August 29, 1854 The Resolute Desk

Once hopelessly caught in arctic ice the British vessel HMS Resolute was returned to her majesty Queen Victoria’s government and now serves as a desk for virtually every US President from Rutherford B. Hayes, to Joseph R. Biden.

Since the time of Columbus, European explorers have searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.   The “Corps of Discovery“ better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, the intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

Forty years later, Captain sir John Franklin departed England aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to discover the mythical Northwest Passage.

The two vessels became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island, in the Canadian Arctic.

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Prodded by Lady Jane Franklin, the hunt for her husband’s expedition would continue for years, at one time involving as any as eleven British and two American ships.  Clues were found including notes and isolated graves, telling the story of a long and fruitless effort to stay alive in a hostile climate.  The wreck of HMS Erebus would not be discovered until 2014, her sister ship, two years later.

In 1848, the British Admiralty possessed few hulls suitable for arctic service. Two civilian steamships were purchased and converted to exploration vessels: HMS Pioneer and HMS Intrepid, along with four seagoing sailing vessels, Resolute, Assistance, Enterprise and Investigator.

HMS Resolute was a Barque rigged merchant ship, purchased in 1850 as the Ptarmigan and refitted for Arctic exploration. Renamed Resolute, the vessel became part of a five ship squadron leaving England in April 1852, sailing into the Canadian arctic in search of the doomed Franklin expedition.

Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 officers and men would ever return alive.  What HMS Resolute Did find was the long suffering crew of the HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice where, three years earlier, she too had been searching for the lost expedition.

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Three of the Resolute expedition’s ships themselves became trapped in floe ice in August 1853 including Resolute, herself. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of their supply ships. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between May and August, of the following year.

The expedition’s survivors left Beechey Island on August 29, 1854, never to return. Meanwhile Resolute, alone and abandoned among the ice floes, continued to drift eastward at a rate of 1½ nautical miles per day.

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The American whale ship George Henry discovered the drifting Resolute on September 10, 1855, 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen of them sailed Resolute back to their base in Groton CT, arriving on Christmas eve.

The so-called ‘Pig and Potato War” of 1859 was resolved between the British and American governments with the loss of no more than a single hog, yet a number of border disputes made the late 1850s a difficult time, for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government, as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Resolute sailed for England later that year. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until being retired and broken up in 1879. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from the English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards.

In 1880, the British government presented President Rutherford B. Hayes the gift, of a large partner’s desk. A token of gratitude for the return of the HMS Resolute, 24 years earlier.

The desk, known as the Resolute Desk, has been used by nearly every American President from that day, to this. Every president from Hayes through Hoover used the desk either in the White House Green Room, the president’s study or working office. FDR moved the desk into the oval office where he had a panel installed in the opening, as he was self conscious about his leg braces.

There was a brief period of climate controlled storage during the Truman era as the White House went through major renovation. It was Jackie Kennedy who brought the desk back, into the Oval Office. There are pictures of JFK working at the desk while a young JFK, Jr., played underneath.

Stanley Tretick’s October 2, 1963 photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. playing in the kneehole of the Resolute desk

Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Ford were the only ones not to use the Resolute desk, as LBJ allowed it to leave the White House following the Kennedy assassination.

The Resolute Desk spent several years in the Kennedy Library and later the Smithsonian Institute, the only other time the desk has been out of the White House.

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Jimmy Carter returned the desk to the Oval Office where it has remained through the Presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump and, as of this article, Joe Biden.

August 18, 1587 The Lost Colony

Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation.  They may have been killed by hostile natives or perished at sea in small boats. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

The 16th century was drawing to a close when Queen Elizabeth set out to establish a permanent English settlement in the New World. The charter went to Walter Raleigh, who sent explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to scout out locations for a settlement.

The pair landed on Roanoke Island on July 4, 1584, establishing friendly relations with local natives, the Secotans and Croatans. They returned a year later with glowing reports of what is now the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two Native Croatans, Manteo and Wanchese, accompanied the pair back to England. All of London was abuzz with the wonders of the New World.

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased that she knighted Raleigh. The new land was called “Virginia” in honor of the Virgin Queen.

Raleigh sent a party of 100 soldiers, miners and scientists to Roanoke Island, under the leadership of Captain Ralph Lane. The attempt was doomed from the start. They arrived too late in the season for planting, and Lane alienated a neighboring indigenous tribe when a misunderstanding led to the murder of Chief Wingina. That’ll do it.

By 1586 they had had enough, and left the island on a ship captained by Sir Francis Drake. Ironically, their supply ship arrived about a week later. Finding the island deserted, that ship left 15 men behind to “hold the fort” before they too, departed.

The now knighted “Sir” Walter Raleigh was not deterred. Raleigh recruited 90 men, 17 women and 9 children for a more permanent “Cittie of Raleigh”, appointing expedition artist John White, governor. Among this first colonial expedition were White’s pregnant daughter, Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare, and the Croatans Wanchese and Manteo.

0813Raleigh believed that the Chesapeake afforded better opportunities for his new settlement, but Portuguese pilot Simon Fernandes, had other ideas. The caravan stopped at Roanoke Island in July, 1587, to check on the 15 men left behind a year earlier. Fernandes was a Privateer, impatient to resume his hunt for Spanish shipping.  He ordered the colonists ashore on Roanoke Island.

It could not have lifted the spirits of the small group to learn that the 15 left earlier, had disappeared.

Eleanor Dare gave birth to a daughter on August 18, 1587 and named her Virginia, the first English child born, in the new world. Fernandez departed for England ten days later taking with him an anxious John White, who wanted to return to England for supplies. It was the last time Governor White would see his family.

