July 30, 2005


John Tierney uses that word -- which I can't remember having seen before -- in his NYT op-ed today. Is that just a Tierney word, a coinage he's pushing? I see The Atlantic had a piece back in 1998, in its "Wordwatch" column that tracks new words and usages:
explornography noun,a consuming fascination with famous and, especially, dangerous explorations -- for example, Richard Byrd's expeditions to Antarctica -- that may include a desire to retrace such trips in person: "We had been seduced by an odd modern phenomenon, the glorification of exploration at a time when the entire planet has been mapped. The Age of Exploration has been succeeded by the Age of Explornography" (New York Times Magazine).

BACKGROUND: Soft-core explornographers are content to experience super-dangerous adventure travel vicariously, a thrill easily had through books and films. Hard-core explornographers -- a group whose number has been rising sharply in recent years -- spend vast sums on gear, guides, training, and whatever else is needed to undertake such expeditions themselves. These explornographers are, typically, outdoorsy amateurs, many of whom live and work in urban settings. A good proportion are women, and the average age of hard-core explornographers of both sexes is about fifty.
But a little more reseach shows that quote in The Atlantic was written by John Tierney, back in the July 26, 1998 issue of the NYT Magazine, in an article called "Going Where A Lot of Other Dudes With Really Great Equipment Have Gone Before." That's his quote in The Atlantic definition. In the NYT Magazine, he went on:
Like pornography, explornography provides vicarious thrills -- the titillation of exploring without the risk of actually having to venture into terra incognita. In its classic hard-core form, explornography is the depiction of genuine voyages of discovery, trips to uncharted regions where there was no way to summon help when disaster struck. Today's audiences are going back to the old texts, and there has been a recent rash of books and movies about Peary and Dr. Frederick Cook, Richard Evelyn Byrd, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone and Heinrich Harrer (the explorer portrayed by Brad Pitt in "Seven Years in Tibet"). Connoisseurs have been especially gratified by the revival of Ernest Shackleton, the explorer who never reached his goals but always produced splendid stories. Like many explornography addicts, I first got hooked on "Endurance," Alfred Lansing's book about the 1914 Shackleton expedition, which was marooned in the Antarctic. Originally published in 1959, "Endurance" resurfaced this year on best-seller lists; Tristar is about to make a big-budget film of the adventure.

But the old stories are not enough to satisfy demand. The explornography industry needs fresh material to fill magazines like Outside and Men's Journal, to make programs for the Discovery Channel and the Outdoor Life Network, to sell outdoor gear and adventure-travel packages. Today's soft-core explornographers, like pornographers who shoot erotic scenes in which no sex actually takes place, have the skills and technology -- minicams, satellite linkups, Web pages -- to wring drama from voyages of nondiscovery. Mount Everest, which has been climbed hundreds of times, is a bigger media star than ever. The new film about Everest is setting box-office records at IMAX theaters; Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" has spent more than a year on best-seller lists.
Today's Tierney column is about the "Marsonauts" who are engaged in an earth-based simulation of Mars travel:
They live in a round "habitation module" that's 27 feet in diameter, sized to fit atop existing rockets, with a lab on one floor and the crew quarters above it.

The Marsonauts are sticklers for staying "in sim," simulating every inconvenience they can imagine on Mars. No venturing outside the Hab without at least half an hour of preparation: putting on a spacesuit and helmet, wiring a radio, and going through five minutes of decompression in the airlock. No removing a glove to dig for a fossil. No food or bathroom breaks in the field -- ["a huge meteor crater" on "a desolate island in the Canadian high Arctic"].

They have their own jargon ("HabCom, EVA11 is ready to begin its egress de-co") and their own bureaucracy. Reports are filed nightly to Mission Support and the Remote Science Team, a group of researchers on three continents who are referred to as "the scientists back on Earth." There's even a Martian tricolor - a red, green and blue flag flapping above the Hab to symbolize their plans to "terraform" Mars into a green planet with liquid water and a breathable atmosphere.

I know this all sounds silly. I arrived sympathetic to the Marsonauts' cause, but ready to write a wryly detached column on an amusing bunch of zealots. Their fantasy sounded like a futurist version of explornography: the simulation of exploration by people trekking through terra cognita on adventure vacations.

But the Marsonauts are really figuring out how to explore the unknown, how to look for life in a place worth risking lives to reach. By the second day here, I was caught up in the sim, too. As we returned to our home on the edge of the crater, the white Hab up on the rocky brown ridge looked like a spaceship on Mars, and the sight was a bigger thrill than anything that's lifted off from Cape Canaveral in a long time.
Meanwhile, in real life, we're left watching the space shuttle missions, where nothing new is being explored. The current news of the Discovery mission is all about the potential for another accident, the strangely extreme damage that a bit of falling foam debris can cause. And Tierney's point is, if we really are going to risk lives and go into space, we ought to get out where we can find something new. I'm sure I'm not discovering anything new in seeing the irony of calling the shuttle "Discovery."


Steven said...

We should have mothballed the Apollo program instead of converting a functional, unlaunched Saturn V stack into a rusting display model.

We should have sent the Shuttle designers back to the drawing board when they showed they couldn't design something that would meet even a third of the system specifications.

We should have shut down the program after Challenger in favor of developing a new human launch vehicle.

We should have used the winning Shuttle-C stack/one-piece space station proposal instead of overruling the judges for political reasons and going with the stupid ISS plan.

We should have had the sense to give the space launch branch of SDI program more money after the Clementine and DC-X successes, instead of gutting SDIO.

We should have given the NASA X-33 contract to the DC-Y in 1994; we might actually have a replacement human space launch vehicle now.

We should have at least gone back to the old CFC-using tank foam formula after the new one killed a Shuttle crew.

We're now into the third straight decade of mismanagement of human space flight. We should end both the Shuttle and the ISS now, and spend the money on developing something at least slightly less pointless.

Menlo Bob said...

Ditto whatever Steven said because he seems to know all the aqronyms.

Tom Maguire said...

According to this article, the American Dialect Society recognized "explornography" among the new coinages of 1998, in the (apparently correct" category of "Least Likely to Succeed".