It almost goes without saying that exploration is dangerous work. Vasco da Gama left for India with 180 men. He returned to Portugal with 60. John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage resulted in an impressive 100% fatality rate. Even expeditions to places well-mapped and long-traveled carry risk. Planning an ascent of K2 in the Karakoram Range? Chances are better than 1 in 4 that you will die in the attempt.
Where does danger lurk? One immediately thinks of physical and biological hazards, of gale-force winds, hull-crushing pack ice, capricious avalanches, & malarial fevers.
But these forces are only efficient causes, the sharp edge of the reaper’s scythe.
When 37 Americans died in two Arctic expeditions from 1879-1884, it was clear to everybody that the men died from starvation and exposure (well, mostly: one man drowned and another was shot for stealing food). But most Americans looked beyond these causes to contributing factors, to poor ship design and faulty relief efforts.
Yet if we look more closely, we see that, more often than not, the expedition party itself is largely to blame for its own failures. Reading the historical record, it becomes clear that one of the most difficult tasks of expeditionary life was not weathering the elements but enduring one’s peers. The 1870 Polaris Expedition to the North Pole fell apart when its pious and imperious commander Charles Hall suffered convulsions (and ultimately died) after drinking arsenic-laced coffee (probably prepared by his disgruntled science officer).
For most of the nineteenth century, Elisha Kane was America’s celebrity explorer, a man revered for his eloquence, cultivation, and high-mindedness. Most of Kane’s men, however, thought he was an insufferable prig. Indeed, more than half of his crew turned against Kane in the Arctic, attempting to escape the Arctic without his approval. Almost all of this was hidden from public view, expunged from the narratives of the expedition written by Kane and his men.
Still one gets subtle glimpses, even from Kane’s own work. The image above was published in Kane’s best-selling narrative of his expedition, Arctic Explorations. In the scene, Kane sits in the center, surrounded by his officers. Kane looks weary and somewhat annoyed, staring down to the right. On the right, two of his officers stare forward towards the viewer, looking at different points. On the left, two other officers are engrossed in conversation, one with a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Whispering about plans perhaps? Indeed, the only one in the scene looking admiringly at Kane is his dog. Or perhaps he’s just hungry.
These might seem like sepia-colored anecdotes from long ago. But expeditions continue to live or die on the ability of their members to get along, to communicate well, and to improvise effectively when things go wrong. Such is one of the findings of Michael Kodas who wrote about last year’s debacle on K2.
With this in mind, I wonder how much “unit cohesion” is on the minds of NASA’s administrators as it plans its mission to Mars. Two years is a long time to spend in a capsule with one’s mates, even with DVDs.