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White found himself trapped in England by the invasion of the Spanish Armada, and the Anglo-Spanish war. Three years would come and go before White was able to return, and the Hopewell anchored off Roanoke. John White and a party of sailors waded ashore on August 18, 1590, three years to the day from the birth of his granddaughter, Virginia.  There they found – nothing – save for footprints, and the letters “CRO”, carved into a nearby tree.

It was a prearranged signal.  In case the colonists had to leave the island, they were to carve their destination into a tree or fence post.  A cross would have been the sign that they left under duress, but there was no cross.

Reaching the abandoned settlement, the party found the word CROATOAN, carved into a post.  Again there was no cross, but the post was part of a defensive palisade, a defense against hostile attack which hadn’t been there when White left for England.

The word CROATOAN signified both the home of Chief Manteo’s people, the barrier island to the south, (modern-day Hatteras Island), and the indigenous people themselves.

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White had hopes of finding his family but a hurricane came up, before he was able to explore any further.  Ships and supplies were damaged requiring return to England.  By this time, Raleigh was busy with a new venture in Ireland, and unwilling to support White’s return to the New World.  Without deep pockets of his own, John White was never able to raise the resources to return.

Two decades later, English colonists put down roots in a place called Jamestown and years later, in Plymouth.  These roots would take hold and grow and yet, what happened to that first such outpost, remains a mystery.  Those 115 children, women and men, pioneers all, may have died of disease or starvation.  They may have been killed by hostile natives or perished at sea in small boats. Perhaps they went to live with Chief Manteo’s people, after all.

One of the wilder legends has Virginia Dare, now a beautiful young maiden and example to European and Indian peoples alike, transformed into a snow white doe by a spurned and would-be suitor, the evil medicine man Chico.

The fate of the first English child born on American soil may never be known.

“An Indian girl shows off an English doll in one of many scenes painted by John White, the Lost Colony’s artist governor. White’s realistic portraits of Native American life—including ritual dances (shown here)—became one of the earliest lenses through which Europeans saw the New World”. H/T National Geographic

A personal anecdote involves a conversation I had with a woman in High Point, North Carolina, a few years back. She described herself as having Croatoan ancestry, her family going back generations on the outer banks of North Carolina. She described her Great Grandmother, a full blooded Croatoan. The woman looked like it, too, except for her crystal blue eyes. She used to smile at the idea of the lost colony of Roanoke. “They’re not lost“, she would say. “They are us“.

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Afterward

Four hundred and twenty-eight years ago, the English colony at Roanoke Island vanished, along with the 115 men, women and children who lived there. Since that time, efforts to solve the mystery have concentrated on the island itself, with precious little to show for it.

About fifty “Dare Stones” have been discovered containing carved inscriptions, purporting to describe what happened to the lost colonists.  Almost all have been debunked as hoaxes, yet research continues on at least, one.lost-colony-dare-stone.adapt.1900.1Photo credit to Mark Theissen with permission of Brenau University

In 1993, a hurricane exposed large quantities of pottery and other remnants of a native American village, mixed with seemingly European artifacts. In the 1580s, Hatteras Island would have been an ideal spot, blessed with fertile soil for growing corn, beans and squash, and a bountiful coastline filled with scallops, oysters and fish.

Since then, two independent teams have found archaeological evidence, suggesting that the lost colonists may have split up and made their homes with first nations. There are a number of European artifacts unlikely to be objects of trade including a sword hilt, broken English bowls and the fragment of a writing slate, with one letter still visible. In 1998, Archaeologists discovered a 10-carat gold signet ring, a well worn Elizabethan-era object, almost certainly owned by an English nobleman.

Fifty miles to the northwest, the second team believes they have unearthed pottery used by the lost colonists on Albemarle Sound near Edenton, North Carolina.

NC-VA.adapt.1900.1Research concluded at “Site X” in 2017, the cloak & dagger moniker given to deter thieves and looters.  The mystery of the lost Colony of Roanoke, remains unsolved.  “We don’t know exactly what we’ve got here,” admitted one archaeologist. “It remains a bit of an enigma.”

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Hat Tip to NationalGeographic.com, for this image

May 20, 1845 The Lost Franklin Expedition

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice.

Since the fall of Constantinople when the Ottoman Empire blocked overland trade routes to the east, European explorers searched for a navigable shortcut by open water, from Europe to Asia.  

The idea of a northern sea route has been around at least since the second century world maps of the Greco-Roman geographer, Ptolemy. Five years after Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”, John Cabot became the first European to explore the fabled “Northwest Passage”. Cabot made landfall in the Canadian Maritime sometime in June 1497 and, like Columbus, mistakenly believed he had reached the Asian shore.

A year later, King James VII authorized a much larger expedition of five ships and 200 men. Cabot’s expedition is believed to have been caught in a severe storm in the North Atlantic. None were ever heard from, again.

Jacques Cartier departed France in 1534 in search of a faster route to Asia. Three such expeditions failed to discover the great river to the west.

In 1539, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa departed the Pacific coast of Mexico for what the Spanish called, the Strait of Anián. Ulloa is credited with proving that Baja California is a peninsula and not an island but he too came back, empty handed.

Henry Hudson’s explorations paved the way to Dutch settlement in New York but the river that bears his name, proved to be a dead end. Another attempt in 1610 saw Hudson’s expedition stuck in the ice, in Hudson Bay. The ice melted with the Spring of 1611 when the crew mutinied, setting Cabot and a few loyalists adrift in a small boat. The mutineers returned to England. Cabot and the others, vanished.

The “Corps of Discovery“, better known as the Lewis and Clark expedition, departed the Indiana Territory in 1804 with, among other purposes, and intention of finding a water route to the Pacific.

