How Travel by Campervan is Like Exploring Space

Simple Discoveries Exploration

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Planes, trains, automobiles, and…campervans. In kicking off our around-the-world adventure in New Zealand, we added a new method of transport to our list – the campervan. A simple four-wheeled vehicle retrofitted with a place to cook, eat, and sleep, all the while enabling us to explore on our schedule. No hotel check-ins or crowded tour buses; just us, our map, and the road ahead. We felt this was the essence of exploration. And all the while, our little campervan paralleled the way we need to explore beyond our planet.

Our New Zealand campervan

Standing by our New Zealand Exploration Vehicle – “Bernie”.

Decked out with a surfing eyeball on one side and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons on the other, we aptly named our van “Bernie” and set out to explore nearly 4,000 kilometers of New Zealand countryside. Over the course of 23 days, we made our way around the South Island of New Zealand from Christchurch to Nelson, and across the North Island from Wellington to Auckland.

All the while, we carried with us just the basics: water, food, and fuel for a few days at a time. We knew generally how we’d chart our course, but rarely knew where we’d park for a night under the stars. Weather and discoveries we made along the way shaped most of our itinerary. As we settled into this lifestyle, we realized Bernie was providing us with a few lessons on how humankind might one day explore beyond this amazing planet.

Our campervan at Purakaunui Bay

Camped out at Purakaunui Bay in the Catlin region of the South Island of New Zealand.

Discoveries Overrule the Most Well-Made Plans

Truth be told, we only had a few planned stops for our first few days of driving in New Zealand. We knew we’d travel south from Christchurch. We also wanted to see the famed Moeraki Boulders at sunrise.

Moeraki Boulder Sunrise

The wondrous Moeraki Boulders at sunrise.

And of course a visit to Cadbury World in Dunedin was a must.

: Campervan at Cadbury World

Parking our campervan Bernie at Cadbury World – New Zealand’s land of chocolate.

Much beyond that was unexplored territory. As we snaked our way around the coast of New Zealand’s South Island, we allowed ourselves the freedom to ask a local or friendly i-SITE representative what we should see and do in the kilometers ahead of us. Originally, we hadn’t planned on driving through the Catlins – a section of coastline on the southernmost stretch of New Zealand that has rolling pastureland bordering rocky shorelines.

It was at the urging of a couple of friendly i-SITE ladies that we took the road less travelled. They also clued us in that Nugget Point would be a great spot to witness the elusive Yellow-Eyed Penguin in the wild – an opportunity neither of us could refuse.

Nugget Point Penguin Hide

Jayleen watching for Yellow-Eyed Penguins at a Nugget Point hide.

Similarly, it was on the way in to the town of Nelson that another smiling face at an i-SITE suggested we take a tour of Pic’s Peanut Butter factory. Ultimately that encounter led us to meeting Pic himself (more to share on that soon) and hearing first-hand how curiosity and passion are key ingredients for being a successful entrepreneur.

We found that traveling by campervan enabled us to shift our plans when we discovered something new to see or do. Sure our schedule had some deadlines. We tried to be off the winding roads by dusk and had a hard reservation for a ferry to the North Island, but all other plans remained flexible. Rarely did a day go by where the plan we woke up with was precisely what we did. Bernie gave us a place to sleep and eat – the simplest essentials – while our curiosity and interest shaped our journey.

Purakaunui Falls

The beauty of Purakaunui Falls in the Catlins would have been missed if we weren’t flexible.

NASA and their international partners are great at making detailed plans. Astronaut’s schedules get planned in time slots as small as 5 minutes. But as humankind ventures further away from Earth, we learned how flexibility will be of increasing importance.

Curio Bay Petrified Forest

Our random geologic discovery – a petrified forest being exposed by the sea in Curio Bay.

While Mars and other celestial destinations don’t have locals or i-SITE stations, it will be the discoveries made by our brave explorers that will shape the missions. Discovering an unusual geologic outcropping, precious resource, or maybe even simple forms of life could cause an entire plan to unravel and reform.

And there will be the days when repair work and maintenance take precedence over science and exploration just so our astronauts can survive the harsh environments they encounter. As we delve deeper into the cosmos, we need to allow discoveries shape our exploration. Flexibility is key.

Our campervan and the Milky Way

Another benefit of exploring by campervan – all the nights under the stars!

Operations Should Influence Design

In first meeting Bernie, we were excited to see all the nooks and crannies for storage and how the bed could be reconfigured into a table should the weather dictate dining inside. Curtains could be pulled for privacy, a little pump-fed sink allowed us to do the dishes, and a one-burner stove allowed us to augment the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a hot meal now and then.

Sandwich time at our campervan

James hard at work creating a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We were impressed with all the functionality that Bernie was designed with. Nonetheless, as our days on the road increased and Bernie got more use, little nuances began to surface. At least two storage areas were never really used. Partly because we really didn’t pack much, but also because the lids (which doubled as the top of the bed) became awkward to lift when our sleep mats were stacked on top. Why lift something heavy and awkward to store your dirty clothes when you could just toss them in the passenger seat until you hit the road the next morning? We also never reconfigured the bed into a table – after all, re-stowing the table would be one more step to complete before we could get much needed rest.

