My Turn

By Burl Burlingame

Thursday, August 21, 1997


Spaceships of our ancestors,
dreams of our children

NASA taps Bishop Museum to weave
Polynesian voyaging and Mauna Kea
discoveries into education program

I have a friend who's a special-effects wizard at the "Star Trek" TV show, and when the "Voyager" edition premiered a few years ago, he was quite proud of the multi-ethnic composition of the crew. I couldn't resist needling him a bit.

Where, says I, are the Polynesians?

We have a Native American! says he. We have a Chinese!

Not the same. When it comes to venturing across the great unknown, exploring over horizons that range into daunting distances, kept alive by tiny canoes that may or may not be up to the challenge of the elements, the Polynesians had no peers. After all, they viewed the world as one of water, through which little bits of land occasionally poked up.

It was the Europeans that eventually sailed and charted the entire planet, but they did so methodically and carefully, ranging a bit at a time in great, stout ships, hugging the shorelines and creating a system of navigation so they could find their way back home. The Polynesians apparently sailed for the joy of it, the thrill of discovery, an adventure that didn't end until the Hawaiian islands were discovered -- at least, for the first time.

This spirit of exploration is one of the great legacies of the Polynesians. No wonder the name Hokule'a was one seriously considered by NASA for the replacement space shuttle built in the late '80s. Instead, ironically, it was christened Endeavor, one of Capt. James Cook's exploration vessels.

Why do we explore? This spirit of seeking out is present in all cultures; the Polynesians just romanticized it. The Chinese, for example, were one of the world's great seafaring nations, and on the verge of "discovering" Europe and the Americas when they suddenly -- and mysteriously -- withdrew to their own borders in the early 1400s, destroying their great ships in the process.

The drive to explore has turned to space and the stars, where it all began. Polynesian navigators found their way across the featureless ocean by the stars; Europeans like Cook turned navigation into a science; even today, shuttle astronauts can find their way home by navigating on signpost stars. "I guess you always have to go back to the basics," Hawaii astronaut Ellison Onizuka explained once. "So, we go back to the stars."

Underneath the hazy scrim of city lights and dust, we forget how spectacular and daunting the night sky can be. The stars force a perspective that removes us from ourselves, that reduces us to a mote in the infinite, and yet enlarges us by filling our minds with wonder. The ability to wonder is what makes us sail over the horizon, or to ride a rocket into the cosmos.

Last week, the Bishop Museum began a series of planning sessions in conjunction with NASA called "The Explorers Project," pulling together a team of scientists and educators to create a couple of planetarium programs that will be made available to planetaria across the land. One deals with Polynesian voyaging, the other with the spectacular discoveries being made at the Mauna Kea observatories.

The idea is to use the planetarium experience to the fullest, using recent improvements in both technology and teaching methods. It's quite a coup for a Hawaii museum to be contracted by NASA in this way, as the project will become a model for the space agency's "Space Science Enterprise" initiative. The results will be used by more than a thousand planetaria to inspire the next generation of space scientists and explorers.

It's a grand idea. Not only is interest in space beginning to grow again, the old model of the dry planetarium lecture needs to be revamped. It's no longer enough to know which stars will be visible to the northeast at 10 p.m., assuming you could see them. There needs to be a place where the public can get the up-to-the-minute straight skinny on space and planetary exploration, preferably in a you-are-there environment.

It's important because it places the humble planetarium back in the mainstream of education, not just for school kids, but for all of us. It makes outer space accessible.

And it's important because it will help reawaken the sense of wonder that leads us to explore, and to learn.

So -- why do we explore?

Why do we dream? It's in our nature.



Writer Burl Burlingame was the only Star-Bulletin
entrant for the Journalist-In-Space program. He's still
waiting for the call. My Turn is a periodic column written
by Star-Bulletin staff members.




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