By the 19th century, European explorers looked to the north. To the Arctic. On this day in 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin departed England with a crew of 134 men aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage.

HMS Terror. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

HMS Erebus and Terror were perhaps the finest vessels ever to make the attempt, having proven themselves in an earlier expedition, to the Antarctic. With hulls strengthened by steel plates and beams to withstand the massive pressures of the ice, the two were equipped not only with sail but with massive locomotive engines and screws, able to retract within channels designed to avoid damage from the ice. Inside, a steam heating system kept sailors insulated from the arctic cold.

Two months later, the vessels were spotted at the entrance of Baffin Bay. They were never seen again.

Three years later, a rescue expedition set out at the urging of lady Franklin and others, in search of the lost expedition. Three expeditions really, one overland and one each approaching from the north Atlantic, and Pacific. Some tantalizing clues emerged over the following decade. Three graves discovered on Beechy Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago . A note and then another, discovered under stone cairns. The weathered bones bearing knife marks raising questions, about cannibalism.

American vessels joined with those of British searchers. The search became all but a crusade for a time but nothing turned up, beyond the occasional clue. No member of the Franklin expedition was ever seen again. Not at least, by European eyes.

Anthropologists believe the Thule people split from related groups called Aleuts and from Siberian migrants some 4,000 years ago, displacing the paleo-eskimo culture called the Tuniit. The “Inuit” people further split around the year 1000 and moved east, across the Arctic.

The techniques by which a human being survives and even thrives in such an inhospitable place, the histories, these are the Qaujimajatuqangit, the knowledge of the Inuit, told and retold in stories going back thousands of years.

Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, explains:

“Inuit had no written system of language… History was passed down through oral history, which meant telling and retelling stories. During the long winter days and nights it was usually the elders who would tell stories.”

Hat Tip Louis Kamookak

169 years after HMS Erebus and Terror disappeared the Qaujimajatuqangit of the Netsilik Inuit of King William Island led to their discovery.

In September 2014, an expedition led by Parks Canada discovered the wreck of the HMS Erebus, in an area identified in Inuit oral history. She lay in a mere 36-feet of water, a good sixty miles from where she was believed to be. Two years later, Inuit knowledge led to the wreck of HMS Terror.

Afterward

In 1852, searchers aboard HMS Resolute discovered the long suffering crew of HMS Investigator, hopelessly encased in ice while searching for the lost Franklin expedition, three years earlier.

HMS Investigator is shown on the north coast of Baring Island in the Arctic in this 1851 drawing. The ships commanded by Sir John Franklin in his doomed 19th-century search for the Northwest Passage will have to overwinter wherever they are at least one more time. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Public Archives of Canada

Resolute herself became trapped in the ice, the following year. There was no choice but to abandon ship, striking out across the ice pack in search of rescue. Most of them made it despite egregious hardship, straggling into Beechy Island over the Spring and summer of 1854.

In 1855, the American whale ship George Henry discovered the Resolute drifting in pack ice, some 1,200 miles from her last known position. Captain James Buddington split his crew, half of them now manning the abandoned ship. Fourteen sailed Resolute back to Groton Connecticut, arriving on Christmas eve.

The late 1850s was a difficult time for American-British relations. Senator James Mason of Virginia presented a bill in Congress to fix up the Resolute, and give her back to her Majesty Queen Victoria’s government as a token of friendship between the two nations.

$40,000 were spent on the refit. Commander Henry J. Hartstene presented the vessel to Queen Victoria on December 13, 1859. HMS Resolute served in the British navy until 1879 when she was retired, and broken up. The British government ordered two desks to be fashioned from English oak of the ship’s timbers, the work being done by the skilled cabinet makers of the Chatham dockyards. In 1880, the British government presented a large partner’s desk to President Rutherford B. Hayes. A token of appreciation for HMS Resolute’s return, a quarter-century earlier.

The Resolute Desk has remained in the White House from that day to this, excepting the Truman renovations and 11 years following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when it was moved to the Smithsonian. President George H.W. Bush moved it into the residence office, in the White House. Aside from that, the Resolute desk has remained in the oval office from the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, to that of Joe Biden.

January 28, 1986 Space Truck

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) came around as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane” with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

o-columbia-shuttle-disaster-facebookSTS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.  It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young and piloted, by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white.  From STS-3 on, the external tank was left unpainted, to save weight.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”.  A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

Rescue and recovery operations were delayed for fifteen minutes, as debris rained from the sky.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW

STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

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December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T Spaceflightnow.com

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.  Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation.   The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am.  The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

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“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale. 

In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz lived for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture.  A piece of teenage imagination:  the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz would be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz though his drawing, survived.  He was 14 years old.  Colonel Ramon was given a copy. A young boy’s drawing of a safer place.  This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.  To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Afterward:

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a ’67 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions.  For a time he was a colleague of Colonel Ramon.  The pair had several close friends, in common.

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The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.  Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed.  This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, it also home.

January 23, 1960 Into the Abyss

On this day in 1960, submarine commander Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard mounted that hallway, climbed into the sphere and closed the hatch. The dive to the bottom of the world began at 0823.

For most of us, the oceans are experienced as a day at the beach, a boat ride, or a moment spent on one end of a fishing line.

There is one global ocean divided into five major basins: the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic. Covering 70 percent and more of the planet, the oceans contain 97% of all the water, on earth.

Yet when it comes to exploration we are strangers, to 80 percent of it.

For most dive organizations, the recommended maximum for novice divers is 20 meters (65 feet). A weird form of intoxication called nitrogen narcosis sets in around 30 meters (98 feet). Divers have been known to remove their own mouthpieces and offer them to fish, with tragic if not predictable results. Dives beyond 130 feet enter the world of “technical” diving involving specialized training, sophisticated gas mixtures and extended decompression times.

