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Behind the Black

At the end of the last spacewalk during this last servicing mission to Hubble, astronaut John Grunsfeld took a few moments to reflect on Hubble’s importance. This was Grunsfeld’s third spaceflight and eighth spacewalk to Hubble, and no one had been more passionate or dedicated in his effort to get all of Hubble’s repairs and upgrades completed.

“As Arthur C. Clarke says,” Grunsfeld said, “the only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.”

For most of human history, the range of each person’s experience was of a distant and unreachable horizon. This untouchable horizon defined “the limits of the possible.” No matter how far an individual traveled, there was always a forever receding horizon line of unknown territory tantalizingly out of reach before him.

In earliest prehistoric times, the size of the known territory within that horizon line was quite small. Each villager knew a region ranging from ten to fifty miles in radius. He or she knew there were people and villages beyond the horizon, but never saw them. Moreover, even the most traveled explorer had a limit to his range, and knew that at some distant point what lay beyond that horizon was a complete mystery.

Later, as human civilization progressed, the size of known territory within that horizon line expanded. Different cultures met, exchanged information about each other, and recorded the data so that even those who did not travel far from their homes could know something of distant lands beyond their personal horizon. Still, explorers who pushed the horizon found that it continued to forever recede. No matter how far they traveled, the horizon was always ahead of them, an impossible goal beckoning them onward to find new lands unexplored.

Then humans reached the ocean and the sailors took over. To the mariner, there was still a forever receding horizon of great mystery, but he initially feared traveling out towards it because it was dangerous and risky. The ocean was a vast desert, with no food or water. Worse, that desert could suddenly become violent, heaving his ship about and tearing it to shreds.

With time, ship designs improved, and the mariners began journeying outward. The Vikings sailed out into the northern seas to find more lands and more endless unknown territories. Later, using better ships that were more reliable, Columbus pushed the western horizon and this time the visit was permanent. Even for Columbus, however, the horizon was still an impossible goal out of reach. He had sailed west, hoping to reach China and thus circumscribe the very limits of the horizon. Instead he discovered the New World, with its vast new territories and unlimited possibilities.

Nonetheless, the impossibility of touching that horizon had never been a deterrence, for either Columbus or anyone else. As the poet Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for?” People from all cultures felt compelled to reach for that unreachable distant goal, “to go beyond the possible and try to touch the impossible.”

It was with Magellan, however, that the impossible became possible, and the limits of the horizon were finally reached. For though he set out “to sail beyond the sunset,” traveling west as far as he could go, the horizon did not recede forever away from him into unknown lands. Instead, the survivors of Magellan’s epic voyage circled the globe and found themselves back where they had started, in a known place. The unknown horizon was gone. Humanity for the first time knew the limits of the world. The impossible no longer existed.

For the next five centuries the human race was consumed with learning and exploring and settling the limits of this Earth, delving into its every corner, from the freezing poles to the bottom of the ocean to the highest mountaintop. In all cases, however, the Earth was a prison, placing a curb to exploration. No matter how deeply humans probed, they were still trapped on a spherical world, a giant prison floating in the blackness of space. There was no visible but untouchable horizon to reach for.

The Hubble Space Telescope, along with all the early manned and unmanned space probes of the past half century, have given us that horizon back. We are no longer trapped on this Earth. We now can travel outward with increasing sophistication, either in manned spaceships or with unmanned robots like Hubble, pushing against a new infinite horizon that — instead of a horizon line — is a black sky above us and receding away from us in all directions.

Perhaps the best and most noble of all human behaviors has been the never-ending effort to push back against that infinite blackness, to find out what lies behind it and get some fundamental answers to our questions about life, the universe, and existence itself. For me, it is essential that all of us always ask that next question, always challenge what is known so as to find out what is unknown, and always reach out for that “unreachable star.”

Grunsfeld finished his last spacewalk to Hubble by adding this one small thought, “As Drew [Feustel] and I go into the airlock, I want to wish Hubble its own set of adventures, and with the new set of instruments we’ve installed, that it may unlock further mysteries of the universe.”

Hubble, as well as all human exploration, has given us the first detailed and clear glimpse of what lies hidden in the black untouchable horizon above us. May we not shirk from that adventure, but reach out to grasp it fully, even if we cannot ever really touch its limits.

Revised from the afterword of the paperback edition of The Universe in a Mirror.

Flood in McFails Cave, New York

as published in The Northeastern Caver, September 1996

As we walked up the stream passage, I couldn’t help remarking that the water seemed much higher than when we had first entered, six hours earlier. Less than two minutes later, the current had grown so strong that we all felt compelled to chimney up the walls to get out of the water. Below us the stream thundered past, now a river of roaring whitewater. Such was the beginning of a ten hour wait from an unprecedented flash flood in McFails Cave.

It was August 3rd, and I was taking Richard Borowsky, Luis and Mony Espanasa into McFails for a short pleasure trip. In the last seven years I must have visited McFails at least two dozen times, and during the late eighties and early nineties I entered the cave anywhere from four to six times a year in order to map the newly discovered region beyond the Pretzel Connection. During all this time the only changes in water level that I ever witnessed were seasonal in nature. While a heavy rainstorm might raise stream levels slightly, McFails would only reach flood stage during the spring months, when the winter snow melt combined with April showers would bring vastly larger amounts of water into the cave over a period of several weeks or months. Furthermore, my readings in both the Northeastern Caver as well as the annual NSS accident reports never indicated any problems with quickly rising water. One would enter McFails with a healthy respect for its cold, damp environment, but not for the threat of its entrance becoming sumped by a single, sudden rainstorm.

