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Bill Stone, an engineer and renowned cave explorer, has been diving into the bowels of the Earth to get ready to explore the furthest regions of space. Stone’s expeditions, covered in National Geographic and other magazines, have taken him and his teams into some of Mexico’s longest and most dangerous underwater caves and tunnels, known as sumps. In 1994, at the end of a harrowing and much-documented expedition that claimed the life of a young diver, he and his then-girlfriend, Barbara am Ende, traveled more than 3.3 ­kilo­meters into the San Agustin Sump, the deepest point in Sistema Huautla in Oaxaca, Mexico. To get there, they had to get past eight other treacherous sumps, the last one some 1500 meters underground. Stone and am Ende found themselves in an enormous subterranean chamber 100 meters in diameter, where they spent several days. Their footprints are the only ones that have ever been left there.

Stone is an exceedingly rare engineer. He not only designs and builds advanced technology, he uses it to explore the most extreme niches of this world—and others. His latest creation is the DEPTHX autonomous probe, whose testing is the subject of Senior Editor Jean Kumagai’s story ”Swimming to Europa” in this issue. Once again the scene of the action is Mexico, where Kumagai found a considerably mellower Stone than the notoriously hard-charging one of the Huautla mission 13 years ago.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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