Oxygen literally becomes toxic around 190 feet.

On September 17, 1947, French Navy diver Maurice Fargues attempted a new depth record, off the coast of Toulon. Descending down a weighted line, Fargues signed his name on slates placed at ten meter intervals. At the three minute mark, the line showed no sign of movement. The diver was pulled up. Petty Officer Fargues, a diver so accomplished he had literally saved the life of Jacques Cousteau only a year earlier, was the first diver to die using an aqualung. He had scrawled his last signature at 390 feet.

The man had barely scratched the surface.

Maurice Fargues prepares for his final dive

For oceanographers, all that water is divided into slices. The top or epiplagic Zone descends from 50 to 656 feet, depending on clarity of the water. Here, phytoplankton convert sunlight to energy forming the first step in a food chain, supporting 90 percent of all life in the oceans. 95 percent of all photosynthesis in the oceans occur in the epiplagic zone.

The mesopelagic or “twilight zone” receives a scant 1% of all sunlight. Temperatures descend as salinity increases while the weight of all that water above, presses down. Beyond that, lies the abyss.

Far below that the earth’s mantle is quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates. Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. The longest mountain range in the world runs roughly down the center, of the Atlantic ocean.

The Atlantic basin features deep trenches as well, sites of tectonic fracture and divergence. Far deeper though are the Pacific subduction zones where forces equal and opposite to those of the mid-Atlantic, collide. One plate moves under another and down into the mantle forming deep ocean ridges, the deepest of which is the Mariana Trench, near Guam. The average depth is 36,037, ± 82 feet, dropping off to a maximum depth of 35,856 feet in a small valley at the south end of the trench, called Challenger Deep.

If you could somehow pull up Mt. Everest by the roots and sink it in Challenger Deep, (this is the largest mountain on the planet we’re talking about), you’d still have swim 1.2 miles down, to get to the summit.

The air around us is liquid with a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. It’s pressing down on you right now but you don’t feel it, because your internal fluid pressures push back. A column of salt water exerts the same pressure at 10 meters, or 33 feet.

Fun fact: The bite force of the American Grizzly Bear is 1,200 psi. The Nile Crocodile, 5,000. The pressure in Challenger Deep is 1,150 atmospheres. Over 16,000 pounds per square inch.

The problems with reaching such a depth are enormous. The “crush depth” of a WW2 era German submarine is 660-900 feet. The modern American Sea Wolf class of nuclear submarine collapses, at 2,400.

In the early 1930s, Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard experimented with high altitude balloons to explore the upper atmosphere.

The result was a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola which could ascend to great altitude, without use of a pressure suit.

Within a few years the man’s interests had shifted, to deep water exploration.

Knowing that air and water are both fluids, Piccard modified his high altitude cockpit into a steel gondola, for deep sea exploration.

By 1937 he’d built his first bathyscaphe.

“A huge yellow balloon soared skyward, a few weeks ago, from Augsberg, Germany. Instead of a basket, it trailed an air-thin black-and-silver aluminum ball. Within [the contraption] Prof. Auguste Piccard, physicist, and Charles Kipfer aimed to explore the air 50,000 feet up. Seventeen hours later, after being given up for dead, they returned safely from an estimated height of more than 52,000 feet, almost ten miles, shattering every aircraft altitude record.” – Popular Science, August, 1931

Piccard’s work was interrupted by WW2 but resumed, in 1945. He built a large steel tank and filled it with low-density non-compressible fluid, to maintain buoyancy. Gasoline, it turned out, worked nicely. Underneath was a capsule designed to accommodate one person at sea-level pressure while outside, PSI mounted into the thousands of atmospheres.

The craft, with modifications from the French Navy, achieved depths of 13,701 feet. In 1952, Piccard was invited to Trieste Italy to begin work on an improved bathyscaphe. In 1953, Auguste and and his son Jacques brought the Trieste to 10,335 feet.

Auguste Piccard at one time or another held the records for altitude, and for depth

Designed to be free of tethers, Trieste was fitted with a pair of 2HP electric motors, capable of propelling the craft at a speeds of 1.2mph and changing direction. After several years in the Mediterranean, the US Navy acquired Trieste in 1958. Project Nekton was proposed the same year, code name for a gondola upgrade and three test dives culminating in a descent to the greatest depths of the world’s oceans. The Challenger Deep.

Trieste received a larger gasoline float and bigger tubs with more iron ballast. With help from the Krupp Iron Works of Germany, she was fitted with a stronger sphere with a thickness five inches and weighing in at 14 tons.

Piccard and Walsh aboard Trieste, January 23, 1960

The cockpit was accessible, only by an upper hallway which was then filled with gasoline. The only way to exit was to pump the gas out and blow out the rest, with compressed air. On this day in 1960, submarine commander Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard mounted that hallway, climbed into the sphere and closed the hatch. The dive began at 0823.

The bathyscaphe Trieste, on the surface

Trieste stopped her descent several times, each time a new thermocline brought with it a colder layer of water and neutral buoyancy, for the submersible. Walsh and Piccard discussed the problem and elected to gamble, ejecting some of that buoyant gasoline. By 650 feet, thermocline problems had ended.

By 1,500 feet, the darkness was complete. The pair changed their clothes, wet with spray from a stormy beginning. With a cockpit temperature of 40° Fahrenheit, they would need dry clothes.

Looking out the plexiglass window, depths between 2,200 and 20,000 feet seemed “extraordinarily empty”. By 14,000 feet the pair was now in uncharted territory. No one had ever been this deep. At 26,000 feet, descent was slowed to two feet per second. At 30,000 feet, one.

