Friday, October 19, 2012

(un)Parallel Explorations: Deep Space and Deep Sea

As the last of the space shuttles find their homes in museums throughout the United States, it is interesting to think of the intertwined vision of deep space and deep sea exploration. The belief that exploring the sea is similar to exploring space is entrenched in our cultural understanding of the ocean. Play the clip above- the trailer for James Cameron's "Aliens of the Deep".  In the trailer, the deep sea is directly correlated to deep space.  And deep space exploration is easy according to Cameron:

"We need to take everything we know about deep sea exploration and apply it to space."

This is a particularly misleading comment.  It suggests that sea and space are similar, but it also suggests that we know bunches about deep sea exploration.  Enough, it seems, to apply it to space exploration.  But Cameron has jumped the gun: deep sea exploration isn't close to being ready for other applications. And, the constant application of the alien concept of space to deep sea exploration might actually be hurting the endeavor.  So, how are these two forms of exploration similar, and how are they different? Let's check it out:

Both outer space and deep sea carry a sense of "otherness" in cultural conceptions.  Obviously, this stems from a sense of unknown vastness- but it also contributes to a sense of sameness that might be misleading- deep space and the deep sea are definitely not the same thing. Our knowledge of the deep sea environment has been limited to dredging of the sea bottom (a very small portion of the sea bottom)- a technique that is just basically the most haphazard form of sampling available and which kills most of the animals before they ever reach the surface- to very limited deep sea dives in manned and unmanned submersibles. The earth's deep sea depths continue to offer scientists and the public surprises:  the odds of finding new species (besides insects) in the terrestrial environment are very low, but the expectation of finding new species in the ocean are very high. In truth, we still have a very limited idea about deep sea environments.  But this unknown does not equal unknowable (in the way that deep space is still years away from even technically capable of being explored).  Cultural conceptions of the sea may too closely resemble conversations people have about space.  If people are convinced that the deep sea is unknowable and too vast to be explored, how might this affect funding and ideas about exploring these depths.  The depths of the sea are accessible! But, we need money to get there- so how does deep sea exploration funding match up with space exploration?

There's been a lot of talk about space funding recently.  NASA is being cut back and the age of commercial space exploration is here.  But before this era, there was NASA- and it was a huge force with a lot of funding. So where does deep sea exploration fit in? There has never been a deep-sea NASA-like initiative.  In fact, although exploration of the ocean is older, it has been shuttled between many different agencies in the government, meaning that funding is never quite clear.  In a recent 3 part series, scientists at the blog called for an Ocean NASA (Which they call OSEA- Ocean Science Exploration Agency). part 1part 2, and part 3 Recently, funding for ocean exploration and research has been cut without the public acknowledgement.  (see the previous post on Alvin or Part 1 and 2 above for information on these cuts) So, budgets are being cut on NASA and ocean exploration- but ocean exploration had less direct funding in the first place. So, how are these cuts affecting exploration and research?

Space X launched its first commercial rocket to the International Space Station in early October.  But what's up with deep sea exploration? In March, James Cameron made a solo dive to the Mariana(s) Trench in the Deep Sea Challenger. The vehicle and the expedition were mostly funded by corporate and private money (including Cameron and Rolex).  And as exciting as it was for the general public, it raises some interesting questions: who has access to the information collected? is this a return to a class based scientific endeavor? And for me, a question: what does it mean that a filmmaker, instead of a scientist, was the first solo person to reach this deep sea environment and introduce it to a larger audience (he's making a 3D film of his dive)? As some people have said, it's actually safer for an unmanned submersible to descend to those depths.The only other individuals to reach these depths were Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh- two Oceanographers in 1960.

The DeepSeaChallenger- both images from National Geographic.

Does the work of James Cameron somehow perpetuate a belief of the deep sea environment as an environment that is more fictional than scientific?   Does his manned dive somehow perpetuate these somewhat misleading intersections between deep space and deep sea explorations?  Is this helpful to the scientific endeavor or just another way to give the public a vision of what they've come to expect?

It is time that deep space and deep sea exploration become unwound. It's really not serving marine science.  But how can we go about untangling the dual images of the extremely different endeavors?

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