Lots of talk these days about Shackleton crater at the South Pole of the Moon. Many reasons why a base could be located there. The smart guys tell us that it is likely water ice exists in dark parts of the craters near the pole; and on the rims of those self-same craters the sunlight is continuous. Since almost all of the lunar surface is in darkness for half of the month, the rare location which has continuous sunlight is wonderful resource because it greatly enables power generation. There are lots of reasons to consider having a lunar base at the poles.
Studying on lunar geography put me in mind of old Ernest Shackleton, who is honored by having a significant crater named for him. There are several excellent biographies out on Ernest, and his book “South” is still in print. There are many lessons from his life that all good explorers should learn. in fact, historian Jack Stuster has written an excellent book which extracts lessons from polar exploration which are applicable to space exploration.
It is worthwhile to consider Shackleton’s exploits. He wanted to participate in the great polar explorations at the beginning of the 20th century. He worked with many of the luminaries of the great age of polar exploration. Shackleton did not get to go on the first expeditions to the south pole — probably a good thing since his mentor, Robert Falcon Scott, and his team perished in the attempt. After Amundsen’s expedition made the first trip to 90 degrees south, Shackleton started fundraising for an expedition to cross Antarctica from coast to coast via the pole. Unfortunately the voyage went very wrong: his ship, the Endurance, was caught in the ice far from shore, carried the wrong way, eventually crushed in the ice. Shackleton and his men were forced into a survival situation where they lived off the land (this is antarctica, remember) for almost two years. After an epic sea voyage in a small open boat, the party was rescued. They all survived. Truly amazing. If you want a superb case study in leadership, go to Shackleton.
But Ernest never made it to the south pole, he got within 97 miles of the pole on his closest attempt and had to turn back. Shackleton died of a heart attack several years after the Endurance experience, just as he was mounting yet another polar expedition.
If you look at a lunar map, they are all there, near the poles: Shackleton, Scott, Peary, Henson, Amundsen, Byrd, Nansen, even Franklin; they have all been honored. And it would do well for us to understand their history, the successes and the failures, the good plans and the bad, as we consider going to their namesake landmarks, a quarter million miles away.
Not all exploration trips are successful. Even worse, not all of them are wise. We need to study especially those which were failures because, frankly, you learn more from failure than from success. Success stories always sound inevitable; easy; pre-ordained. Success in a difficult endeavor is never inevitable. As my friend Lucy Kranz occasionally reminds her father, “Failure really is an option.”
A cautionary tale worth your study is told by Robert Ruby in his book “Unknown Shore”. I highly recommend it. Martin Frobisher, who later became famous in England along with Francis Drake for keeping the Spanish Armada at bay, lead an expedition in 1576 to what we know now as Baffin Island. On his return, Frobisher’s backers became desperate to justify the voyage. They took rocks collected from Baffin Island to four assayers. Three of them reported that these were just rocks, not particularly valuable. The fourth assayer reported that the rocks were rich ore bearing a high concentration of gold. Of the four assayers and their reports, which one do you think they listened to? The one who said there was gold in the rocks, of course! Three more voyages were made to return more rocks; lives were lost, ships sank, natives were abducted, fortunes were spent, and the rocks turned out to be . . . just rocks. Not gold.
There are adventures which benefit mankind; there are adventures which rekindle the human spirit; there are adventures which bring glory, fame, honor, and even useful resources as their outcome. But not all adventures end that way. Some are pointless, some are inglorious, some are fruitless.
I believe that space exploration is the noblest endeavor of our age. It uplifts the human spirit, encourages scholarship, improves the economy, enhances our understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. In the long term, space exploration – utilization, exploitation, and colonization – will no doubt save and transform humankind.
But in the near term we need to be careful in our zealousness not to describe space exploration as a panacea to every problem humans have encountered. We will maintain credibility and help the cause only when we are truthful, accurate, and firmly grounded. Let’s avoid hyperbole and glittering inaccuracies as we reach for the stars.
Meanwhile, I hope to see you one day at the lunar base on the rim of Shackleton crater where we can reminisce about the courage of our astronauts who got us there and the foresight of the leaders who pointed us there.