiously deny this, saying it is impossible to police such a long border. At any rate, the modular wall will include reinforced wire, floodlights, and extra ditches, and will better secure at least 560 miles of border. Already, roughly half of Turkey’s 40,000 border guards are now deployed along the border with Syria. Meanwhile, President Obama told Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday that the United States would help “stem the flow of foreign fighters.”

Violence is spreading inexorably into Turkey. Yet, as some fear, targeting Islamic State militants could trigger further attacks within the country. Of course, not targeting them could fuel the opposition’s accusations of suspected links between the government and the Islamic State. Meanwhile, Turkey will continue to struggle with its Kurdish population, which has become even more hostile following the suicide bombing in Suruç. With the growing developments over the past week, it seems all too clear that Turkey’s government has found itself in a complicated dilemma.

SpaceX’s rocket blew up. What’s it mean for commercial spaceflight?

139 seconds into flight on June 28th, 2015, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket experienced an “anomaly” in its upper stage and disintegrated off the coast of Florida. Lost among the billowing clouds of debris that marked the rocket’s demise were a new docking adapter for the International Space Station (ISS), a load of scientific experiments, cargo and provisions for the ISS crew, and, perhaps most significantly, SpaceX’s much-touted flawless launch record. And, for the enthusiastic community of “New Space” and commercial spaceflight advocates watching the live video stream of the accident, there likely arose concerns over the future of the commercial space industry. With many in the space community putting their hope in SpaceX to innovate the launch market and drive down costs, this loss of mission was a sobering reminder that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of its prestige or image, is infallible. So what does this failure mean for commercial spaceflight in general?

Probably nothing. As policy analysts, space insiders, and industry experts have pointed out again and again since the accident, this loss of mission is likely nothing more than a bump in the road (albeit a considerable one) for SpaceX and, by extension, for commercial space. Yet the context and circumstances of this failure are important in the broader picture of the developing commercial space industry and are therefore worth discussing. After all, while this accident may not be a turning point in the path toward the commercialization of space, it will nonetheless be a historical footnote of significance.

SpaceX's Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Falcon 9, prepped for the CRS-7, prior to its launch and explosion. Credit: SpaceX

First, to frame this discussion, a brief review of commercial spaceflight is prudent.

A Background on Commercial Space:

Lost among many supporters of SpaceX and other upstart space companies is the fact that commercial spaceflight is hardly new. Long-established organizations such as United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and the European Airbus-run Arianespace, have, along with commercial launches by national space programs, held a near-monopoly on the commercial space market for decades. Referred to in the space community as “Old Space,” these companies have traditionally been the providers of launches for defense, private, and sometimes scientific customers. Considering the cost and complexity of space technology, it was until recently exceedingly difficult for companies that didn’t have prior experience in the space industry through public contracts with NASA or which weren’t established aerospace players to enter the trade. These “Old Space” companies, although having great records of reliability by virtue of their long experience, have been frequently criticized for a lack of technological innovation; many designs for the commercial rocket fleet are decades old. As a result, prices for payloads into space have remained high. As routinely pointed out by advocates of private space travel, tourism, and commerce, this represents a prohibitive environment for the development of space.

Enter “New Space,” the recent generation of companies dedicated to developing launch and spacecraft capabilities. Over the past two decades, private investment and private and government-funded initiatives – such as the X-Prizes, which in 2004 enabled the first private suborbital flight – have helped upstart companies obtain the financial wherewithal to develop the technologies and infrastructure necessary for successful commercial ventures into space. With the proliferation of new launch providers and the opening of the commercial space market, some new companies have begun earnestly exploring the possibilities for commercial space mining, for suborbital and orbital tourism, for private Moon landings, and for orbital hotels and outposts. Meanwhile, close technical and financial collaboration between NASA and the commercial space industry through the Commercial Crew and Commercial Cargo Program have catalyzed the remarkable growth in capabilities and market participation for companies such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

