For some strange reason
I feel a sense of freedom donning crampons, grasping
an ice ax and heading up a steep slope. Perhaps it
is the crunch of the snow or the ability to choose
a line with relative independence. Or maybe it’s
the ability to traverse terrain that would otherwise
be inhospitable to humans.
I seem to have a fascination
with places that are difficult or impossible for
people to survive in without some supplemental aid,
perseverance and skill. There are many similarities
in my favorite places. The high and cold, the world
of rock, snow and ice, or the vacuum of near-earth
orbit aboard the Space Shuttle are some of my favorite
places. When I return from these wild places, I feel
energized, closer to my friends and family, and better
able to cope with the “real world.” As
we celebrate this anniversary of the Wilderness Act
of 1964, I reflect back on my start in exploration.
In 1974 I set off into the Wind River Range in the
Bridger Wilderness on a NOLS Wind River Wilderness
course. The skills I developed on that NOLS experience
have been a catalyst for leadership in my science,
astronaut and mountaineering exploits.
element of my early experience and those that have
followed is the raw nature of the wilderness. Whether
in the Wind River Range or standing on the summit
of Denali, the pristine natural world provides me
with a primordial reference point, a basis for making
risk decisions about the conduct of my life, and
my understanding of my place in this world.
NOLS course, I didn’t consider that the Wilderness
Act was protecting that pristine environment. My
perspective is very different now. I have had the
privilege to see Earth from a viewpoint high above
the planet. There is no mistaking the impact that
people are having on our environment. Wild places
are becoming scarce.
In orbit, I found it remarkable
that there are few places left on the planet where
you can’t see evidence of people altering the
forests, prairies, wetlands, oceans and deserts.
From space, the forests of the Pacific Northwest
look as if they have some kind of patchy skin disease.
The Amazon basin appears to have an infestation of
some kind of giant rainforest-consuming pest. Massive
open pit mines stick out like beacons of development.
Smoke from burn-off of forests or crops can be seen
traveling across the oceans.
The pressures on the
environment are real, fueled by the basic human desire
to survive, an ever increasing human population,
and the drive to produce and consume material goods.
From space, there are visible areas of wilderness
appearing as islands within a sea of modified terra
At least in our solar system, the Earth is
unique. Our views of the other planets and the moons
of Jupiter and Saturn show a beautiful and varied
assortment of environments. On those planets we see
no trees, no cacti, no moss or coral reefs, no marmots
At a recent NASA symposium entitled “Risk
and Exploration: Earth, Sea, and Space” we
discussed the benefits and risks inherent in exploration.
The consensus view was that the biggest risk of all
is not to explore. Dr. Sylvia Earle, a leading American
oceanographer, said at the symposium that, “we
need wild places for our young people to get out
in the natural world, to connect with the world.” I
certainly had that experience as a young explorer
on my NOLS course, and it changed my life.
anniversary year of the Wilderness Act, it is apparent
that our natural lands are at a higher risk than
ever. The view from space confirms this on a global
scale. It is my hope that we can not only continue
to protect our wilderness areas, but also influence
the preservation of greater tracts of wild places,
not just at home, but in a broader context. Only
in this way can our children and their children
gain a deeper connection to our planet, understand
the true spirit of exploration, and, by extension,
ensure our survival on and off planet Earth.
M. Grunsfeld, Ph.D., is a two-time NOLS grad (WRW
6/24/74, ICE 9/1/86) and has been instrumental
in creating NOLS-NASA Leadership Expeditions. His
experiences in space include flights aboard Endeavour
in 1995, Atlantis in 1997, Discovery in 1999 and
Columbia in 2002.