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Exploring the final frontier

On this day in 1953, the New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary and Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In the following excerpt from his book, Exploration: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2015), Stewart A. Weaver discusses why we, as humans, want to explore and discover.

In the winter of 1942/43, in Nazi-occupied Paris, Émile Gagnan and a ship-of-the-line lieutenant named Jacques-Yves Cousteau together developed the first modern prototype of the Aqua-Lung, or “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” (SCUBA). Various sorts of diving bells and chambers had been around since the Renaissance, and in 1930 two Americans, William Beebe and Otis Barton, had made history’s first deep-sea descent off Bermuda in a hollow steel ball they called a bathysphere. But it was the Gagnan-Cousteau Aqua-Lung, allowing as it did for free range of movement, observation, and collection, that ushered in the brave new era of undersea exploration. In 1948, while Wilfred Thesiger was making his second crossing of the Empty Quarter in Arabia, Cousteau and a small team that included the explorer-photographer Marcel Ichac made autonomous diving excavations of the ancient Mediterranean shipwreck of Mahdia, thus opening the way for submarine archaeology. Two years later, having resigned his naval commission, Cousteau founded French Oceanographic Campaigns, converted a retired British minesweeper into the research vessel Calypso, and set out on his lifelong career as the world’s leading apostle of underwater discovery. The waters that compass us about, he wrote in 1959, are “the last frontier on our planet,” and to him they presented a challenge “larger and more mysterious than the terrestrial wilderness, the deserts, the peaks and the white wastes of the Poles.”

In writing thus of “the last frontier on our planet,” Cousteau acknowledged that others off our planet now beckoned, that the lowly earth could no longer contain human exploratory ambition.

Two years before he wrote, the Soviet Union had successfully placed an artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, into elliptical low earth orbit, and two years after that, the Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey beyond the earth’s atmosphere into interplanetary space. A scant half-century after the race to the poles, the Cold War–inspired race to the moon was on. But was Gagarin actually an explorer in the same sense as Peary or Amundsen or their many earth-bound predecessors? Not once during his seventy-nine-minute near-orbit of the earth on April 12, 1961, did Gagarin touch the controls of his Vostok spacecraft. More passenger than pilot, he was simply along for the ride, a bit of flesh-and-blood cargo on an otherwise purely robotic and technologically driven venture. Subsequent cosmonauts and American astronauts had marginally more direct responsibility for the course and bearing of their crafts (from lunar landers to low-orbit shuttles), but still very little, none practically, compared with that of Columbus or Cook for theirs. And while space travel is unquestionably dangerous, as the American shuttle disasters prove, those who undertake it do not leap off into the unknown as daringly as the Vikings or Polynesians did. Rather, they set out on minutely programmed and computer-controlled courses for precisely fixed and perfectly located destinations. That is, they know to a scientific certainty where they are going and how long it will take them to get there. If the explorer by very definition has no precise or known destination, then astronauts are not explorers.

Image: Diver, by tpsdave. Public domain via Pixabay.

But neither, then, were Peary and Amundsen, both of whom had the mathematically precise destination of 90° latitude in mind when they set out on their polar journeys. And although they both had to rely far more on their own human energies and instincts to get there than Neil Armstrong had to rely on his to get to the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon, they too had technological tools at their disposal that earlier polar travelers did not and might thus be disqualified by absolute purists from the company of explorers. True, technology stifles romance, and by comparison with those earlier explorers who did not know what was over the next hill or around the next bend in the river, astronauts seem terribly spoiled. But so then does James Cook by comparison with the Polynesians who navigated the same seas without benefit of ship or sextant or magnetic compass. The differences here are matters of degree, not of kind. The real question is not how one travels but whether one travels to find the new. The point of the explorer’s journey is to see what has not been seen by anyone before, and in that respect no one in history was more of an explorer than Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human to see the bright blue orb of the earth set against the deep black immensity of space. Is space then “the final frontier,” as the famous title sequence to the 1960s television series Star Trek has it? If so, then it is an infinitely expanding one, and the work of exploration will never end as long as long as human curiosity endures. The particular geopolitical rivalry that drove the race to the moon ended with the Cold War, and the commercial usefulness of space travel has yet to prove itself as has the ambassadorial: we have yet to make any form of cultural contact out there. In other cultural and psychological respects, however, the exploration of space represents the deep extension of tendencies already evident in the earliest human migrations. The Romantics called it “wanderlust”—this innate human instinct for travel and original experience, this indefinable urge to see what lies over the next ridge or ocean. But it may be something more deeply wired than that. In looking into the riddle of human restlessness—no other mammal moves around from choice like we do— evolutionary anthropologists have identified a variant of the DRD4 gene, namely DRD4-7R, that in fact disposes some 20 percent of us toward curiosity, risk, movement, and adventure.

There is no such thing as the explorer’s gene: that vastly overstates 7R’s determinative significance. In accounting for the mystery of human exploration one has to consider means as much as motives, the ability as much as the urge. But where the urge is concerned, the familiar trinity of God, Gold, and Glory does not, it appears, tell the whole story. We need another “G” for Genes to explain why for thousands of years Homo sapiens, the “wise human,” has wandered the earth as Homo explorans.

“I suppose we go to Mount Everest,” George Mallory once said, “because—in a word—we can’t help it.” He spoke more truth than he knew. For all the different forms it takes in different historical periods, for all the worthy and unworthy motives that lie behind it, exploration, travel for the sake of discovery and adventure, seems to be a human compulsion, a human obsession even (as the paleontologist Maeve Leakey says); it is a defining element of a distinctly human identity, and it will never rest at any frontier, whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial.

Featured image credit: Mountain peak, by Unsplash. Public domain via Pixabay.

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