At 1256 Walsh and Piccard the bottom could be seen, on the viewfinder. 300 feet to go. Trieste touched down in a cloud of silt, ten minutes later. Not knowing if the phone would work at this depth, Walsh called the surface. “This is Trieste on the bottom, Challenger Deep. Six three zero zero fathoms. Over.” The response came back weak, but clear. “Everything O.K. Six three zero zero fathoms?” Walsh responded “This is Charley” (seaman-speak, for ‘OK”). We will surface at 1700 hours”. 37,800 feet.

The feat was not unlike the first flight into space. No human had ever reached such depths and never would, again. Unmanned deep sea submersibles have since visited the Challenger Deep, but this was the last manned voyage, to the bottom of the world.

Computerized rendering shows Trieste at the bottom, January 23, 1960 H/T National Geographic

Afterward: “After the 1960 expedition the Trieste was taken by the US Navy and used off the coast of San Diego, California for research purposes. In April 1963 it was taken to New London Connecticut to assist in finding the lost submarine USS Thresher. In August 1963 it found the Threshers remains 1,400 fathoms (2,560 meters) below the surface. Soon after this mission was completed the Trieste was retired and some of its components were used in building the new Trieste II. Trieste is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard”. – H/T Forgotten History

November 12, 1912 An Awful Place

You can almost feel his frozen, dying fingers in the words on that final page, written back on March 29.

“Last entry. For God’s sake look after our people”.

Roald Amundsen

As long as he could remember, Roald Amundsen wanted to be an explorer.  As a boy in Norway, he would read about the doomed Franklin Expedition to the Arctic, in 1848.  As a sixteen-year-old, Amundsen was captivated by Fridtjof Nansen’s epic crossing of Greenland, in 1888.

The period would come to be known as the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  Roald Amundsen was born to take part.

Not so, Robert Falcon Scott.   A career officer with the British Royal Navy, Scott would take a different path to this story.

Clements Markham, President of the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was known to “collect” promising young naval officers with an eye toward future polar exploration.  The two first met on March 1, 1887, when the eighteen-year old midshipman’s cutter won a sailing race, across St. Kitt’s Bay.

In 1894, Scott’s father John made a disastrous mistake, selling the family brewery and investing the proceeds, badly.  The elder Scott’s death of heart disease three years later brought on fresh family crisis, leaving John’s widow Hannah and her two unmarried daughters, dependent on Robert and his younger brother, Archie.

Now more than ever, Scott was eager to distinguish himself with an eye toward promotion, and the increase in income to be expected, with it.

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In the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were aggressively sought after, by any number of ambitious officers.  Home on leave in 1899, Scott chanced once again to meet the now-knighted “Sir” Clements Markham, and learned of an impending RGS expedition to the Antarctic, aboard the barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, RRS Discovery

What passed between the two went unrecorded but, a few days later, Scott showed up at the Markham residence and volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery expedition of 1901-’04 was one of science as well as exploration.  Despite a combined polar experience of near-zero, the fifty officers and men under Robert Falcon Scott made a number of important biological, zoological and geological findings, proving the world’s southernmost continent was at one time, forested.  Though later criticized as clumsy and amateurish, a journey south in the direction of the pole discovered the polar plateau, establishing the southernmost record for this time at 82° 17′ S. Only 530 miles short of the pole.

Discovery returned in September 1904, the expedition hailed by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”, of its time.  Once an obscure naval officer, Scott now entered Edwardian society, moving among the higher social and economic circles, of the day.

A brief but stormy relationship ensued with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress who studied under Auguste Rodin and counted among her personal friends, the likes of Pablo Picasso, Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan.  The couple was married on September 2, 1908 and the marriage produced one child. Peter Markham Scott would grow up to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

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Kathleen Bruce Scott

The elder Scott would never live to see it.

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived 112 miles short of the pole on January 9, 1909, providing Scott with the impetus for a second attempt, the following year.  Scott was still fundraising for the expedition when the old converted whaler Terra Nova departed Cardiff, in South Wales.  Scott joined the ship in South Africa and arrived in Melbourne Australia in October, 1910.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Scott, Roald Amundsen was preparing for his own drive on the south pole, aboard the sailing vessel, “Fram” (Forward).

Scott was in Melbourne when he received the telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen“.  Robert Falcon Scott now faced a race to the pole.

Man-hauled sledges

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Scott Expedition

Ponies, poorly acclimatized and weakened by the wretched conditions of Antarctica, slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition.  Four horses died of cold or had to be shot, because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” at 80°, 35-miles short of the planned location.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  Titus’ words would prove prophetic.

Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, in the world. Robert Falcon Scott took this photograph in 1911

Unlike the earlier attempt, Robert Falcon Scott made it to the pole this time. Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him. By a mere five weeks. A century later you can still feel the man’s anguish, by the words in his diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Norwegian flag at the South Pole

Utterly Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned to begin the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  By the 23rd, the condition of Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans, began to deteriorate . On February 4, a bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed, “dull and incapable”.  A second fall two weeks later left the man dead at the foot of the glacier.

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Defeated by only weeks, the Scott party spends a moment at the south pole, before turning for the frozen, 800-mile slog, back.

The appointed time came and went in early March and the dog teams, failed to materialize.  Severely frostbitten, Lawrence Oates struggled on. Soldier, explorer, he was “No Surrender Oates”, a moniker earned years before when he refused to surrender before a superior force in the Boer Wars. In the end, it was impossible to go on.

A Very Gallant Gentleman, 1913, by John Charles Dollman (1851–1934), 70in by 40in, The Cavalry and Guards Club, London

Lawrence Oates knew he was holding up the team. There was but one option and leaving that tent, was a deliberate act. Final. Suicidal.