Campervan sleeping

Our cozy campervan sleeping quarters.

The curtains worked nicely, but the rear one was a bit close to where we’d set our stove and would catch the occasional food splatter from cooking. Sorry future renters, but the chicken curry was really as good as it smells. And the sink? Well, the hose leading from the pump to the water reservoir was a bit too short and required us to prop up the water tank to get a full batch of dishes done. This might all sound like complaining, but it honestly isn’t. Bernie was an amazing vehicle and served us well. However, if our journey was a 300-day stay on the surface of Mars instead of a month long New Zealand roadtrip, we’d be chatting with the designers a bit.

Campervan cook space

The cooking space in our campervan was quite simple – only the necessities.

Can we avoid nuances like these facing our future planetary explorers? Probably not completely as it goes hand-in-hand with exploration. But we certainly can limit them if we practice and let how we use or operate future vehicles influence their design. Engineers should never design without talking to the explorers themselves. How might some features actually be used? What features would be nice? What are essential? And even then, only experiencing actual operations, either through the use of mock-up vehicles or virtual reality techniques, will help iron out some of the bugs. In the past, James has supporting some of NASA’s work in this area through its analog missions, which allow operations to directly influence future design.

NASA SEV Interior

The inside of NASA’s 2nd Generation Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) mock-up isn’t looking too different from Bernie.

Hopefully such work will continue as the vehicles for exploring beyond Earth are being designed. Humans learn by doing, and by doing, we can see how to design. Bernie showed us the important difference between cool design features and how they’re actually used. If he’d had stuck around, we’d get to work on making Bernie just that much more functional to suite our style of exploration.

Exploration Requires Living Simply

Although Bernie did offer plenty of nooks and crannies for storage, there was not an abundance of space. Good thing we aren’t packing much for our around the world journey! Space that didn’t get used for storing clothes or our photo equipment went to dishes, cookware, and the food and supplies we picked up. During our very first grocery store visit, we quickly realized that we had to make some choices about how we’d live while exploring New Zealand.

Our first choice dealt with what kind of meals we’d be living off of while on the road. James is a bit of a foodie and used to having a collection of spices and condiments from which to prepare a nice dinner. But did we really need to be constructing a spice cabinet when everything leftover would get dumped or donated 23 days later? Living simply meant stocking up on just the basics: salt, oil, and hot sauce. Later on, we learned to keep the salt & pepper packets we got with our in-flight meals rather than buying on the road. Living simply also meant more pasta, PB&J sandwiches, and curries and a lot less 2-3 course culinary creations. Less waste, more space…which also meant more money in our pockets too.

Cooking in campervan

James cooking his new specialty – campervan chicken curry.

We also had to decide how much food we really wanted to carry with us. We had one small cooler, half of which would be filled with an average bag of ice. That certainly put a limit on the number of perishables we could take with us. If we tried to carry with us supplies for every meal, we’d likely be driving with groceries in our laps. We also realized that the flexibility afforded by our campervan could also enable us to forgo the butane stove meal every few nights to discover a little café or restaurant. Carrying too much would either force us to be wasteful or lose some of that flexibility we appreciated so much. We elected to carry supplies for about 3 dinners at a time along with makings for sandwiches for lunch or a snack. And because two former NASA engineers believe in the value of contingency plans; we also held one emergency ramen ration for a quick dinner.

James eating ramen in MCC

James learned the importance of emergency ramen rations when working in NASA’s Mission Control. [Photo Courtesy: NASA]

In a way, traveling by campervan forced us to make the decision to live simply. Simple living means limiting yourself to just the basics in order to reap benefits of maximizing space and maintaining flexibility. While we certainly could have explored New Zealand in other less simple ways, it would have come at high cost – both in terms of how we utilized space and financially. And that’s where the parallel to exploring space comes in…

It’s been over 45 years since humankind explored beyond Earth during the Apollo program. Why haven’t we gone back? Two major reasons are mass (which holds a close relationship to volume or space) and cost, all of which are intricately tied together. The more stuff you send into space, the more room it takes and the more fuel you need to send it, and ultimately, the more it costs. The political environment back in the 1960’s was such that cost was less of a factor than it is today. If we want space exploration to advance quickly today, we need to explore simply. While technological innovation will certainly enable more advanced exploration for lower cost, ultimately how we explore will set our most stringent of requirements. While rockets and campervans are very different machines with equally different amounts of risk associated in their use, Bernie still provides some valuable lessons: let discovery drive your exploration, design your exploration vehicles with those who operate it in mind, and take with you only the necessities. At its core, how we explore space shouldn’t be all that different from how humankind has explored since our very existence.

About the Author

Simple Discoveries

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We are husband and wife explorers that aim to encourage and enable simple around-the-world travel to broaden perspectives, enhance creativity, and realize innovation.

  • Jayleen with LER

    Jayleen with NASA’s Lunar Electric Rover pototype.

  • James with SEV

    James next to the Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) prototype.


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