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Fall 2004 Issue
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We Need Wilderness to Survive
By John Mace Grunsfeld, Ph.D.
Astronaut/NASA Chief Scientist
Astronaut John Grunsfeld gives a thumbs during one of his flights. “An advantage we enjoy while working in space is that the 350-pound space suits are easy to wear,” he’s said. “There are many times when I’ve wished that my 90-pound backpack full of winter gear was weightless in the mountains as well.”

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.

A quintessential 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.

On my 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 firma.

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 or ptarmigans.

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.

In this 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.

John 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.

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