At first glance, the five men on the stage of the Al Ain Men's College auditorium had little in common: Former astronauts and soldiers, current scientists; men of thought and men of action.
But they shared a single trait: All were intensely curious, and had used that curiosity as fuel to take them, literally and figuratively, over the horizon and beyond the earth's atmosphere. They were also individuals who saw and confronted risks as challenges, rather than obstacles, using them as a forge for the construction of reputations and breakthroughs.
"When you go to the telescope, you don't want to submit a risky proposition to justify the time and cost of using the telescope," said Garek Israelian, chief astrophysicist at the Institute of Astrophysics on the Spanish Canary Islands. "People don't like that. On the telescope, I do risky things. That's when I discover things. It's very important to encourage risk. It has to be reasonable and it has to be understood."
The panel at the recent Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi focused on exploration, adventure and leadership, bringing together men who have been at the edge of human effort, whether rocketing to the moon, peering into the vastness of space, or strategizing in the heat of battle. Though from disparate backgrounds, they were unanimous that curiosity sparked their experiences, and held a shared belief that risk is a consequence of the pursuit of the extraordinary.
"I don't think there is anyone who could say 'I'm not going'," said Apollo astronaut Charles Duke. "You're trained and prepared and focused. No one was going to keep me from getting into that spacecraft and at least launch it toward the moon. That was a risk I was willing to take."
Risk And Curiosity
In addition to Duke and Israelian, the panel also featured Sami Solanki, director of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany; Stephen Oswald, a former member of the United States Space Shuttle program; American astrophysicist Robert Williams, president of the International Astronomical Union, and Tim Toyne Sewell, chairman of the board for United World Colleges, and a former Major General in the British Army.
In space exploration, Solanki pointed out, the objective was to reduce risk, which began with the construction of the spacecraft itself. This made any project even more expensive. "Space is totally unforgiving," Solanki said. "The important characteristic is not to be a risk taker, but to try and minimize it."
Ultimately, Duke said, space flight was an inherently dangerous business. "We had good quality conditions and manufacturing processes," he said. "We watched our predecessors, but you still have risk. You have a machine and machines can break at any time." But for Duke, who walked on the moon as a member of the successful Apollo 16 mission, and men like him, the inherent dangers were as nothing against a sense of adventure, duty, and fierce pride in their country.
Their shared capacity for risk was but one common trait. Another was boundless curiosity. Toyne Sewell, the former Commandant of the Royal Military Academy, noted that on the 90-minute bus ride from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain, he and two of his fellow panelists had noticed a huge sand dune alongside the highway and simultaneously asked, "I wonder what's on the other side of it?"
Toyne Sewell continued: "It's all about curiosity. Everyone sitting here is curious."
At its heart, the panelists noted, exploration was about the satisfaction of curiosity. "To me," astronaut Charles Duke said, "the purpose of exploration was the discovery, the adventure: 'Let's go see it'."
But beyond the satisfaction of curiosity, space travel also touched a profound emotional chord for Duke, offering not so much the thrill of discovery, but the simple experience of "the beauty and the orderliness of the universe."
Which is a frontier entirely unto itself. As Solanki observed, future exploration would take a very different course. "Exploration in the past has been to discover new parts of the world," he said. "With the beginning of the 21st century, we've broken the shackles of earth. (But) if you look into the future, the next generation may not have such possibilities. If you're lucky, you may explore more of the moon. That doesn't mean we can't be explorers