Indeed, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program may be one of the single most important factors in the recent development of the commercial space industry, and represents an important change in policy direction and calculation for NASA. Begun in the 2000s, the program has provided hundreds of millions of dollars to numerous American space companies for the development of human spaceflight technologies and concepts. Since 2012, some of the companies awarded contracts with NASA through this program, such as SpaceX and Orbital ATK, have been providing private cargo launches to the International Space Station; the rocket that SpaceX just lost was on such a mission – SpaceX’s 7th commercial resupply mission to the International Station. Beginning in 2017, SpaceX and Boeing, another contract-awardee through the program, will be conducting launches of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station using their privately-developed, human-rated spacecraft.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft arrives at the ISS on a NASA-contracted resupply mission. Credit: NASA

The paradigm shift that the commercial program represents is borne largely from NASA’s shifting of priorities and lacking in capabilities. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been without a spacecraft capable of shuttling cargo and supplies to the ISS; American astronauts have been forced to fly upon Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get into space, often at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars per seat. While the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft currently under development are capable of such missions, they are designed to be beyond-Earth-orbit vehicles; their use for the purposes of logistical support and crew rotation to the ISS and in low-Earth-orbit would be highly inefficient. Thus, by investing in private companies to provide these services through the commercial program, NASA is not only divesting from Russia at a time of significant geopolitical tensions, but is enabled to focus on its mission of space exploration and scientific discovery. Meanwhile, both the “Old Space” and “New Space” companies involved in the space industry have benefited enormously from the financial supported offered through contracts with NASA for the commercial program; indeed, for some such as SpaceX, these contracts have been vital in order to become established in the industry.

The June 28th launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket – termed CRS-7, the 7th commercial resupply mission SpaceX was to carry out per its contractual obligations with NASA – was the result of years of policy calculation, funding, and support by NASA for the commercial space industry. It represented the continual progress and development of the industry toward greater capabilities, an increased role in the American space program, and an expansion of the commercial space market. For many of those who had tuned in to watch the launch on live stream, hopes were high that the mission would demonstrate the payoffs and benefits of the commercial program and the involvement of private industry in space. But, as June 28th amply demonstrated, sometimes rockets blow up.

 An Inconvenient Time for Failure

The CRS-7 failure couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for SpaceX and advocates of commercial space. It followed the October, 2014 explosion of Orbital’s Antares rocket, another commercial resupply launch that resulted in a complete loss of mission. Coupled with the loss of a Russian resupply spacecraft in April, some have had well-intentioned (if misplaced) fears that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station will run out of supplies. Meanwhile, in the policy world, funding for commercial spaceflight has recently been under the scope, with budget cuts proposed that could significantly hamper the commercial program. The consecutive failure of two of the program’s main contractors provides considerable ammunition for policymakers opposed to the program, and likely has given rise to doubt and concern about the effectiveness of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo policy.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket disintegrates in the sky above Florida on June 28, 2015. Credit: NASA

SpaceX’s failure has also come at a time of growing, and heated, market competition between the company and the “Old Space” contingent of the space industry. After a lengthy battle with industry giants and the U.S. government, SpaceX was awarded Air Force certification to launch the United States’ most critical military spacecraft, breaking the monopoly held by ULA on that lucrative, potentially multibillion-dollar market. In large part, SpaceX was awarded the certification by virtue of its then near-flawless launch record, a necessary prerequisite for military launches of crucial importance. As the competition between ULA and SpaceX intensifies, ULA has pointed to its highly reliable launch record (only 1 launch out of nearly 4 dozen has been flawed, and even then did not result in complete mission failure) as the value the company holds over the more innovative, cheaper launches offered by SpaceX and other “New Space” companies; indeed, the bulk of ULA’s market rhetoric has been that reliability trumps pricing. With SpaceX having a record of 18 successful consecutive launches prior to the CRS-7 failure while still seeking innovative technologies to drive down prices, ULA’s arguments carried marginal weight at best. Now, such arguments have considerable merit.

Also of significance is that, in part because of SpaceX’s innovative approach to spaceflight and in part because of the bombastic rhetoric of its tech-billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk, the company has been subject to an unusual amount of media exposure and a considerable base of popular enthusiasm. This has especially been the case during the testing of the Falcon 9’s reusability capabilities, which SpaceX had sought to perfect during the CRS-7 launch. While this benefits SpaceX during times of success, it has also made it liable to increased scrutiny during times of failure. For a company that thrives on its image and relies upon the perceptions of its supporters and customers in order to compete with the industry’s more established players, heightened scrutiny during this trying time may jeopardize the integrity of that image.