By August the waterfall at Hall’s Hole is usually dry. That this year has been unusually wet only meant that a residual waterfall still poured over the pit’s edge. We rigged the pit and locked the gate behind us (placing the key on a high ledge inside the four foot high entrance crawl). Unfortunately, I was the only person to have a whistle, so we worked out a signal system: Luis, who would descend first, would take the whistle. One whistle blast meant off-rope and the next person should follow. Two whistle blasts meant don’t come, he’s coming back.

By 11:30 we were all at the bottom of the dome. We took off our gear and stored it on a high ledge (Richard was going to leave his vertical system on the floor of the dome, but I suggested he put it on the ledge as well, and he did so). We then strolled downstream to the climb up into Dreamland, about 1000 feet from Coeyman’s Junction. At this time the stream was no more than three or four inches deep, completely typical for the cave.

After an hour “Oooing” and “Ahhing” over the formations in this rarely visited upper level of McFails, we moved on, reaching the First Junction Room by 3:30 PM and the Southwest Sump by 4:15 pm. Along the way I pointed out “The Brain,” a flat rock with many convolutions on its surface that sits on a wide ledge about six feet above the stream’s base just downstream from a small waterfall.

Luis and Mony were using carbide roof-burners, and we decided that when their first charge ran out we would begin heading out. Just as we reached the Southwest Sump Mony’s carbide lamp died, so they refilled her generator and we started for the entrance. I figured that we could reach Coeyman’s Dome by about 6:00-6:30, and be out of the cave by 7:30 at the latest. As we traveled back through the Sump Section, an area of low crawls in ponded water, I noticed absolutely no difference in water levels. Everything was normal and fun. The biggest problem was hearing Richard complain about having to crawl through the sumps. It seems the trip leader (who will remain nameless) didn’t tell him that kneepads are always required in a northeast cave.

At the First Breakdown Room Luis and Mony went ahead so that we could reduce any waiting at the bottom of the pit. Normally from here one can reach the entrance in 30 to 45 minutes.

Richard and I sat in the First Breakdown room for about ten minutes, munching raisins and peanuts and listening to the trickle of the stream going by. Then we picked ourselves up and entered what I consider to be one of the nicest and most beautiful stream passages in the world, a meandering high narrow fissure that weaves left and right through the earth, its walls layered with many thin plates of chert and limestone, its floor carved by a gentle ribbon of gurgling water.

Suddenly I was startled to discover that the water was now almost to my knees, and that we had to use a surprising amount of energy to fight the current. After less than a hundred feet the current had increased so much that we found it necessary to chimney up the walls to avoid being pushed from our feet.

We were still almost 2500 feet from Coeyman’s Junction, and 1100 feet from The Brain. With methodical determination we pushed on, stemming the walls and working our way forward. Twice a chert layer broke under my feet, and I avoided a serious fall by falling sideways against the opposite wall.

After approximately an hour of chimneying we finally met up with Luis and Mony at The Brain. What had been a small six foot waterfall was now a roaring river, with no waterfall at all: the water had risen six feet in two hours!

Out came the plastic bags and we huddled together with carbide lamps and candles, sitting on small insulite pads and our emptied packs. By 7:30 we could see that the water was finally beginning to drop. By 11:00 it had receded two feet, and we chimneyed forward to Dreamland, where Mony and Richard waited while Luis and I scouted ahead to Coeyman’s Dome. By now it was actually possible to walk against the current, though the water still reached one’s knees in most places.

At Coeyman’s Junction I was relieved to see that approximately 70 percent of the flow was coming from the main passage, not Hall’s Hole. This meant that the key had probably not been washed away, that the small crawl just after the dome was not sumped, and that we might be able to climb out right now.

At the Dome the waterfall was raging. As soon as I entered the dome my glasses became completely misted and fogged. Even the righthand drop, which normally avoids the waterfall entirely, was somewhat inside the flow. We returned to Mony and Richard to try and decide what to do.

It was now midnight. Luis thought it possible to climb out, and he probably was right. I, however, was reluctant for anyone to try climbing yet. In the history of McFails the only deaths had taken place because someone tried to climb out inside a waterfall. After a short discussion we decided to climb up to Dreamland and wait one or two more hours, hoping that the water would drop some more.

At 1:40 AM I came back down to check the water level. It had dropped another three inches or so. Now the issue was whether we could wait any longer. All of us were uncomfortable, and the carbide could only last so long. We decided it was time to go.

Luis and Mony went first, with Richard and I following and derigging the ladder and etrier from the two nuisance drops. At the dome the water flow had dropped somewhat, so that I could actually walk into the dome and not have my glasses become completely fogged.

Luis climbed first, taking the whistle with him with a carefully worked out set of signals. To all our relief he found that the key was where we had left it. The high water had not washed it away, locking us inside.

By 5 AM I reached the surface, the last person out of the cave. By 7 AM we were sitting in the Alley Cat diner having dinner. We asked if it had rained on Saturday, and one man told us that a heavy storm, “a white wall,” had moved across Cobleskill and Schoharie about 5 pm, dumping a lot of rain in a short period of time.

It would seem that either this event was a rare, unpredictable freak of nature, or that something has changed in recent years. If the second case is so, visitors to McFails should exercise greater caution about entering the cave in rainy weather, especially if the water level is already high to begin with. When we entered the cave I checked the gate, and the stream was below its base by about two inches, a perfectly acceptable situation. When we left, that stream topped the gate’s base by more than two inches, and would have made a trip to the cave impermissible according to the rules. That such a fast rise of water is now possible must now be considered by anyone entering McFails Cave.