Scott’s diary tells us the story:

March 16, 1912He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning – yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”

His body was never found.

The last three made final camp on March 19, with 11 miles to go before the next food and supply cache.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents and lasted for days as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.

March 22, 1912 “Blizzard bad as ever. Wilson and Bowers unable to start. Tomorrow last chance. No fuel and only one or two of food left — must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural. We shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.”

Starving, frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary during the final hours of his life.

March 29, 1912 “We had fuel to make two cups of tea apiece and bare food for two days on the 20th. Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.

It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.

R. SCOTT.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912. You can almost feel his frozen, dying fingers in the words on that final page, written back on March 29:

Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The lowest ground level temperature ever recorded was −128.6° Fahrenheit at the Soviet Vostok Antarctic Station, in 1983.  Meteorological conditions for those last days in the Scott camp went unrecorded, and must only be imagined.

There are places in this world so inhospitable, the visitor is fortunate to get out alive. Where returning with the body of one not so lucky, is impossible. The frozen side of Everest is such a place where no fewer than 300 climbers have perished, in the last six decades. A third of them, will never come down.

The final camp, is such a place. A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, was carved into the cross:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
The grave of the southern party

If only they’d been able to make it, that next eleven miles.

On hearing the fate of his rival, Amundsen said “I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

More than a century later, ice and snow have covered the last camp of the southern party.  Pressed ever downward by the weight of snow and ice, their corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down now in the Ross Ice Shelf, inching their way outward and expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276. 

One day in a distant future none alive today will ever see, they will break off and float away, at the heart of some nameless iceberg.

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November 7, 1805 Corps of Discovery

Over the course of the expedition, the tiny group was hunted by no fewer than four Spanish expeditions with as many as 600 soldiers, mercenaries and Comanche guides, each intending to make the Corps of Discovery vanish without a trace.

As early as the 1780s, minister to France and future President Thomas Jefferson began to express interest in an expedition to the Pacific Northwest.

As President, Jefferson asked Congress to fund an expedition to the Pacific, two years into his first term. He understood that the fledgling United States would have a better claim to the Pacific Northwest if the team gathered data on plants and animals, but Jefferson’s primary interest in the mission, was trade.

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Today we take coast-to-coast travel for granted. It seems odd to think how strange and unknown at one time, were the more remote parts of our own nation.   Though extraordinarily well read and one of the brightest men of his generation, (Jefferson once cut out 901 bible verses from which he assembled his own “Jefferson Bible”, translating the volume into Greek, Latin, French and back to English “just for fun”), President Jefferson legitimately believed that herds of Wooly Mammoth may well yet roam the western reaches of the nation. 

Jefferson wanted to find an all-water route to the Pacific, for the conduct of business. The President commissioned the Corps of Discovery expedition in 1803, naming Army Captain Meriwether Lewis expedition leader.

The two men had known one another since Lewis was a boy, having long since developed a relationship of mentor and protégé.  At this time Lewis was working as personal secretary to the President.  Physically tough, intellectually gifted and resourceful, Lewis received a crash course in the natural sciences from the President himself, before being sent off to Philadelphia to brush up on medicine, botany and celestial navigation.

Lewis selected William Clark as his second in command, due to the man’s exceptional skills as a frontiersman. He would prove to be an excellent choice.

Lewis_and_clark, Seaman

Most of 1803 was spent in planning and preparation, Lewis and Clark joining forces near Louisville that October. After wintering in the Indiana territory base camp in modern Illinois, the 33-man expedition departed on May 14, 1804 accompanied by “Seaman”, a “Dogg of the Newfoundland breed”.

Lewis and Clark set out to explore the Louisiana Territory, even as it became an official part of the United States. Borders were still hazy at the time, and Spanish authorities suspected that the expedition would encroach on their territory in the southwest. They had good reason to think so, Thomas Jefferson believed the same.

Lewis_and_clark-expedition

Corps of Discovery members couldn’t know that General James Wilkinson, one of the most duplicitous, avaricious, and corrupt individuals of the age, was reporting their every move to his paymaster, the Spanish King Charles IV.

Over the course of the expedition, the tiny group was hunted by no fewer than four Spanish expeditions with as many as 600 soldiers, mercenaries and Comanche guides, each intending to make the Corps of Discovery vanish without a trace.

Discovery established friendly relations with at least 24 indigenous tribes, without whose help they may have become lost or starved in the wilderness.  

Most were highly impressed with Lewis’ state-of-the-art pneumatic rifle, which was always demonstrated with great fanfare not to mention great care, not to reveal that the expedition possessed, but one. Four-score years before Christopher Spencer’s repeating rifle, the single air powered repeater possessed by Lewis and Clark may have had more to do with their safe return, than any single factor. Designed by Italian inventor Bartolomeo Girardoni sometime around 1779, the Girardoni air rifle required some 1,500 strokes of a hand pump before discharging up to 30 .46 round balls, each with a combat lethality of nearly 150 yards.

The Girardoni air rifle was feared not only for its prodigious rate of fire but also for the near silence and absence of smoke, which made the weapon near impossible to detect.

Not all Indian tribes were friendly. There were several run-ins with a group called “Teton-wan Sioux”. These people were no joke. On one occasion, a group of four who had separated from the main expedition fled 100 miles in a single day to get away from them, before they felt it was safe to stop.

Lewis and Clark’s memoirs describe similar encounters with a large and especially ferocious species of bear, the Grizzly, an animal which more than once had expedition members climbing trees with a notable sense of urgency.