There is then the issue of delays, inevitable and indeed necessary following any failure involving a launch vehicle. While SpaceX will spend this time figuring out what issues led to the rocket failure, resolving latent problems with its launch technology, and reassuring NASA, Congress, and its customers about the value of their product, the fact remains that the company is a launch provider – so long as rockets aren’t going up, money isn’t coming in. This delay not only complicates the cadence of SpaceX’s launches, which the company must keep high so as to prove and perfect their reusability technology and keep launch prices low, but, critically, harms the customer as well; so long as a company’s satellite isn’t flying, that company is yet to be making money on it. As delays persist and the wait time for customers to have their products launched extends, consumer confidence in SpaceX is bound to suffer. Nearly as critical is that this delay harms SpaceX’s bids for government and commercial launches; until SpaceX can demonstrate its value through a return-to-flight, both private and public customers may look elsewhere for a more expedited launch time-frame.

As such, SpaceX’s recently failure has considerably clouded its competition with ULA for launch contracts, which, until June 28th, had given encouragement to spaceflight enthusiasts that the commercial space industry was becoming more open to market competition – and, in turn, to driving down prices and innovating spaceflight technology.

Despite it all, Encouraging Signs

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 exploding over the coast of Florida came at an inconvenient time for commercial spaceflight and, at face value, bodes poorly for the company. Yet, despite it all, there have since been encouraging signs about the future of the industry. For all the aforementioned areas where SpaceX’s failure could pose significant problems, there have been reassurances that it is little more than a bump in the road. By and large, industry experts and policy makers recognize that space is hard, that rockets (which are themselves powered by little more than controlled explosions) can be destroyed by the most marginal mistakes, and that accidents shouldn’t preclude the continued development of the commercial space industry.

As the battle over commercial crew and cargo funding continues in the policy world, a number of high-profile individuals have come out in support of the program and SpaceX, even despite the recent failure. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, who chairs the committee responsible for setting NASA policy, expressed his confidence that SpaceX will rebound from its recent failure and that the accident should have no impact on the current direction of the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. Senator John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Forces Committee, expressed similar support for SpaceX despite the failure. Meanwhile, Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, has lent her support (albeit so far unsuccessfully) for restoring the commercial program’s funding back to appropriate levels. While the explosion of SpaceX’s rocket during a NASA-contracted resupply mission surely does not provide support for the policymakers attempting to sustain the program, it nonetheless appears to have had a negligible effect upon the perceptions of its top-level supporters.

A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA

A cloud of debris marks the demise of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced that it will stay the course with SpaceX, allowing the company to remain in competition with ULA for lucrative military launches despite the recent mishap. Both companies are expected to place bids in the coming months for the launch of GPS-3 navigational satellites, and the Air Force has made clear that it will not amend or otherwise alter its planned timeline for competition between the companies. As a reflection of good faith between SpaceX and the Air Force, Air Force specialists and analysts have been invited to participate in the accident review investigating the causes of CRS-7’s failure.

Also encouraging is that, despite the launch failure and despite SpaceX having a contract backlog of nearly 50 launches which will undoubtedly be pushed back further by delays, many of the company’s customers have come out with statements demonstrating their continuing support and loyalty. Equally encouraging is that, while a delay is to be expected before the return-to-flight of the Falcon 9, SpaceX has stated its hopes that such a delay won’t extend beyond a few months. SpaceX may be on track to launch CRS-8, another ISS resupply mission, in September; if not, the company at least expects a return-to-flight by the end of 2015.

What’s it Mean for Commercial Spaceflight?

For all of the areas of concern that have been exacerbated by the failure of CRS-7, there have been equally encouraging signs from important stakeholders in the commercial space that the accident won’t deter or undermine the continued development of the industry. Yet this by no means suggests that the explosion was a trivial or passing event, that there won’t be any market and industry ramifications, and that SpaceX hasn’t lost a considerable portion of the momentum and industry clout that had carried it into CRS-7. Events such as these are moments for reflection and recalculation – and for good reason. While the evolution of the commercial spaceflight industry and commercial cargo program will emerge and continue from the failure of CRS-7 rather unscathed, such will likely not be the case should these accidents continue to happen.

So what does SpaceX’s failure mean for commercial spaceflight?

