I am indebted to Indiana Jen for reminding us of the one-hundredth anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott‘s fatal expedition to the South Pole. Scott’s poignant last written words were found frozen beneath his arm eight months after his demise.
There appears no way to be dispassionate about this sort of thing. It’s all about daring-do, courage, determination, and frankly grandstanding, a.k.a., getting there first. People who do this sort of thing have always been admired, often post-mortem as in this case. Magellan, Columbus, James Cook, Charles Lindbergh, Neil Armstrong. It appears to be an inseparable part of the human condition and perhaps a kind of leadership meme that has evolutionary survival value. Think about the courage it must have taken to uproot and migrate south away from an encroaching ice age 10,000 years ago, or to travel across the Bering ice bridge and down the west coast of North America.
This anniversary causes me to reflect on the diminishing opportunities for exploration; all the mountains have been climbed. Most gains in science now appear to be the products of corporate activities. I note that movie director James Cameron recently made a ballyhooed visit to the bottom of the Marianna Trench where he took pictures of . . . mud. There was much cheering when he surfaced, not for science discovered but for simply surviving the danger.
What frontiers remain? Still on the national list is a manned trip to Mars someday, a place now well known to be inhospitable to life – extremely cold, barren, and almost no air. The best reason to go, other than playing King of the Mountain, is to look for traces of life (while trying not to contaminate the scene). It has been estimated that the round trip would take two to three years! The Wikipedia page on “Manned mission to Mars” lists these “key challenges” to such a trip:
- physical effects of exposure to high-energy cosmic rays and other ionizing radiation.
- physical effects of a prolonged low-gravity environment, including eyesight loss.
- physical effects of a prolonged low-light environment.
- psychological effects of isolation from Earth.
- psychological effects of lack of community due to lack of real-time connections with Earth.
- social effects of several humans living under crowded conditions for over one Earth year.
- inaccessibility of terrestrial medical facilities.
I’m picturing the arrival on Mars:
Captain Al Astronaut: “OK troops, we’re here! Now get your rock hammers and your sample pouches and let’s get busy finding those microbes! Look lively!”
Jill Astronaut: “Geeze, Al, get a grip. I’m so weak I can’t move and you want to go hammer rocks. I’m homesick and I’m staying right here. The latest episode of Dangerous Housewives is due from Earth any minute now and I’m gonna catch it. Don’t let the hatch hit you in the butt as you leave.”
Frankly I don’t think the Mars Mission is ever going to happen, and yet otherwise sane people keep postulating it. I’m not sure even Robert Falcon Scott would sign up, but somehow I don’t doubt that volunteers can be found. Is the Mission to Mars simply a big reality show in which we ordinary beings can vicariously participate? If so, it would surely be the most expensive ever proposed. Sometimes it feels like I’m in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
- Robert Falcon Scott: Hero or Egotist? (polarprisca.com)