The Final Frontier?

Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. The im...

Last expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. The image shows Oates, Scott and Wilson (standing); and Bowers and Evans (sitting) Deutsch: Die letzte Expedition von Robert Falcon Scott. Das Bild wurde am 18. Januar 1912 per Selbstauslöser gemacht und zeigt Oates, Scott und Wilson (stehend) sowie Bowers und Evans (sitzend). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Manned mission to Mars : Ascent stage (NASA Hu...

Manned mission to Mars : Ascent stage (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) fev 2009 Français : Mission habitée vers Mars : étage de remontée (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) fev 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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7 Responses to The Final Frontier?

  1. PiedType says:

    You really are a skeptic, aren’t you? I believe the Mars mission will happen sooner or later, as will exploration of much more of that vast universe out there. Man is naturally curious and I don’t believe for a second that he’ll keep gazing at the stars without someday going there. It occurred to me as I clicked on your title to come here that we can’t declare anything “The Final Frontier” while there’s an infinite, unexplored universe staring back at us.

    (And by the way, there are still dozens of unconquered peaks right here on earth.)


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Until the basic facts of physics changes, and I’m not holding my breath for that, I see any kind of interstellar communication, much less travel, as impractical. Even stretching the imagination. Picture a gigantic spaceship with a self-contained ecology and a population of hundreds or thousands traveling to a nearby solar system. Even if some kind of black-hole power source could be invented for unlimited energy, the ship’s speed would be limited to a maximum of less than half light speed because of radiation and particle collisions, so the journey would take generations.

      Yes, PT, I am a skeptic, but I don’t want you to think there’s no romance in my soul. I see lots of opportunity for exploration and adventure inward on our little blue marble. Stuff like:

      The human mind – what is the nature of self awareness, and how does the brain really work?
      Computer development – can computers be made self-aware?
      Robots – can Asimov’s visions come to pass?
      Environment – can we ever live in harmony with it, manage it, preserve it?
      Genetics – can human and animal genes be engineered to maximize their potential for health and intelligence?
      Medicine – can old age and disease be conquered?
      Entertainment – extend the already amazing potential of electronics, possibly including direct sensory input to the brain.
      Education – maximize the talents and potential of each unique human being.
      Politics – learn to live in harmony with other races and cultures, tolerating diversity of opinion and personality.

      Wait. Scratch that last one. Impossible. 🙄


  2. ansonburlingame says:


    Jim is not necessarily a skeptic in my view. He just wants enough money to fund a public option for HC!!

    But I do agree with you that there will never be a “final frontier” for human imagination and thus effort. How did the “first Americans” arrive in America? Probably a land bridge through Artic wastes akin to Anartic wastes where Scott perhished, all “exploring” or extending the boundaries of human imagination. Then once those Asian settlers arrived, they were followed by “white men” from the opposite direction, across the Atlantic. Wonder how many of those “white men” died in terrible conditions as they “opened the west” for white men

    Unless we destroy ourselves first humans will someday confront other areas to “explore” and hopefully the color of the explorers skin will make no differnce. It will then be a contest of “human” vs ……..?



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    To all,

    Closing out my input to “frontiers” is my view that our political perspectives never take into account for our human capacities. We only consider politically, that which is NOW, not later, sometimes far later.

    We debate HC now as if we MUST resolve the issue TODAY. I submit we cannto do so, today, politically or in terms of science. Right now science has outpaced our poltical capacity to “pay” for sucfh science. Now is that a political problem to solved NOW or does science, in this case medical science, find a “better way”?

    I do know this however. Americans, particularly progressives, are not willing to wait. They want it NOW.



  4. Alan Scott says:

    Jim Wheeler ,

    There was a book out 10 or 15 years ago written about the race between Scott and Amundsen . I believe it was called The Last Place on Earth . I lent it out to someone and never got it back . It severely criticised Scott as incompetent for getting his whole party killed on the return journey .

    This was the last great expedition before machinery changed exploration forever .


  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    @ Alan,

    Machinery changes, but the human motivation to seek attention, IMHO, does not. Isn’t that what astronauts and candidates for public office have in common?


  6. Alan Scott says:

    Jim Wheeler ,

    Astronauts are physically putting their lives on the line . Candidates for political office are only putting their egos on the line . You can fail multiple times in politics and live to win another day .

    To get back to Scott and Amundsen, the Norwegian was a better explorer and Scott was a better writer . Scott was more famous for losing the race and dying than Amundsen was for actually getting to the South Pole first . The most heroic figure of the time was a British rival named Ernest Shackleton . He held the farthest south record until Scott and Amundsen reached the pole. If I were to follow any of the three into danger and wanted to live it would be Shackleton. If I wanted to win a race it would be Amundsen . If I wanted to become famous it would be Scott .

    The late 1800s and up to WW1 was a unique time of competition between nations and explorers . Getting to the poles first only compares to climbing MT, Everest in the 1950s and landing on the moon in 1969 . I can’t think of anything left to be first at, that has the same stature . Mars, perhaps . Getting to Mars is like getting to the South Pole in that earlier era . It is definitely doable. The real accomplishment is getting back alive .


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