Next stop: New Arctic

Before space was the final frontier, there was the Arctic. The lessons learned by the explorers of yore may prove valuable for tomorrow’s spacefarers

Terrestrial or celestial, the costs are astronomical

Lesley Price

The similarities between early Arctic expeditions and where man currently stands with space exploration are eerily similar. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the Arctic was the ultimate unknown. The slow progression from exploration to settlement has filled in most of the gaps on the terrestrial map. Now, some say, history may be getting ready to repeat itself on the celestial level.

“There are many parallels with the way modern industrial societies look at space exploration and the way that cultures 130 years ago were looking at the Arctic,” says Michael Robinson, an expert in Arctic exploration and history at the University of Hartford.

Nineteenth-century exploration was driven by the promise of knowledge and scientific gains. Further back, the Vikings took to the seas in search of bounty or new homes. Russell Potter, the author of a book about British exploration of the Arctic in the nineteenth century, explains that like all kinds of exploration, their motivations transformed overtime.

“Many of the earliest voyages were undertaken in the name of research or commerce – finding gold or other raw materials, establishing fisheries or finding a shorter route from the West to China,” he says.

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But by the mid-19th century, most of those endeavors had accomplished about as much as they could. From that point on, according to Mr Potter, exploration became more of a symbolic endeavor that pitted nation against nation in the pursuit of intangible goals.

Evolving over many years, today’s Arctic gold rush is arguably at its height, as coastal states stake their claim for the ultimate symbol: the North Pole itself. Ironically, that race and its own flag-planting hearkens back to the early days of space exploration. The Cold War space race that culminated in America’s 1969 flag-planting on the Moon. Patriotic overtones aside, both the US and the Soviet Union had valid scientific interests in traveling beyond Earth’s boundaries.

In contemporary space exploration, Mr Robinson believes the Arctic has many lessons to offer the next generation of spacefaring powers. Not least, the warning that the quest for advances comes with great risks.

Robinson singles out two American expeditions of the late 19th century, both for their loss, but also for the impact they had on the direction of US polar exploration.

The first, the Delong Expedition (1879-1881), resulted in the loss of the USS Jeanette after at it became trapped in pack ice, eventually resulting in the death of 19 members. In the second, the Greely Expedition (1881-1884) to the Canadian high Arctic set off with 25 men. Only six returned to be able to tell their nightmarish tale of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny and cannibalism.

“This was followed by a great period of soul searching in America, and uncertainty about the point of the exploration and whether it was worth the cost and the loss of life. These are the exact same questions that were asked after the loss of Challenger and the Columbia in the US space programme,” Mr Robinson says.

Similar to the Arctic, space has great symbolic and geo-political significance. And both are difficult to fold into their contemporary societies. “In the late 1800s very few people thought that the Arctic would become a US territory or that it would provide economic gains,” Mr Robinson says.

So far, no planet discovered would appear to provide an environment that would be hospitable to humans. Even Mars, the most hospitable extraterrestrial planet in our solar system, is too extreme for terrestrial life to survive without the assistance of protective equipment.

Even so, Ron Doel, an Arctic researcher from the Environmental History Faculty at Florida State University, explains that polar environments have proved useful in climate and topography analysis that might help give an idea of what explorers could expect.

“The dry valleys there have been good testing grounds for figuring out ways to explore the chemistry of Mars,” he says.

The Arctic is not alone in providing Earth-bound scientists with a better understanding of extreme environments, Mr Doel underscores. None of them, however, can claim the title of ‘Mars on Earth’, a nickname bestowed on Devon Island, in Nunavut, after the remote, rocky and uninhabited island, was selected as a training site for a possible Mars mission.

But even if extraterrestrial settlements do one day trace their roots back to the Arctic, Mr Robinson doesn’t expect we will live to see the establishment of colonies bearing names like New Nunavut or New Devon.

“Perhaps Mars and the Moon could be viewed in the same light of potential as the Arctic was in its day, but unfortunately money makes the prospect very impractical in our lifetime.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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