Space and the New Age of Exploration – An Interview With Explorers’ Club President Lorie Karnath


More than 1,000 explorers from around the globe will converge in New York City for the 106th Explorers' Club Annual Dinner on Saturday at the Waldorf=Astoria (watch a video from last year's event). While sharing a Versailles-styled ballroom with the world’s best polar explorers, bushwhacking biologists, and dusty archaeologists—some in native dress—might sound like a throwback to a bygone era, this year’s theme is decidedly modern: space. The evening's program even includes superstars on an intergalactic level, such as physicist Stephen Hawking and planetary scientist Steve Squyres. According to club president Lorie Karnath (pictured below), we are entering a new Age of Exploration, one baring likeness to sailing’s uncharted days and early polar expeditions. Here Karnath fills us in on the future of space tourism, manned missions, planetary colonization, and space-age exploration.—By Mary Anne Potts

Why is this a new Age of Exploration? 
There was a time in history known as the Age of Exploration, starting in the 15th century, when explorers and adventurers really did not know where they were going, what to expect, or what they would find. That’s the same feeling we have about space. Space is definitely going to become a more important place for us to learn about as quickly as possible.

The other part is that our government and some of the other governments are not going to spend the same type of money they spent in the past, vis-à-vis human flight, so that allows groups like the Explorers’ Club to really play a significant role in space.

And in terms of the future survival of the species, space is going to become increasingly important to determine where we could potentially live, should something happen here on Earth.

If something made Earth unlivable—that's a dramatic statement.

I don’t think of it as dramatic; I think of it as forward planning. And if you look at the recent earthquake in Chile, it was pretty significant and may have even shifted the Earth’s axis a bit. I’m not saying that humans will leave Earth tomorrow, but that was what exploration is all about—discovering new places where man can go for a number of different reasons. As Stephen Hawking said, "To limit man’s exploration to terrestrial matters is to contain the human spirit." Whereas, the whole idea of discovery is to expand the spirit.

The Obama Administration just increased the space budget in general, but has reduced funding for manned exploration. Do you see members of the Explorers’ Club stepping in with privately funded manned exploration?

Some of our members, in fact, are involved in private space funding, at least the initial stages. And certainly it is going to have to be privately funded. But yes, anyone who is involved should probably be an Explorers’ Club member.

Is there a place for space tourism in this puzzle?

I look at what we are calling “space tourism” as “space logistics.” How do we get to the South Pole today? Or climb Mount Everest? There are certain tools that you bring along with you and ways to get there. It’s still exploration, but the ways we are able to get to these areas has improved. So I look at it as a logistical means of traveling to places that we are going to want to get to.

Two hundred years ago, going to the North Pole was practically a deathwish. I can’t help thinking of going into space as very, very dangerous.

That is what we think today, but I remember when I was down at the South Pole and there was an astronaut with us, Jim Neville. He said that getting to the moon was a lot easier than getting to the South Pole. This was because everything was engineered and programmed. Of course, we hadn’t had the best or easiest experience getting to the South Pole, but still. He said that because we were at the whim of so many variables, we are in a much different position. Think of the guys who jumped on sailboats and couldn’t even measure longitude. They ventured out to find places that didn’t even exist, as far as they knew.

Can you give us any clues about the surprises for this year’s Annual Dinner? Will there be scorpions, tarantulas, and bull testicles to nibble on, like previous years? 
Nope, we are changing that. Because this year’s theme is space, are going to have something called “future foods,” which will be a mixture of foods that you may be familiar with, but presented in a very different format. For example, there’s a hors d’oeuvre of foie gras mixed with Pop Rocks candy. 

For me, having lived all over the world, the things we call “exotics” are just normal fare. I never thought of it as exotic at all. So we are trying something different.

Jim Fowler usually showcases incredible animals illustrating the dinner’s theme—polar bear cubs for climate change, a red kangaroo for biodiversity. What can he show for the space theme? 
He is going to bring animals that have helped us in space…so space friends.

What are you excited about in the program itself?

All of it, really. The annual dinner is where we give out our awards, and we have a great roster of awardees. Donald Johanson is receiving the Explorers Medal, which is our highest honor. I think it’s particularly interesting to give him this medal to this year. He’s the person who discovered Lucy. To understand where we are going in space, it’s important to understand where we came from. And he certainly is a good person to talk about that.

And then we have Steven Squyres, who is in charge of the Mars Rover. The program is really divided into three parts—where do we come from; where are we now; and where are we going. We are going to have Pete Worden, who recently did the experiments showing that there is water on the Moon. Steve Squyres is going to talk about Mars, which is another planet we are focusing on. There are likely Mars missions in the not so distant future.

The end of the program will be a message from Stephen Hawking about the importance of space for us as species. So we’ll travel through space throughout the program.

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Has the Explorers’ Club flag been taken into space yet?

Oh, yes, there have been several. They have gone with astronauts. We definitely have been there already. For a long time, exploration was trying to define itself because all the boundaries of the map were more or less filled. New scientific tools, like genetics and PCR [polymerase chain reaction], opened up a whole new realm of exploration, because we could go to the same places and discover all kinds of new species and whatever.

So scientific breakthroughs on Earth have been spearheading exploration these days. But space is a whole new animal. Sure, we’ve got some beautiful pictures, and we are learning more and more. But we don’t even really know what holds space together. We know about dark matter and dark energy, but we don’t know what that is. In many ways, it’s like jumping on to those sailboats way back when and going off. But we’re going to come back with so much knowledge and them some. It’s going to be a whole new amazing realm.


Photographs, from top, courtesy of Anthony Subieta, Lorie Karnath



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