Status Report

Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Exploration is all about the unexpected

By SpaceRef Editor
October 8, 2008
Filed under , , ,
Wayne Hale’s NASA Blog: Exploration is all about the unexpected

Yesterday I was handed a paper to read which was commissioned by the Constellation Program to see if there was anything we could learn from historical exploration as a lesson for NASA. That was a great idea. I was excited to see that the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland was the scholarly organization which produced this paper. I was just there! I had walked across the campus! wow, small world!

I had great hopes for this paper.

After I read it, I felt disappointment. I slept on it. I read it again this morning. I am still disappointed.

Probably it is not fair; the attempt to learn lessons from history is always a noble one. Perhaps this is just too big a topic to address in a short academic paper. So rather than criticize, lets take a look beyond the Venn diagrams and explore for the golden nuggets of wisdom that come with a deep understanding of the lessons that history of exploration can teach us.

The Strathclyde study said that Columbus’s voyages were a tactical (“program”) failure and a strategic success. Really?

I would offer the following episode from Columbus’s last voyage for your contemplation. It is a story of discovery, knowledge, arrogance, ignorance, and lastly justice. You decide if the result of the voyage is failure or success.

This is from a great book — and a very timely read it is: “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 2000 ISBN 0-609-60233-0. The book is about the great 1900 hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. These pages take you back another 400 years earlier.

Excerpts from pages 34-43.

Columbus set off on his first voyage on August 3, 1492, from Palos, Spain, with a fleet of three tiny caravels, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. By nineteenth-century standards, the three vessels hardly qualified as ships. They were large boats crewed skimpily with a few experienced sailors and adventure-hungry boys. Not only did Columbus and his captains have no means of determining the exact location of their ships in the featureless blue of the ocean, they also carried none of the meterological tools that mariners in Isaac’s time took for granted.

After overcoming a few technical problems, the ships caught the trades and made quick, untroubled progress. The weather was perfect: clear blue skies, brisk and steady winds shoving big cotton clouds over the horizon, cool nights and balmy days, the overall effect one of languid, sloe-eyed sensuality. “The weather was like April in Andalusia,” Columbus wrote, “the only thing wanting was to hear the nightingales.”

But something curious did occur during the first voyage. A lookout saw them first, rising a long way off. Astonished, he sounded the alarm.

It was September 23, the fleet’s exact position unclear but the weather good, skies bright, no sign of a storm on any horizon. Nonetheless, the lookouts spotted immense swells marching slowly and silently toward the ships. Columbus and his captains turned the fleet into the oncoming seas and watched open-jawed as the surface of the ocean rose in great oil-smooth hills of blue and green. The swells lifted the ships to exhilarating heights but posed no danger.

What Columbus did not know was that these swells were most likely the advance guard of a hurricane rising hundreds of miles away, well out of sight – the same brand of swell Isaac observed as he stood on the seat of his sulky in Galveston four centuries later.

The ships continued their journey; Columbus opened the gates to the New World.

The more time Columbus spent in the waters of the Indies, however, the more he saw the flaws in his original appraisal of Caribbean weather. Water spouts danced among his ships. Tropical rains fell as if from a ruptured cask. Squalls tore the sails from his spars. By the time of his final voyage, Columbus had learned that the seas of the New World were both seductive and deadly, but in the process had become adept at reading the tropical skies for signs of trouble.

He was ready for his first true hurricane.

Four years before the storm, Ferdinand and Isabella, intending to reward Columbus, appointed him viceroy of the Indies. He reached Hispaniola in August of 1498 expecting to savor the perquisites of rank, but found rebellion and turmoil. When word came back to Spain that chaos, not the sovereigns, reigned in Hispaniola, Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched an emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, to straighten things out. Secretly they had granted him extraordinary powers, which he demonstrated immediately upon his arrival. It did not help that as Bobadilla sailed into Santo Domingo harbor he saw seven Spanish corpses dangling from the gallows. Swaying palms were one thing; swaying countrymen quite another. He used the hangings as a pretext to arrest Columbus and lock him in chains, a degree of public humiliation that speaks clearly of some deeper passion filling Bobadilla’s portfolio. Greed perhaps, but certainly envy.

