What the first journey to the South Pole could teach space explorers

The American Museum of Natural History's current exhibition, Race To The End Of The Earth, is about two teams competing to discover the South Pole in 1911. Only one team made it back. What can present-day scientists learn from that?

I spoke with museum researcher and paleontologist Ross MacPhee about the exhibit, which he curated. As the exhibition unfolds, visitors learn about the two competitors: Roald Amundsen, an explorer who wanted to triumph in yet another athletic adventure; and Robert Falcon Scott, a Royal Navy torpedo specialist who was fascinated by science. Amundsen brought a team of rugged outdoorsmen; Scott brought a team of scientists. Sadly, Scott not only lost - he was the second to make it to the Pole - but his entire team perished on the way back to the coast.

Was this a triumph of jocks over geeks? MacPhee says no. He says the inheritors of this great geographical discovery are "not people who ski unassisted with the provisions they carry or pogo stick across the snow. The natural inheritors are the scientists." He elaborates:

[Scientists] go to places that are risky because that is what field scientists do - and that is something I think we bring across [in this exhibition]. People assume that explorers are elite performers who do hard traveling. That may be, but the ones who are going to a place to achieve something beyond their physical best are scientists.

And that's why Scott didn't really lose. Not only did he leave rich historical documentation behind - some of which is still consulted today - he also discovered Antarctica's Dry Valleys. These valleys are framed by mesas that began to form when Antarctica was still a warm continent, millions of years ago, and which are now some of the only geographical features in Antarctica that are not covered in snow or glaciers. Geologists study the strata in these valleys to learn about previous ages of the Earth. Scott also brought back plant fossils from the Transantarctic Mountains, which indicated that Antarctica had once been part of a vast landmass that included Africa. Decades later, MacPhee explains, "This discovery helped with the development of the theory of plate tectonics. It showed that [the continents] haven't always been positioned like they are today."

What the first journey to the South Pole could teach space explorers

So Scott's work has helped scientists in the century since his fatal journey. But could it also hold lessons for future planet explorers, who will often be in harsh conditions with limited supplies? MacPhee says one basic lesson is "do your homework." He adds:

Neither [Scott nor Amundsen] fully appreciated what the really cold period was like. You've got this vast, white body blasting all this energy back into space, which means as soon as the sun sinks, as the year progresses, you get catastrophic drops in temperature. The closer to winter you are, the worse it gets. Scott didn't know late March was far too late to be out on the ice.

So what's the lesson for exoplanetary exploration? Don't expect weather to work exactly the way it does back on Earth.

As you can see from the video tease above, the exhibition is being presented as a kind of historical mystery - despite the fact that spoilers about the ending lurk in every history book and on Wikipedia. MacPhee said the museum chose to take this tack after polling visitors and discovering that very few had heard of Scott or Amundsen - indeed, some didn't even know where the Antarctic was, when asked. "That question had diverse answers," MacPhee says wryly. "So when we decided to do the race, we thought why give it away? A lot of people - even as they come into the last part of the historical section - don't know that Scott is going to die. And they've been terribly moved when they find out."

Want to learn more about the exhibition? Check out AMNH's website.