It was at the winter camp of 1804-5 that they met a French fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his young wife (or slave – she might have been a bit of both), Sacagawea. Lewis and Clark seemed to have thought Charbonneau a shady character but they liked the young Indian girl, and her linguistic skills would prove useful. Sacagawea spoke Shoshone and Hidatsa while Charbonneau spoke Hidatsa and French. More than once Lewis and Clark found themselves negotiating for their lives with hostile tribes, as Discovery Corps member Francois Labiche translated English to French, Charbonneau French to Hidatsa, and Sacagawea speaking to the other side in Shoshone.

It was at this camp that Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she and Charbonneau named Jean Baptiste. The family stayed with the expedition, proving to be incredibly valuable to the group. They met many Indian bands along the way, whom Sacagawea’s presence quickly put at ease. War bands never traveled with women, especially not with one carrying an infant. One such band was a group of Shoshone led by Chief Cameahwait, who turned out to be none other than Sacagawea’s own brother. It must have been quite the reunion. The pair hadn’t seen one another since her kidnap by the Hidatsa, back in 1800.

Lewis_and_clark, first glimpse

On this day in 1805, the Corps of Discovery first sighted the Pacific Ocean, and set out their second winter camp in modern day Oregon.

They returned through a cut in the Rocky Mountains which Sacagawea remembered from her childhood, the present day Bozeman Pass, arriving at the Hidatsa-Mandan villages on August 14, 1806.   For Sacagawea, Charbonneau and Jean Baptiste, the trip had come to an end.

Lewis and Clark arrived in St. Louis on September 23, 1806, the Corps of Discovery having met their objectives. They had reached the western coast and returned, though they never did find a continuous water route to the Pacific. The expedition created maps along the way establishing legal claim to the land, while describing 178 previously unknown plants and 122 unknown animals, and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with at least two dozen indigenous nations.

Despite being heavily armed, most members were required to defend themselves only once, that in a running gun battle with a band of Blackfoot, on the way home.

The expedition suffered only one fatality when Sergeant Charles Floyd succumbed to what appears to have been appendicitis.  Though not seriously wounded, a humiliated Lewis had to spend several weeks face-down in a canoe, when one of the enlisted guys mistook his rump for that of an elk, and shot it.

York_Statue
York

Among the two-dozen plus officers and enlisted men on Discovery was William Clark’s African slave “York”, who accompanied the expedition from beginning to end.  Though not an official member of the Corps of Discovery, York’s hunting skills made him a valuable member of the expedition.  Indigenous tribes were fascinated by the first black man any of them had ever seen.  The Arikara people of North Dakota believed him to hold spiritual powers, calling the tall man “Big Medicine”.

Though a slave, York seems to have earned a degree of respect from expedition members.  At least two geographic features were named after the man.   Both York and Sacagawea had a vote on the placement of the 1805-’06 winter camp, prompting historian Stephen E. Ambrose to speculate that this may be the first time in American history, that a black man and a woman exercised the power of the vote.

Accounts differ as to what became of him.  Some say Clark freed the man, others say that York was unwilling to return to a life of slavery, following 2½ years of liberty.  A black man who claimed to have been he was discovered ten or twelve years later, now a tribal elder living with four wives among the Crow, in north-central Wyoming.

Thomas Berger, author of the fictional Dances with Wolves, writes about a particularly dark skinned strain among the Indians, which many believe to have descended from York.

Sacagawea gave birth to a daughter named Lizette on December 22, 1812, and died a few months later at the age of 25. Eight months later, William Clark legally adopted her two children. Clark is recorded as having brought the boy up and educating him in St. Louis, before sending him to Europe with a German prince at the age of 18. I was unable to determine with any certainty, whether Lizette survived infancy.

Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head on October 11, 1809.  Historians differ as to whether it was murder or suicide, though most believe it to have been the latter.  It would not have been his first such attempt.

What became of Seaman the dog is unknown. Having accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition from the very beginning, the last journal reference to him was written in July, two months before the journey’s end.

May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

January 11, 1935 Amelia

“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”. – Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart was born July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, the first surviving child of Samuel “Edwin” and Amelia “Amy” Otis Earhart. Amy didn’t believe in raising “nice little girls”, she allowed “Meeley” and her younger sister “Pidge” to live an outdoor, rough and tumble “tomboy” kind of childhood.

AmeliachildEd seems to have had life-long problems with alcohol, often resulting in an inability to provide for his family. Amelia must have been a disciplined student despite it all, as she graduated with her high school class, on time, notwithstanding having attended six different schools.

Earhart was certainly independent, saying later in life “The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune”.

Amelia and her sister saw their first airplane in 1908, at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. It was a rickety old biplane in which Edwin was trying to interest them in a ride.   Earhart later described that biplane as “a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting.”  At the time, the girls preferred the merry-go-round.

earhart-98-e1544117412522.jpgMeeley and Pidge worked as nurse’s aids in Toronto, in 1919.  There she met several wounded aviators and developed a strong admiration for these people.  Amelia would spend much of her free time watching the Royal Flying Corps practice at a nearby airfield.

Around that time, Earhart and a friend were visiting an air show in Toronto, when one of the pilots thought it would be funny to dive at the two women. “I am sure he said to himself, ‘Watch me make them scamper,’” she said, but Earhart held her ground.  “I did not understand it at the time, but I believe that little red airplane said something to me as it swished by.”

A ten-minute ride at a Long Beach California air show in 1920 changed her life.  From that time on, Amelia Earhart knew she wanted to fly.

Earhart worked at a variety of jobs from photographer to truck driver, earning money to take flying lessons from pioneer female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook.

She bought a second-hand Kinner Airster in 1921, a bright yellow biplane she called “The Canary”, flying it to 14,000’ the following year, a world altitude record for female pilots.