For one, much of the perceived momentum carrying the commercial space industry, and especially SpaceX, forward has evaporated among the clouds of debris raining down upon Florida’s coast. SpaceX had, until this moment, been seen by many as a promising company of rigorous standards and innovative practices; for some, it was the company that held the promise of carrying the private individual into space. While the failure of CRS-7 has not completely tarnished SpaceX’s image or reputation, it has brought its legions of supporters back to the reality that space is difficult and that no company, regardless of rhetoric or promises, will always deliver. How this diminishing of enthusiasm and shifting of perceptions will manifest itself in the market remains to be seen, but it should be expected that ULA and other players in the industry will be better poised to combat and stave off the challenge that SpaceX represents. While SpaceX’s current customers have reaffirmed their loyalty for the company, it should not be immediately expected that future or potential customers will share the same level of support. At the least, the promise of “New Space” is, through events such as this, beginning to dim.

To that end, SpaceX will struggle with its continuing efforts toward innovating the launch industry and driving down market prices so long as delays continue. The company has relied upon commercial launches to test its reusability systems; such launches, which have recently employed the Falcon 9’s booster-return systems, were simultaneously market ventures and technological demonstrations. Until launches start again, SpaceX will be incapable of proving the capabilities of its innovative systems; until those capabilities are proven, or until other companies take up the goal of technological innovation, the commercial launch market will likely remain generally stagnant. As such, prices for space will likely remain high as well. Related, the costs to SpaceX in ensuring that the failure which destroyed CRS-7 doesn’t happen again will likely drive up the price of its launch services. As the case of ULA has demonstrated, ensuring flawless launch reliability will necessarily make those launches more expensive. SpaceX will, moving forward, need to strike a balance between guaranteeing the reliability of its systems while also ensuring that its reputation as a low-cost launch provider is maintained and sustained; doing so will be a difficult, though perhaps not impossible, task.

Yet the failure of SpaceX’s CRS-7, like the failure of Orbital’s Antares rocket last October, will not hamper the continuation of the commercial crew and cargo program. Despite tensions over its funding within the political establishment, the commercial program represents an important and positive new direction for NASA and, by extension, American spaceflight – indeed, one which is necessary considering the current capabilities and priorities of the American space program. It enjoys high-level support within the industry and space establishment, a reflection of the perceived past value and future successes of the policy. So long as the commercial program continues, as it will, the commercial space industry will enjoy the benefits that come with close collaboration, technical support, and, most importantly, financial investment from NASA. These benefits will expand the capabilities and capacities of commercial space players, enabling them to serve a wider variety of customers. From this will come the continuing development of outer space by commercial actors, including SpaceX. And from this continuing development will come an increased desire and need for access to space, which will catalyze even further growth within the industry.

Space is hard, and no company, even SpaceX, gets it right every single time. While the explosion of CRS-7 has opened room for much concern over the future of the industry, the company, and the commercial program, all signs point to the event being of negligible lasting significance. The commercial space industry has experienced a temporary setback, one of some importance, but not one that will debilitate it moving forward. As many space and industry insiders understand, and as many of the spaceflight enthusiasts disenchanted by the CRS-7 mission should recognize, the prevailing, and perhaps most realistic, motto for humanity’s foray into space is “per aspera ad astra” – “through hardships, to the stars.”

Introspection # 43: “Our Moment of Discovery”

Almost every, if not all, of the generations before us have experienced some pivotal “moment of discovery,” a point when the cumulative exploration and scientific efforts of humankind produced new insights and revelations which the scientists, explorers, and public of the time could distinctly call their own. These are the moments for which those who are around to bear witness are privileged with the opportunity to be “first;” the first generation to learn of the Americas, the first to observe the planets with clarity, the first to experience flight, the first to see man in space. They are those who enjoy the thrill of lingering questions being answered, of unseen horizons being mapped, of worldview and perspective being shaken or changed. There is a profundity in these moments which can hardly be captured by other elements of the human experience; these moments are crucial for not only advancing the forward motion of human progress, but in the impact they have upon our individual understanding of existence.

The profundity of these “moments of discovery” is manifest from the nature of knowledge, which in turn impacts the relationship between the possession of knowledge and the human drive toward understanding. Knowledge is not monolithic; rather, it encompasses different capacities and degrees of understanding. There are, as the axiom goes, the “known knowns, the unknown unknowns, and the known unknowns.” The characteristics which separate these forms of knowledge are distinct and shape our interactions with and reactions toward our expanding ontology. As such, their influence on the nature of “moments of discovery” is significant, indeed key, and it is thus of worth to briefly discuss their characteristics.

