Map by Ron Barrett, New York Times
Explorers find praise as ambassadors of the unknown, knowledge seekers, the eyes and ears of the people they’ve left behind. But ultimately, how many iconic explorers are in this business because of knowledge? When Robert Peary wasn’t mushing his dogs over hummocks of pack ice, he was scribbling down his plans for his post-polar life. Dozens of pages in his Arctic journal are devoted to his plans for gaining publishing contracts, designs for geographic medals of honor, and a plan for the mausoleum that would one day hold his mortal remains (if he turned out to be mortal). One might argue that these explorers are the exceptions to the rule, that most were out risking life and limb for higher purposes. Perhaps, perhaps.
Robert Peary with party at the North Pole (or not)
Certainly large scale, state-sponsored expeditions are immune from this sort of vanity, right? Or do these expeditions merely institutionalize the cult of the explorer? Cold War space missions were, let’s face it, more about impressing the neighbors than understanding the universe.
Monument to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush here. There are many explorers, past and present, who do not fit this description. But they do not receive much attention, competing as they are with the explorers who are on the media’s A-list.