April 2022 Parker Dubée

I opened my eyes as I lay on my back across the forest floor, forty feet beneath the Pacific Ocean. After watching the bubbles from my diving regulator float towards the surface, I sat up, disturbing the sand around me into a golden plume and accidentally startling a school of curious fish that had floated close by. As I gazed around the Monterey Kelp Forest stretching out around me, it reminded me, in a way, of the forests back in Michigan, the massive stalks resembling trees as they swayed back and forth in the rhythmic tide before fading to blue in the distant Californian water. A golden light filtered from above. Forty feet overhead, the kelp folded across the surface of the ocean to form a floating canopy, illuminated with sunshine that pierced through and colored the water and forest all around in diagonal beams of sunlight.

I performed a routine check of my equipment. I still had plenty of air in my tank, my alternate regulator was still tied to my side, and my weight belt was still strapped to me—without it, I would’ve floated dangerously quickly to the surface of the ocean. I’d finished my skills-training five minutes prior, perfecting my Buddha position—being able to rise and sink in neutral buoyancy, as if hovering in a lotus position in midair—and practiced my gear recovery drills again and again until I could do them in the dark, kneeling like a samurai on the ocean floor and taking off each piece of equipment and laying them on the sand in front of me before placing them back on, all the while gazing goggle-less through rhythmic tides of seawater.

Now, with my training complete, I took a longer, deeper look into the beautiful kelp forest. The sight of it never ceased to amaze me. Everything seemed to dance in color under the golden Californian sunlight. Chromatic kelpfish darted beneath the canopy, a giant sea bass lumbered through the kelp-leaves, and sea hares slithered here and there like adorable purple slugs along the golden sand. I watched another sea lion dart in and out of the blue some twenty or so yards away, flashing and disappearing almost as fast as lightning in the water despite her size, when I heard someone snap their fingers twice nearby. Underwater, sound travels four times faster than in air and always seems to go off right by your head, and so when I looked around it was easy to spot my friend, dropping volumes of air from his buoyancy compensator and descending from the golden canopy like an angel.

He was an aeronautical engineer and a fellow intern at the NASA Ames Research Center in California who also enjoyed exploring, and had his eyes set on one day applying to NASA’s Astronaut Selection Program the same as I did. So when our program mentor who studied the toxicity of lunar dust at Ames told me three weeks prior that if I wanted to become an astronaut that I should learn scuba diving—as NASA likes to see that in candidates and utilizes numerous underwater facilities across the country to train their astronauts in simulated space environments—it was easy to convince my friend to join me for the adventure. I’d always wanted to develop my skills and explore something beyond the trailheads on land, so the training seemed like a golden opportunity.

I ascended, as though weightless, from the sand. When we met in the middle-distance, my friend pointed to where his wristwatch should’ve been, then jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. I nodded, exaggerating the movement, already knowing it was time to go and that we were at the tail-end, and took one long, last look around the beautiful underwater glade. As I felt the pressure of the ocean pushing against my chest once more, I wondered when—if ever—I’d have a chance to return to this place, or if I could ever explore similar oases of natural beauty in the endless territory of the ocean. After snapping a mental photograph, I confirmed our degree heading with my friend using our underwater compasses. Then, we swam out of the kelp forest, amidst a wandering pack of sea otters, to catch up with the rest of our diving group, headed for the closest shore.

In his bestselling book Cosmos, Dr. Carl Sagan wrote, “Exploration is our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Pinpointing Jupiter and Saturn in the night sky, I sometimes experience the same natural feeling I felt when I glanced back at the kelp forest all those years ago, wondering what other possible worlds could be out there. Dr. Sagan has also described our planet as just a pale blue dot floating in a seemingly endless sea of cosmic darkness, and from what we can tell, there is no one around to save us if something catastrophic happened to our only home. It therefore remains with us the requirement and the privilege to one day explore across the vast distances, settle other worlds, and ensure our species’ continued survival if this pale blue dot was extinguished by some disaster yet to come—whether cosmic, natural, or manmade. The same longing for exploration that kindled in our ancestors when the drought seemed never-ending or when the summers had forgotten their warmth has therefore remained burning within the hearts and minds of our scientists as we continue to pursue finding new worlds, resources, and potential homes beyond our atmosphere.

Through my own research experience at NASA, however, I’ve learned it’s not as easy as strapping astronauts to rockets and shooting them off like arrows into the darkness. As a species, we must expand and accelerate our research—to engineer new, strange engines that can sail across light-years of vast, atom-less regions of space, design new facilities that feed off the energy of distant suns or liquid elements harvested from moons and convert it into fuel, and develop other-worldly cures and medicine to combat against the strange diseases of space.  We must always continue to look outward and upward as a species, but before humanity can hope to colonize Mars, the hydrogen-rich moons of Saturn, or the iron asteroids silently tumbling through our solar system, we must push full-force into science and engineering development to ensure we will be able to live, travel, and safely start families out in deep space.

Ever since I walked out of that ocean, I’ve wanted to devote myself to further the cause of humanity’s exploration, and help advance our species’ footprint across the galaxy to ensure our continued survival. The research and progress we could achieve for life millions of miles beyond our atmosphere does not have to be limited to those who will walk amongst the constellations, however. The benefits in advancing our research into medicine for our astronauts and our engineering into interstellar marvels and constructs could be also used for our fellow crewmembers who choose to remain here on Earth but who would still benefit from the advancements. Through space-related research, therefore, we will ensure that we can continue searching for a second home, as we work to make the one we have right now more livable.

Dr. Sagan has also been quoted with saying, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” and I believe that just as I found that beautiful glade beneath the Pacific Ocean, so too could there be something beautiful waiting to be discovered in our future in deep space exploration, which will someday allow our descendants to discover new oases of beauty upon other worlds.