The “known knowns” represent that accumulated sum of human knowledge, at hand to us upon our entry into this world, to which we owe our debt of possession to the learned, the explorers, and the scientists who came before us. It is the knowledge which we know we know; the theories and equations which serve as the foundation toward our contemporary understandings. We are generally contented with the “known knowns,” for they provide us the necessary basis of understanding that staves off existential nausea. Equally important, the “known knowns” serve as the framework for further inquiry into the nature of the universe, a safe and familiar staging point from which we probe the depths of the unknown. The process of science builds upon acquired knowledge, even if to disprove it; the “known knowns” are from which all new knowledge is developed and to which the insights of the “moments of discovery” are compared.

There are then the “unknown unknowns,” which provide us the tantalizing impetus for our quest for knowledge; they represent the greater truths or deeper insights that presently lay beyond our comprehension and reach, but whose secrets the work of science seeks to unlock. The “unknown unknowns,” while indeed serving as a key motivational factor in the quest toward knowledge, nonetheless have a minimal role in the formation of our existential anxiety; an individual ignorant of the possibility for knowledge does not experience that apprehension borne from the recognized ignorance of knowledge. That is, we seek to learn what lies within the possible realm of our knowing but worry not about learning what lies beyond the limits of our understanding. Those concerned with and deliberately seeking the “unknown unknowns” are philosophers and theologians, not scientists; dramatic changes in understanding borne from the quest to learn the un-learnable are moments of revelation, not discovery. Of course, the “unknown unknowns” too bleed into “moments of discovery,” for it is the stumbling upon knowledge that we did not know we did not know that makes for revolutionary progress. Indeed, it is often the “unknown unknowns” that are most remembered about “moments of discovery,” even if those moments came in an effort to answer the “known unknowns.” The connection between the “unknown unknowns” and the “known unknowns” in the obtainment of knowledge is therefore both extant and important.

These “known unknowns” are the knowledge which we recognize to be within our capacity for possession but to which we have not yet come. These are those lands beyond the horizon, the worlds yet to be explored, the theories and equations that synthesize together our conceptions of the universe’s function. These are the achievable answers, not yet acquired, to the clear questions regarding our existential position. These are to what the scientists and explorers dedicate their devotion and energy, in order to satisfy the human drive for knowing. Most importantly, the “known unknowns” are, when discovery provides insight from ignorance, what excite the human spirit, what incite shifting in paradigm and theory, what provide impetus for even more ambitious inquiries into the realm of the unknown. The “known unknowns” too are from what progress in human knowledge develops. They are the next bridge to be crossed in the long and winding, perhaps never ending, path toward human enlightenment.

Yet the “known unknowns” are the root of our existential anxiety. A fundamental characteristic of the human experience is the drive away from ignorance; we are compelled at every turn to learn, to experience, to know. We fear ignorance, for only with knowledge do we make sense of the absurdity that is existence. It is true that we fear as well the “unknown unknowns,” as, for example, the ideas of what comes after death or whether there is a grander metaphysical reality than our own have been sources of social and cultural anxiety throughout the entirety of human civilization. Yet these fears are distinct and separate than those borne from the “known unknowns;” they are the fear that we will never know, that such know ledge lies outside the capacity for our understanding. The “unknown unknowns” present a challenge toward our quest for enlightenment in that we cannot understand them, not that we may not understand them. This is the distinction of the “unknown unknowns” from the “known unknowns.” There is a futility in searching for the “unknown unknowns,” and accordingly the anxieties are related to our limitations as humans, not the limitations in our knowledge. The “known unknowns” may be understood, however, but, lying just beyond our present reach, taunt our ignorance. They keep us, who know that something is to be learned, waiting until that “moment of discovery” to finally gain insight. The “known unknowns” are at once frustrating and exciting, inciting within us both anxiety and anticipation.

