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 he 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 space shuttle now arcs again into low earth orbit. 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 and orbiters) 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 the costs of refitting the current shuttle fleet and building a new one.
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.”