Editor's Note: Philippe Cousteau, a special correspondent for CNN, continues the legacy of his ocean-exploring family - including his late grandfather Jacques Cousteau - through his work with EarthEcho International. The non-profit organization, which he co-founded with his sister and mother, empowers youth to become involved with environmental causes.
By Philippe Cousteau, Special to CNN
“Space…the final frontier.” Not only has this classic phrase dazzled the many millions of fans of the Star Trek franchise, some could argue it has defined a big part of the American ideal for the last 50 years. The 1960s were dominated by the race to the moon and Americans were rightfully proud to be the first nation to make it there.
However, another incredible feat happened in 1960 that is largely forgotten today. For the first time in history, on January 23, 1960, two men, Lt. Don Walsh and Jacques Picard, descended to the deepest part of the ocean, the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench located in the western Pacific Ocean. While this feat made international news, the race to the depths of this planet was quickly overshadowed by the race to the moon - and no one has ever gone that deep since.
And for the last 50 years, we have largely continued to look up. But that trend may be changing.
In July 2011, the space shuttle program that had promised to revolutionize space travel by making it (relatively) affordable and accessible came to an end after 30 years. Those three decades provided numerous technological, scientific and diplomatic firsts. With an estimated price tag of nearly $200 billion, the program had its champions and its detractors. It was, however, a source of pride for the United States, capturing the American spirit of innovation and leadership.
With the iconic space program ending, many people have asked, "What’s next? What is the next giant leap in scientific and technological innovation?"
Today a possible answer to that question has been announced. And it does not entail straining our necks to look skyward. Finally, there is a growing recognition that some of the most important discoveries and opportunities for innovation may lie beneath what covers more than 70 percent of our planet – the ocean.
You may think I’m doing my grandfather Jacques Yves-Cousteau and my father Philippe a disservice when I say we’ve only dipped our toes in the water when it comes to ocean exploration. After all, my grandfather co-invented the modern SCUBA system and "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau " introduced generations to the wonders of the ocean. In the decades since, we’ve only explored about 10 percent of the ocean - an essential resource and complex environment that literally supports life as we know it, life on earth.
We now have a golden opportunity and a pressing need to recapture that pioneering spirit. A new era of ocean exploration can yield discoveries that will help inform everything from critical medical advances to sustainable forms of energy. Consider that AZT, an early treatment for HIV, is derived from a Caribbean reef sponge, or that a great deal of energy - from offshore wind, to OTEC (ocean thermal energy conservation), to wind and wave energy - is yet untapped in our oceans. Like unopened presents under the tree, the ocean is a treasure trove of knowledge. In addition, such discoveries will have a tremendous impact on economic growth by creating jobs as well as technologies and goods.
In addition to new discoveries, we also have the opportunity to course correct when it comes to stewardship of our oceans. Research and exploration can go hand in glove with resource management and conservation.
Over the last several decades, as the United States has been exploring space, we’ve exploited and polluted our oceans at an alarming rate without dedicating the needed time or resources to truly understand the critical role they play in the future of the planet. It is not trite to say that the oceans are the life support system of this planet, providing us with up to 70 percent of our oxygen, as well as a primary source of protein for billions of people, not to mention the regulation of our climate.
Despite this life-giving role, the world has fished, mined and trafficked the ocean's resources to a point where we are actually seeing dramatic changes that is seriously impacting today's generations. And that impact will continue as the world's population approaches 7 billion people, adding strain to the world’s resources unlike any humanity has ever had to face before.
In the long term, destroying our ocean resources is bad business with devastating consequences for the global economy, and the health and sustainability of all creatures - including humans. Marine spatial planning, marine sanctuaries, species conservation, sustainable fishing strategies, and more must be a part of any ocean exploration and conservation program to provide hope of restoring health to our oceans.
While there is still much to learn and discover through space exploration, we also need to pay attention to our unexplored world here on earth. Our next big leap into the unknown can be every bit as exciting and bold as our pioneering work in space. It possesses the same "wow" factor: alien worlds, dazzling technological feats and the mystery of the unknown. The United States has the scientific muscle, the diplomatic know-how and the entrepreneurial spirit to lead the world in exploring and protecting our ocean frontier.
Now we need the public demand and political will and bravery to take the plunge in order to ensure that the oceans can continue to provide life to future generations.
Today is a big step in that direction and hopefully it is just the beginning.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Cousteau.