Built on Facts

Magnificent Desolation

This is K2. 11 people died this month trying to climb it.

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At 28,251 ft (8,611 meters), K2 is the second highest mountain on this planet, and is technically a much more difficult climb than Everest. I’ve never climbed anything higher than a few hundred feet. Even a passenger jet slashing through the darkness will not reach much higher. To me the appeal of climbing is manifest in photographs like that one. The stern and austere beauty of these peaks is the closest even the most adventurous people can get to something like Buzz Aldrin’s magnificent desolation.

In some respects K2 is more dangerous than a lunar launch. There were no deaths on any Apollo mission which attempted to reach the moon, though three lost their lives during the Apollo 1 tragedy. K2 has killed some 76 people, about a quarter of the people who have attempted the climb.

People take risks for the things they love. Physicists don’t often die for physics, though it has happened. I wouldn’t be willing to risk my life to shave 30 or 40 attoseconds off the sub-femtosecond laser pulse record, obviously. But if NASA bolted together an Ares I rocket tomorrow and asked me to go to the moon to help operate a science mission, would I go despite the unknown and probably significant chance of death?

This question was posed to me and my significant other by a friend who works at Stennis Space Center. Neither of us hesitated. I said yes, she said no. Another friend who’s interning at Chevron was there with his girlfriend, and the answers went the same way.

Well. Us guys had all been infected with the romance of space from a very young age. The girls were more pragmatic – perhaps like those well-meaning space scientists who would just as soon see the manned mission budget scrapped entirely and redirected to robotic missions.

To heck with that. Science is not just data collection, it’s understanding and mastery of the natural world. I want to see that become mastery of the natural worlds.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex M
    August 9, 2008

    If I were to get a chance to return, in this hypothetical situation, I’d totally go, too. Nothing beats adding a little bit of sexy danger to spice up your science.

  2. #2 Vernon Balbert
    August 9, 2008

    Just like most people, I’ve seen tons of pictures of the Grand Canyon in my time. Very pretty. Then in 1989 I went there for the first time. Pictures don’t do it justice. The size, majesty and awesome grandeur of the place cannot be conveyed by pictures. I don’t care how many pictures you take of the moon or Mars or Titan, nothing will equal to being there in person. I’d go in a heartbeat.

  3. #3 Uncle Al
    August 9, 2008

    Limestone tops the Tibetan plateau. It began as sea bottom (presumably with a government program to keep it there).

    Aries will reduce riders to bloody smoothies. NASA can’t balance SSB vibrations. SSBs mounted with big off-road shock absorbers were seriously pursued. Asstronaughts wear adult diapers. NASA should be more facile with handling #2 given the volume it discharges.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NOAA-N
    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=10299
    Would you put your life into these hands?

  4. #4 Alex
    August 9, 2008

    I’d go in a heartbeat. Life’s too short to not take chances, even the occasional ridiculous one.

  5. #5 yogi-one
    August 9, 2008

    Aye, Mateys:

    “To Infinity – and BEYOND!”

    -Buzz Lightyear

  6. #6 Sarah
    August 9, 2008

    I’m pretty sure the answers would be reversed in my relationship. I’d go in a heartbeat. I’m not so certain my boyfriend would.

  7. #7 Ron
    August 9, 2008

    Sure, I’d go in a heartbeat. But at the same time, given the power to make to the decision, I’d scrap manned missions entirely and put the funds toward robotic ones. Far more science return on investment that way.

  8. #8 CCPhysicist
    August 10, 2008

    Definitely go, but I’ll be too old by the time that thing gets off the ground so might have to dream about suborbital flight.

    The few astronauts I’ve had a chance to talk to, all physicists, make it very clear that “just” being in low earth orbit is extremely cool. One had to wait more than a decade after his moon mission was canceled just to get a chance to orbit the earth on the Shuttle.

    One thing I wonder is how many of your readers have actually seen a *photograph* from space. Nothing you see on the internet or on TV comes close to the “almost there” quality of the prints in National Geographic from the Gemini space walks (no windows in the way) or on the moon. Textbook and most book pictures are cropped or resized and on crappy paper.

  9. #9 Brian
    August 10, 2008

    I’ll go you one better than that. My grandfather worked on the electronics for the Apollo missions and gave me a few 8×12 photographs (as in, made from the actual negatives). There is something to be said for being able to touch the images.

  10. #10 sil
    August 10, 2008

    Well, I’m a gal and I would say yes without hesistating one moment. Sure, if you see space missions only as a means of gathering scientific knowledge then robots can do the work. But humans are going to space for other reasons as well.

  11. #11 Crudely Wrott
    August 10, 2008

    Send all the robots you like and you will get an ever more complete description of conditions. Ever clearer pictures of native chemistry and weather. Send in a human to describe just what the place is “like.”

    The two types of knowledge are complimentary. The first provides basic, raw understanding of extant conditions. The second reveals the possibility of a niche for people. We look at distant places with the idea in mind that people might someday go to them. We will not know their true natures until we observe directly with human eyes gathering the light of a foreign star and human skin exposed to alien atmospheres. We are, after all is said and done, looking for destinations.

  12. #12 zay?flama
    August 11, 2008

    Pictures don’t do it justice. The size, majesty and awesome grandeur of the place cannot be conveyed by pictures. I don’t care how many pictures you take of the moon or Mars or Titan, nothing will equal to being there in person. I’d go in a heartbeat.

  13. #13 kar?nca yumurtas? ya??
    August 11, 2008

    One had to wait more than a decade after his moon mission was canceled just to get a chance to orbit the earth on the Shuttle.

  14. #14 tala
    August 11, 2008

    National Geographic from the Gemini space walks (no windows in the way) or on the moon. Textbook and most book pictures are cropped or resized and on crappy paper.

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