In October 1500 Bobadilla marched the iron-laced Columbus through town and on board a ship, La Gorda, bound for Spain. Bobadilla himself took over the administration of Hispaniola. After returning to Spain, Columbus remained in chains for six more weeks before the sovereigns released him. He pleaded for the license and funds to conduct one more great voyage. In a sign of new warmth toward the admiral, Ferdinand and Isabella commanded Bobadilla to assemble all the proceeds from trade and the mining of gold that were owed Columbus, and to place these in the custody of his designated agent. On March 14, 1502, the sovereigns granted Columbus another voyage. Like wise parents seeking to head off the wars of jealous children, they forbade him to stop at Hispaniola.

Columbus, delighted to be sailing again, set out with four caravels, and on June 29, 1502, found himself and his fleet off Hispaniola. He saw that a great convoy of thirty ships was being readied in the Ozama River at Santo Domingo for imminent departure, but did not know at the time this fleet was carrying Bobadilla and a vast fortune in gold, including his own share. That Bobadilla had consigned Columbus’s gold to the smallest and flimsiest of the convoy ships, the Aguja, was yet another mark of whatever hidden passion fueled his hatred. If any ship was likely to sink, it would be the puny Aguja.

Columbus has a least three good, practical, defensible reasons for what he did next: First, the departing convoy presented an excellent opportunity for getting mail from his own little fleet promptly back to Spain. Second, he wanted to trade one of his ships, a poor performer, for something a bit more spry. Third, the weather had taken an ominous turn, exhibiting the usual troika of storm signs: oily swells, oppressive heat, a red sky.

For all these good, practical, and defensible reasons, Columbus sent one of his captains ashore with a request to permit his fleet to enter the harbor, a clear violation of the sovereigns’ orders.

The new governor, Don Nicolas de Ovando, only laughed.

Stung, Columbus lead his ships to the leeward side of Hispaniola to place the mass of the island between the ships and the rising storm. He instructed his captains that if they became separated by the storm to meet in a harbor on Ocoa Bay, near what later became Puerto Viejo de Azua.

Meanwhile, with great fanfare – trumpets blaring, cannon roaring, banners streaming – the thirty-ship convoy ferrying Bobadilla and Columbus’s gold sailed from Ozama and made for the Mona Passage, the strait between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico that connects the Caribbean to the Atlantic.

The storm was a full-fledged hurricane. Columbus’s fleet, sheltered in the lee of Hispaniola, caught a glancing blow that nonetheless topped anything in severity that Columbus had so far confronted. “The storm was terrible,” he wrote, “and on that night the ships were parted from me. Each one of them was reduced to an extremity expecting nothing save death; each one of them was certain the others were lost.”

In a maneuver that went against customary marine practice, Columbus did not strike for open sea but instead brought his ship closer to shore to leverage further the windbreak afforded by the mountains of Hispaniola. His ship survived. On Sunday, July 3, he sailed his caravel into Ocoa Bay, the designated meeting place. He saw no sign of the others.

As his ship rocked gently in the gorgeous blue, its deck quiet but for the sounds of repair, Columbus watched the entrance to the bay through thermals of humid air.

A lookout would have spotted it first as a glint of white against the settling sea. He cried out, then perhaps wished he had not, as the glint disappeared and the ship eased back into the turquoise quiet.

But another spark followed, a true sign now. Sails and finally a ship. Followed by another. And, impossibly, yet another.

All safe.

And what of Bobadilla?

The hurricane caught the convoy in the Mona Passage head-on, the eye passing close, perhaps directly overhead. It drove twenty of the gold ships to the bottom with all hands. One of these carried Bobadilla. In all five hundred mariners lost their lives. A few ships, gravely wounded, fought their way back to Santo Domingo.

Only one ship of the original thirty made it to Spain: the puny little Aguja, carrying Columbus’s gold.

So I ask you: success or failure? Tactical or Strategic? and whose?

It is nice to think that you can put the lessons of history into simple bins and categories. But it seems to me that a true explorer searches for the deeper lessons that apply not necessarily universally, but to the current time and the current exploration.

Do you think we will not encounter hurricanes on the way to the moon? Perhaps not. But we most definitely will encounter arrogance, ignorance, and stupidity.

So what lesson did you learn today?

SpaceRef staff editor.