Such is why “moments of discovery” are so profound; they represent the resolution to our “known unknowns,” the point at which known ignorance is dispelled. For an inquisitive species such as ours, few other experiences resonate so deeply with our fundamental character. When coupled with a discovery of an “unknown unknown,” as these “moments of discovery” so frequently are, humanity’s ontology is greatly expanded. These are discernible moments of tangible and intangible progress, of the advancing of our species – these are thus moments during which we take pride for being human. And indeed, there is something in these moments that resonates with the human desire to belong, to feel a part of something greater than the individual self. There is a compulsion to feel included, be it among a group or within a moment. We take joy in knowing or saying that “I was there.” For the generations that have witnessed these moments of discovery, they rightfully may do so.

Yet there are caveats. Generations subsequent to those which experienced a moment of discovery are of course privy to the acquired knowledge and enjoy the benefit of insight borne from it. Yet a fundamental disconnect exists between the knowledge derived from past discoveries and the generations which were not around to experience its realization. For these generations, such past knowledge is a foundational pillar upon which contemporary understandings exist. It is a given, taken for granted, for such knowledge has always existed during these newer generations’ time. There has been no dispelling of ignorance, or any startling insight, borne from this knowledge, and accordingly it does not have the same profundity or impact upon the newer generations as it did upon the generations around to witness its discovery. Such is why, despite every generation having available to them the breadth of human knowledge past and present, they still seek most readily to learn more, so as to resolve the lingering ignorance still present as a part the human condition. That is, despite every generation having the benefits of insight brought from the “moments of discovery” for which they were not present, every generation still seeks to have its own “moment of discovery.” Every generation desires the ability to say “I was there.”

I have been prompted to conduct this brief discourse on “moments of discovery” because I am soon to experience my own – the encounter with Pluto of the NASA “New Horizons” spacecraft. At the time of this writing, the spacecraft has yet to make its encounter; the specific details of Pluto’s surface and the first up-close images of the distant world have yet to be received. While we know that Pluto is out there, and while we have a rough idea of what its surface may look like, we are still waiting for that “moment of discovery” to reveal to us long-awaited insight. We are soon to replace the “known unknown” that is Pluto’s detailed characteristics with a truer knowledge of them and, hopefully, encounter “unknown unknowns” while doing so. And, as every day passes and as more enticing images are received from New Horizons, I find myself anticipating the excitement that will come when humanity finally lifts the veil of mystery surrounding Pluto.

This soon-to-be “moment of discovery” has, for me, an added profundity. The history of humanity’s exploration of space is hardly half a century old and yet has already radically redefined how we conceptualize our position in the universe. The perspective of humanity has shifted dramatically, from holding a privileged position as the focal point of existence to understanding our true insignificance in the face of the vastness that is time and space. For the two preceding generations, which were around to witness these enormous changes, these “moments of discovery” had no doubt been transformative. Indeed, some would be quick to argue that humanity’s foray into space has resulted in one of the most dramatic evolutions and revolutions in human knowledge. Yet for the greater bulk of the “space age,” I had yet to have been born. Accordingly, those redefinitions of perspective borne through the insights of past space exploration have always been a given for me; I have operated with them as a foundational truth. I have never wondered or been forced to only imagine what Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune look like from close, for the images returned from the Voyager spacecraft have always been available to me. I have never questioned whether man could enter, travel through, and live in space, or what the Moon looks like upon its surface. Humanity has already been there. For most of the incredible discoveries and feats of exploration so far accomplished in humanity’s quest into space, I cannot say that “I was there.” Those moments belong to past generations.

Yet the encounter with Pluto belongs to mine, and the encounter with Pluto will doubtlessly rival, if not surpass, those past “moments of discovery” in its significance. Because of the incredible distances involved in traveling to the far-off world, it is no small wonder that it has taken a half-century of spaceflight to earnestly begin our exploration of it. And it is likely that a moment such as what is soon to come will not occur again in the next half-century. This impending encounter, and the insights and revelations it will bring, is an event of great historical significance, marking the end to the first stages of the exploration of our Solar System. It is one that none of the “space age” generations until mine have experienced, and it is one which the following generations may not witness soon again.

And so, when New Horizons swoops past Pluto, snapping the first ever images clearly showing its surface and thereby closing a chapter on humanity’s exploration of space, I will have witnessed a marked moment of progress for humanity. And with that, I will be proud and privileged to say, as could everyone else alive to witness this historic “moment of discovery,” that “I was there.”

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén