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 — we do proxy exploration by telescope or space probes.
"Discovery is the exploration of knowledge. Scientific knowledge has been compared to a complex map. The great discoveries of science blazed a path on this map."
More Exploration Coming
Astronomer Robert Williams, who formerly ran the Hubble Space Telescope program for the Space Telescope Science Institute, suggested some of those discoveries will be, or should be inwardly focused. "The emphasis will shift from conquest of physical entities to understanding the nature of the human species," he said.
Toyne Sewell was more prosaic. "If anyone thinks the days of exploration have passed, they’re wrong," he said.
Implicit in that belief is that the next generation will be as interested and curious as those preceding it. Some, like Garik Israelian, believe that should not be taken for granted.
"It’s a question of education and inspiration," he said. "They (students) have to be inspired. I know that most of the researchers were in some way inspired, and it is the shock of inspiration that changed their lives.
"You can’t force kids to study if they’re not inspired or interested. You have to work out how to inspire them."
The audience in the auditorium of Al Ain Men’s College was filled with male and female students, as well as staff and several soldiers. The panel members were addressing citizens of a nation about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its founding. So the remarks suggested a young nation, still finding its way, and expecting much of its youth.
"What is important is having role models," Solanki said. "The younger generation in this country (Abu Dhabi and the other members of the United Arab Emirates) is tasked with being role models."
Solanki illustrated the importance of role models by a demographic survey of his own field, astronomy: Internationally, only 10-15% of astronomers were women; in France, it was 50%. "Because there have been role models, Marie Curie and others, and young girls can identify with them and say ‘This is the path for me’."
However, there was also a distinction to be made between role models and leaders, although Robert Williams acknowledged they could be one and the same. Williams defined leadership as "motivating and working with people to accomplish a goal," with Nelson Mandela an example of both, as someone who led from the front.
But there is another type of leadership too, Williams said. This was "leadership from the rear", inspiring people to be more proactive, and having them understand what they were capable of. "That’s underrated, and extremely important."
It was also an example that leaders can be made, Williams said, as well as born. "It can be developed."
Toyne Sewell is the clearest example of a leader, if only because his rank at retirement, Major General, said the British Army thought he was one. So his principles of leadership were simple: "One, know where you are going. You have to have a very, very clear aim. Two, inspire them with the confidence that you are going in the right direction."
But no less critical, Toyne Sewell said, was that a leader had to be of his group, however large or small, as much as at the head of it. "The day that someone in your team can’t come to you with a problem, or senses a lack of leadership, is when you are no longer a leader," he said. Also, "if you don’t have good subordinates, you have as good as failed."
Space, as Solanki earlier pointed out, is "totally unforgiving", but so too is war. Toyne Sewell offered a short vignette to show that risk can be universal, but as with the rocket science of space flight, it can be broken down to simple mathematics, as well as leadership and a little faith.
Toyne Tewell is 70, a jolly, but still imposing figure. He told of being delivered to a country for a mission he would not specify, with 30 soldiers and no maps or roads. "You responded to every situation as it happened," he said. "If you had 40% of the needed information, you could take a risk to carry out the operation."
He added: "One was always hoping you had 40%."