Before We Send a Man to Mars We Should Remember the Wasted Efforts Spent Finding the North Pole

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Mr. Robinson is an assistant professor of history at Hillyer College, University of Hartford. He is the author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture. He is also the editor of Time to Eat the Dogs a blog about science, history, and exploration.

A century ago, the North Pole remained one of the last unknown regions of the planet, a place that burned in the hearts of dozens of explorers. Walter Wellman’s heart burned brighter than most. In the 1890s, this Chicago newspaperman led two ill-fated expeditions in the Arctic, where ice crushed his ships, killed his dogs, and fractured his leg so badly it turned gangrenous. These disasters capped a series of tragic American expeditions to the Arctic, two of which resulted in the deaths of 37 men.

But Wellman was undeterred, and by 1906, he thought he had a new answer: he would fly to the North Pole on a giant airship, soaring over the ice that had foiled ships and sledges alike. His 185-foot, silk-skinned motor-balloon, America was a majestic craft, sleeker then any expedition ship. Yet America’s design was more optimized for fireworks than flight. Highly flammable hydrogen gas filled its frame. Beneath it wheezed an 80-horsepower gasoline engine that tended to shake apart when started. Fortunately for Wellman, America malfunctioned in the Arctic before it exploded, and he returned home in 1907 to plan two more flights (which failed) and to publish a book about his adventures (which succeeded). Through it all, Wellman attracted crowds and reporters even though the New York Times doubted whether the voyages would “add more than a single unimportant fact to the total of human knowledge.”

But Wellman’s story is worth taking seriously, especially as the United States gears up to replace the aging shuttle fleet. NASA’s course, like Wellman’s, has been shaped by tragic events. The destruction of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003 brought about much soul searching, and strengthened the agency’s commitment to safety. Yet NASA has focused most of its attention on improving the methods of exploration, rather than assessing its merits. Like Wellman, they have chosen to honor their fallen comrades by focusing on the construction of better machines, not the development of better missions. Consider President Bush’s 2004 speech “A Renewed Spirit of Discovery,” in which he lays out his vision for the U.S. space program. The document runs a little over 1400 words. Boiled down, it says this: send Americans back into space, first to the moon, then Mars. NASA now proceeds accordingly, gearing up, as Americans did a century ago, to send very brave people to very distant places.

But space exploration is a zero-sum game. Sending astronauts to Mars (a planet now studied quite efficiently by rovers, orbiters, and, as of late May, the Phoenix Lander) requires an enormous investment that will come at the expense of smaller, more useful, scientific projects. Already NASA plans to cut millions of dollars from the space science budget over the next five years. The savings will help cover a portion of the staggering costs of the “Constellation Program,” an initiative to design and produce a new generation of launch vehicles (Ares) and crew exploration vehicles (Orion).

A manned mission to Mars, if it happens, will be a dazzling event guaranteed to keep us glued to our televisions. But symbolism alone cannot carry the U.S. space program forward. One hundred years ago, Americans faced the same dilemma on the Arctic frontier. In their relentless pursuit of the North Pole, explorers had abandoned science. After Robert Peary claimed the discovery of the North Pole in 1909, American scientists breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, scientific exploration of the Arctic could begin in earnest. Franz Boas, professor of anthropology at Columbia University, expressed the mood of scientists then, but he could have been expressing the opinion of many scientists now. “We must not forget that the explorer is not expected merely to travel from one point to another, but that we must expect him also to see and to observe things worth seeing.”

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Mel D. Baker - 7/27/2008

I certainly don't disagree that robotic probes are needed to "test the waters" as we explore space.

But I do believe that human exploration and colonization of the Moon, Mars and the asteroids should be the clear goal.

Many supporters of robotic probes seem to see that as the begining and end of space exploration.

Michael F Robinson - 7/16/2008

Mel, thanks for the comments.

I don't think that Columbus is the best analogy here. Columbus was not particularly interested in reaching new lands for the symbolic thrill of it or finding objects of some undefined, future value (both of which are themes in current space exploration). He was funded to find a new route to Asia, a known, extremely lucrative region of the globe with well-known commodities.

In other words, Isabella and Ferdinand were taking a calculated risk based on a very good sense of possible rewards. What are the specific rewards which obtain from a manned mission to Mars?

That Columbus didn't come anywhere near Asia did not stop him or his successors from carrying out the original mission: bringing wealth the Spanish crown in the form of gold, silver, sugar, and slaves.

It remains to be seen what benefits Mars offer us in economic or scientific terms that cannot be accomplished by long range craft or robotic probes. That such probes take a long time to make measurements is not an argument for human exploration. Our current plans for Mars are hung up on rocket vehicle design and the inevitable budget battles in Congress over the next two decades. By this rate of speed, the Phoenix Lander is positively speedy.

More to the point, such probes are comparatively cheap. If space is our ultimate destination (and perhaps it is) why not do the best survey possible before we send our people out there? (and sending a considerable chunk of our GDP out there with them)?

All best,

Mel D. Baker - 7/15/2008

A better analogy for the need for human space exploration are the voyages of Columbus, Drake, Cook and others that opened up new frontiers.

