Whether We’re Exploring Space or the Ocean, Stories Fuel Science

The Double-Edged Sword

By Olivia Burgess
The Double-Edged Sword

My Introduction to Science, Technology, & Society class recently discussed “space ethics,” and part of that conversation involved weighing the costs and benefits of prioritizing space exploration over other alternatives – most notably, ocean exploration. 

For part of our discussion, I grouped my students into two different teams and gave them a task: one team had to decide how to convince the public to support funding space exploration, while the other team needed to convince the public that it was better to support ocean exploration. 

The space team focused on a point echoed by John Lodgson, a scholar on space policy, who argues that despite the massive investment of resources and inherent risk of manned spaceflight, it offers us an intangible benefit that outweighs even hard data: a compelling story. Spaceflight sparks our imaginations, shows us what’s possible, and helps us reflect on the nature of human experience. It’s no surprise the first ever civilian-only spaceflight recently launched by SpaceX is called Inspiration4. Traveling to space is quickly becoming a possibility for anyone (assuming you can pay for the ticket).

The crew of SpaceX’s Inspiration4, the first ever civilian-only spaceflight. Image credit: SpaceX.

The ocean team focused more on the concrete benefits of staying close to earth and exploring all the untapped potential resources of the ocean. Amazingly, only 5-10% of the ocean’s volume has actually been explored, and less than half of the ocean has been mapped. The students stressed the need to focus on our own very habitable world. In a written response to our discussions on space ethics, Chemistry and Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences major Audrey Dunn likened the situation to trying to clean up someone else’s mess before your own room is clean. “Earth,” she wrote, “is our room, and it is nowhere even close to clean.” To generate support from the public, the ocean team recommended creating documentaries and films to capture the wonders of the ocean and motivate exploration. In other words, ocean exploration needs what space has in spades –inspirational stories.  

One company is hoping to do just that. While you’ve probably heard a lot about SpaceX, you might not have heard of OceanX (full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of it either until I started writing this). OceanX is a private company collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help educate the public and generate investment (both financial and human) in ocean exploration. Outfitted with an impressive high-tech ship, the company aims to uncover the vast unseen depths of the ocean “through groundbreaking science and storytelling” and to bring those stories to the public.  And they have quite a few amazing stories to tell!

Check out the first live footage of a giant sea squid in US waters.

Cruising around their website, it’s easy to be awed by both what the company is achieving and all the incredible creatures that inhabit our planet. I found myself more captivated by the realizable possibilities of the ocean, the “alien-like life” being discovered, and the unbelievable expanse still left uncharted than I am by the visions – though certainly inspiring – of SpaceX. 

So why aren’t we pursuing ocean exploration full steam? This problem is captured nicely in “The Wild Blue Under,” when oceanographer Sylvia Earle warns that “Far and away, the biggest threat to the ocean is ignorance.” Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences major Morgan Robinson also sharply observed that while everyone can look up, see the stars, and be filled with wonder, the ocean is not as easily accessible. And while giant squids are fascinating, they are also one of many creatures that frighten people away from the ocean. Movies like Jaws (1975) have told stories that have shaped our view of the ocean depths as a place of horror rather than wonder and inspiration.

After weighing arguments for both sides, most of my students supported space exploration as a long-term goal but believed that ocean exploration offers the best, safest, and most immediate return on investment. Ultimately, whether you’re on Team Space or Team Ocean may very well depend on which side has the better story to tell.

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