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Risk and Exploration:  Earth as a Classroom

Nearly 40 of the world’s most compelling and dynamic space, terrestrial, and oceanic explorers gathered on the LSU campus for three days in October to share their unique risk-taking philosophies and perspectives related to exploration of our planet and beyond.

The result was “Risk and Exploration:  Earth as a Classroom,” an international conference featuring presentations and conversations about the nature of risk in exploration in an effort to better understand the environment in which we live.  Baton Rouge Mayor-President Melvin “Kip” Holden, who participated in the conference as a guest speaker regarding Baton Rouge’s response to Hurricane Katrina, declared October 28-30 as “Earth as a Classroom Days” in the capital city.   

This event, hosted by LSU, was sponsored by Northrop Grumman Corporation, with additional funding from Aerojet, and support from The Explorers Club, the Space Generation Advisory Council, and the Challenger Center for Space Education.

Symposium co-chairs Leroy Chiao, astronaut and Raborn Distinguished Chair and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at LSU, and Keith Cowing, president of SpaceRef Interactive Inc., as well as LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe, envisioned the meeting as an enabler for intellectual creativity and academic exploration in fields that are attractive to young men and women.  This was achieved through stories told by the amazing explorers represented at the conference of the challenges, risks, and magnificent discoveries they have made in their work and travels. 

Emmy award winners Jim Fowler and Miles O’Brien headlined the symposium’s impressive list of guests from around the globe that included arctic researchers, geologists, mountaineers, deep-sea divers, commercial explorers, and astronauts – notably William Anders of Apollo 8.

Fowler; who is a world-renowned naturalist, host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and TV personality best known for his late-night talk-show appearances with animals; provided the keynote address to launch the three-day meeting. He spoke about managing risk and adapting to change in today’s world of accelerated activity, making comparisons to his own experiences of handling risk with animals in the wild. 

O’Brien, CNN’s chief technology and environment correspondent, chaired sessions titled “Those Who Support the Explorers.”  

In addition to co-chair Chiao, other LSU faculty participating in the conference included:

  1. John Finley, department head and professor of food science;
  2. Vince LiCata, Louis S. Flowers professor of Biochemistry; 
  3. Fred Rainey, associate professor, department of biological sciences and associate dean, college of basic sciences;  and
  4. John Wefel, professor of physics and astronomy. 

Chancellor Sean O’Keefe and LSU Chief of Police Captain Ricky Adams also spoke at the symposium.  Captain Adams talked primarily about LSU’s emergency response following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“As you may recall, the entire population of Louisiana was suddenly faced with a real time crash course in handling risk several years ago,” O’Keefe said. “As such, the experiences of those who endured Katrina and Rita, and how they handled risk, played an integral part of the symposium.  In addition, many people risked their lives and made immense personal sacrifices to keep the Michoud Assembly Facility – and thus, America’s Space Shuttle fleet – operational. 

“This conference allowed LSU to play a prominent role in the discussion of how we manage risk and exploration, learning from our rich past and experiences in today’s vibrant world, while eagerly and confidently anticipating an unknown future.” 

The meeting began on a beautiful, clear Sunday afternoon with a “Meet the Space Explorers” student launch event on the LSU parade ground.  Hundreds of students and community members had an opportunity to meet astronauts, mountaineers, polar divers, and explorers during an afternoon of fun, food, and music. The meeting’s inaugural night featured an all-star presentation held at the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student Athletes’ Bo Campbell Auditorium, with a fascinating panel discussion called “A Human Expedition to Mars:  A Day in the Life.”  Moderator and panelists discussed the detailed plans that will be required to successfully explore this distant planet in the future.  

From beginning to end, the entire conference was chocked full of extraordinary tales of expeditions in the frigid, frozen, and barren heights of Mount Everest; on the high seas; or in the farthest reaches of space.  Not only were students and faculty from LSU represented in the audience, but students and faculty from the LSU Laboratory School and Buchanan Elementary also actively participated in conference sessions. 

Buchanan Elementary School's third-grade gifted classes earned honors for naming a space node for NASA. The name was chosen from an academic competition involving more than 2,200 kindergarten through high school students from 32 states. The Node 2 Challenge required students to learn about the space station, build a scale model, and write an essay explaining their proposed name for the module that will serve as a central hub for science labs.

Six different schools submitted the name "Harmony." A panel of NASA educators, engineers, scientists, and senior agency management selected "Harmony" because the name symbolizes the spirit of international cooperation embodied by the space station, as well as the module's specific role in connecting the international partner modules.  

Harmony joins three other named U.S. modules on the station: the Destiny Laboratory, the Quest Airlock, and the Unity Node.

Special highlights of the symposium included presentations made by keynote speaker Fowler, as well as educator and consultant June Scobee Rodgers and astronaut William Anders. Scobee Rodgers spoke about the risks we encounter every day, whether in going to work, playing sports, traveling, or even falling in love.  She also spoke movingly of Dick Scobee’s experiences as Commander of the Challenger Space Shuttle, relating his perspectives on risk and its rewards and sharing her own touching thoughts about what it was like to be a family member of an explorer. 

Anders, one of three astronauts on the historic Apollo 8 mission in 1968, spoke of what it was like to fly a craft attached to the 31-story Saturn rocket.  He gave vivid, spellbinding descriptions of the Cold War space race; spoke of the thoughts that race through one’s mind during launch; and how it feels to enter lunar orbit.  All of the above-mentioned presentations and many more are available in both Webcast and Podcast formats at www.riskexplore2007.com.

“Risk and Exploration:  Earth as a Classroom” brought together some of the most capable, fearless, and storied explorers on our planet today.  Through their presentations and valuable interaction with attendees, the explorers taught us that great risk can be accompanied by great reward, and that without having taken risk, our society would have foregone many of its most significant milestones and growth. 

In summary, perhaps Scobee Rogers put it best by saying, “What are ships made for?  They are not safe in the harbor.  They are made to sail and to move forward into the unknown.”

Holly Cullen | LSU Office of Public Affairs
Spring 2008

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