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Thursday, 9 June 2011

Polar explorers v astronauts

The story of Captain Scott has been retold many times over the last 99 years, recasting his last expedition as a triumph of heroism, as a bungle of heroism, a lost race, a coup for science, etc. I think lost in the skirts of this revisionism is the key point that the Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole was a strikingly modern and risky enterprise at the time.

The daring of early polar explorers is easily glossed over because we see the pictures of them posing with familiar household products (tinned beans, sugar lumps) – product placement was in its infancy. Also, in our sat-nav, Google Earth cocoons, we’re all armchair explorers now, so it’s worthwhile reacquainting ourselves with the thrill that Scott’s contemporaries would have felt at his achievements.

I think one way to do this is to compare early polar explorers with their modern equivalents, astronauts. Firstly, Antarctica is a famously hostile environment, unsupportive of human life to the point that there’s no indigenous population, and 15% of the continent remains the only unclaimed land on the planet. No surprise, then, that NASA have been testing their Mars spacesuits in Antarctica (
Testing the Mars spacesuit in Antarctica (photo credit: unknown)
Scott and co. weren’t just pushing back frontiers of geography, but also of science. Though not formally trained as a scientist, Scott was an early adopter of new technologies: in the Navy, he specialised in torpedo warfare when torpedoes were young enough to still be fired from ships, not submarines. Scott blew away cobwebbed expedition techniques and championed equipment prototypes. In one diary entry (June 20th 1911), Scott blithely lists recent innovations tried out by his team: ‘double’ tents, sleeping bags and wind-suits, a modified blubber stove and lightweight ski-boots with cramp-ons.

The historical arcs of polar and space expeditions have close parallels. It’s striking how innocent the pioneers of both kinds of exploration were of their impact on their environment, and how sensitive modern explorers are to conservation and custodianship issues. Space junk is a big enough concern that lasers, balloons and even dedicated clean-up satellites are now under consideration to solve the problem. Modern travellers to Antarctica are asked to consider where they walk, since moss footprints can last decades, and responsible sledging parties make allowances to carry home their waste, which mercifully freezes quickly in that environment.

Another interesting point of comparison is explorers’ enduring thirst for novelty: to push further into space; to conquer a yet more difficult ski route. Early polar explorers and modern astronauts are probably the same mix of individualistic (to want to do something out of the way) and pack animal (to fit in a close-knit team for long periods).

Anyway, analogies can only stretch so far. Perhaps early polar explorers would today be... modern polar explorers. What do you think Scott and his men would be up to, if they were born thirty years ago?


  1. 'responsible sledging parties make allowances to carry home their waste, which mercifully freezes quickly in that environment' LOL!

  2. Apologies for going straight for the toilet joke - I would like to hear more about the science side of things. What were the big discoveries made on the expedition and how have these discoveries had an impact on modern life today?

    Keep up the interesting work!

  3. Liebe Frau Lemon

    Ha ha! There's a robust cottage industry servicing the waste disposal and conveyancing needs of conscientious ice travellers, though I don't think DHL are in on the act yet.

    I'll definitely post more about the scientific fallout from Scott's expeditions, which has been nothing short of prolific. I suppose his crew had a monopoly of Antarctic field data at the time.

    All the best


About Me

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Ali is a 28 year old Londoner. He has trained at various things, including tennis playing, biochemistry and bespoke tailoring. He currently works in social housing for a local authority. In his free time, he marinades in Antarctic arcana, runs avidly (middle-distance) and bumbles through music practice. Ali volunteers for the International Scott Centenary Expedition 2012 charity, which aims to honour the legacy of Captain Robert Scott and his four men who died a hundred years ago. Ali is one of ten shortlisted candidates for the final place on the centenary expedition itself.