If we compare the Apollo missions to Columbus, it's as if no one bothered to make any effort to follow up on his discoveries for 50 years.

We only have to look upon the stagnation of the China after it deliberately decided to turn its back on exploration.

Our current approach of staying in low Earth orbit is the same as if Europeans decided to simply paddle around the coastline fishing, never again to venture into the deep oceans.

As to the frankly silly argument that robotic probes can do the work of humans on Mars, let's look at the Mars Phoenix lander as one example.

It takes on the order of a week to conduct one simple soil experiment and that only from within less than two meters of the lander.

Instead imagine how many experiments a human could do in the same amount of time. How many observations and variations on possible experiments could be conducted.

The ocean of space needs to be sailed on, traded upon, explored and settled by humans who can adapt to the ever changing conditions that will face them in real time.

The arctic explorers were more akin to the billionaire ballonists and those trying to get in the Guiness Book of Records than the voyages of discovery that opened up the oceans of the Earth.

Michael F Robinson - 7/10/2008

Joe, thanks for your comments. I think the 2004 speech does put an emphasis on human exploration. Here's a quote from the speech: "Probes, landers and other vehicles of this kind continue to prove their worth, sending spectacular images and vast amounts of data back to Earth. Yet the human thirst for knowledge ultimately cannot be satisfied by even the most vivid pictures, or the most detailed measurements. We need to see and examine and touch for ourselves."

As for the economic goals of such a mission, President Bush talks about the new science, technology, and commerce which will result, none of which is known now but will result from the effort. This is virtually identical to statements made in the nineteenth century about the symbolic and practical reasons for heading to the poles. Ultimately the drive for the poles did not bring about these predicted revolutions, nor did they create the basis of a long lasting polar program. Much can be said of the moon missions of the 1960s and 70s. While they produced a fleet of new exploration vehicles and some interesting derivatives, they did not lead to a broad based platform for lunar exploration. The science programs which have had the longest reaching effects in the polar regions were the IPYs of the 1880s, 1930s, 1950s, and our current IPY of 2007-09. If I had to guess about the most influential space programs today, I would put my money on the Hubble Space Telescope and the robotic landers. This is just a guess, however. All best, Michael

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/8/2008

Entirely missing the point is ignoring the technology. Going to Mars with present day technology is like crossing the atlantic in a canoe. It might just be possible in 1 case out of 5 but does not make any sense except entering history books as the first fool to die on the way there. To make interplanetary travel feasible new engines and materials are needed. Engines to tolerably shorten the travel, materials to protect the astronauts against debris in space and the radioactivity from the sun. These are today no where in sight, and so the travel to mars is really like walking to the north pole. Only much more expensive.

Joe Strout - 7/7/2008

I believe Mr. Robinson has missed the point of the new space policy, in two ways. First, "sending a man to Mars" is not and never was an important goal. The President's speech mentions Mars only in passing, lumped together with "and other destinations," with the focus of the speech quite rightly on establishing a permanent human presence on the Moon.

Second, and more importantly, the point of all this activity is not exploration or science or dazzling events. It's to expand the human economic sphere to encompass the limitless resources beyond Earth's atmosphere. If a historical analogy is wanted, it is much more like the European naval explorers than like any symbolic expedition to the North Pole. Mr. Robinson's mention of a "zero-sum game" is relevant, but misapplied -- it is only as long as we restrict our six billion people to one small planet that zero-sum rules apply. Beyond Earth are effectively unlimited energy and materials, once we learn to use them. THAT is the point of the new space policy.

Michael F Robinson - 7/7/2008

David, scientists were relieved because they understood, I think, that exploration was a zero-sum game. There was only so much money available for polar voyages and only the flashiest projects received that money (again, this is roughly parallel to today's space scientists who watch the NASA budget for science shrink as money for human space vehicle design grows). Science did not mix well with dashes to the north pole because the former usually required time at one place for a series of measurements whereas North Pole explorers were trying to cover ground as quickly as they could.

Scientists learned very little about the polar regions from Peary or Cook or Wellman's quests to reach the North Pole. They had far better luck with more modest expeditions that stopped at slightly lower (yet far more accessible) latitudes. All best, Michael

Paul Carter - 7/7/2008

If I may: Symbols are necessary if only to inspire. In a democracy, inspiration is in turn necessary to secure the people's assent to the funding of otherwise obscure and abstruse programs.

What was said of Peary's discovery is, furthermore, puzzling. Assuming that scientists breathed a sigh of relief, was it because they believed that scientific studies could not be conducted otherwise? If so, why? Is it fair to impute an inability to conduct scientific study to the perceived prior need to discover the North Pole, if indeed this is what is implied?

Didn't Peary's pioneering efforts actually make it possible for science, finally, to begin?

Fahrettin Tahir - 7/7/2008

maybe they will make a film about going to mars, and we will choose to believe they actually did so. the practical gain for mankind would be the same as if they actually did go to mars. the money saved could be used for reducing the taxes rich people pay.