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Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart, 1921

Short funds grounded her for a time, by 1927 she was flying out of the Dennison Airport in Quincy, Massachusetts.  Earhart invested in the airport and worked as a salesman for Kinner airplanes in the Boston area while writing about flying in the local newspaper.

Charles Lindbergh’s New York to Paris Flight on May 20-21 of that year was the first solo, non-stop transatlantic crossing by airplane. Aviatrix Amy Phipps Guest wanted to be the first woman to make the flight, but later decided it was too dangerous. Instead she would sponsor the trip, provided that “another girl with the right image” was found.

“Lady Lindy”, Earhart became that first woman on May 21, 1932, five years to the day after Lindbergh.

Amelia_Earhart_standing_under_nose_of_her_Lockheed_Model_10-E_Electra,_small

On this day in 1935, Amelia Earhart became the first person of either sex to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

Two years later, Earhart and copilot/navigator Frederick J. Noonan attempted to fly around the world. The US Coast Guard cutter Itasca picked up radio messages that the aircraft was lost and low on fuel on July 2, 1937, and then it vanished.

The $4 million search and rescue effort covered 150,000 square miles and lasted for sixteen days, but to no avail.

amelialostphotosFollowing the end of the official search, Earhart’s husband and promoter George Palmer Putnam financed private searches of the Phoenix Islands, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, Fanning (Tabuaeran) Island, the Gilbert and the Marshall Islands, but no trace of the aircraft or its occupants was ever found.

Earhart was declared dead in absentia on January 5, 1939 at the age of 41, Noonan on June 20, 1938.  He was 44.

For years, the prevailing theory was that Earhart’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra ran out of gas and plunged into the ocean.

Earhart-electra_10
“Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10E. During its modification, the aircraft had most of the cabin windows blanked out and had specially fitted fuselage fuel tanks. The round RDF loop antenna can be seen above the cockpit. This image was taken at Luke Field on March 20, 1937; the plane would crash later that morning”.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has been exploring a 1½ mile long, uninhabited tropical atoll once called Gardner Island, now Nikumaroro, in the southwestern Pacific Republic of Kiribati. After eleven visits to the atoll, TIGHAR sonar images revealed a straight, unbroken anomaly under the sand, remarkably consistent with the fuselage of a Lockheed Electra.

The traces of a long-dead campfire were discovered in 1940, along with animal bones, a box from a sextant, and thirteen human bones.  A doctor judged them to have belonged to a male and American authorities were never notified.

Those bones were subsequently lost, but computerized re-evaluation of their measurements suggest that the skeleton was probably that of a white female of European ethnicity, standing roughly the same 5’8″ as Amelia Earhart.

A specially trained team of four border collies was brought to Nikumaroro to search for bones in June 2017.  Thus far, the answer to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century, remains elusive.

Nikumaroro is no tropical island paradise.  There is no fresh water and daytime temperatures exceed 100°F in July. The island’s only inhabitants are Birgus latro, commonly known as the coconut crab, The largest land-dwelling arthropod in the world, specimens weigh up to 9-pounds and measure over 3′ from leg tip to leg tip.

Gifted with a keen sense of smell, the adult coconut crab feeds on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees but will eat carrion or just about anything else if given the opportunity.  Virtually any food source left unattended will be investigated and carried away, giving rise to the alternative name “Robber crab.”

It’s anyone’s guess how those two aviators spent the last hours of their lives, or who it was who lit that fire or left those bones. Looking at the size of the island’s only inhabitants, it’s not difficult to imagine why there were only 13.

July 20, 1969   Sick of Space

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

It’s hard to turn on the TV this week, without hearing about Apollo 11.  Fifty years ago, those famous words spoken by the first human being, to set foot on the moon.  “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind“.

The moon landing of July 20, 1969 was the culmination of tens of millions of man-hours, a twelve-years long space race with the Soviet Union, five dead astronauts and the young President who had dared them to do it, himself shot through the head some six years earlier.

On this day in 1969, two grown men descended to the face of the lunar body in a vehicle so shockingly delicate, as to be incapable of supporting its own weight outside the zero gravity of space.  It was the technological triumph of the 20th century.  A feat accomplished with less computing horsepower, than an old iPhone.

Ten years earlier,  NASA needed to know what happened to the human body in space.  The Soviet space program was halted for nearly a year, so sick was the #2 (human) “traveler in the cosmos”.  Astronauts would be subjected to weightlessness, G-forces beyond imagination and constant rotation.  A world where up is down and down is up and the delicate sensors of the middle ear cry out, Enough!

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The vertigo and the nausea of motion sickness has played its part, from the earliest days of human history.  The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about it.  The Roman philosopher Seneca writes of the misery of a long voyage in which ‘he could bring nothing more up’.  The lyric poet Horace writes of seasickness as a great social leveler, in which wealth is no protection and the rich man suffers just as much as the poor man.  The sea-going military exploits of Julius Caesar are replete with tales of vomiting legionaries and seasick horses.

To the Great good fortune of the Protestant England of 1588, the terrifying Armada sent by Spanish King Phillip II to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, an Army general with little to no experience at sea. Sidonia suffered such severe seasickness that this, combined with a stroke of exceptionally bad luck, destroyed the Spanish Armada and paved the way to the next three hundred years in which “Britannia Ruled the Waves”.

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Were you to catch the early space travelers in a candid moment, many are the tales of less-than-heroic moments, spent wiping the product of space sickness from the interiors of craft from the Gemini program to the Space Shuttle.

From the beginning, scientists needed to understand the mechanisms of space sickness.  So it was that, in the mid-twentieth century, NASA happened upon a group of space pioneers, you’ve likely never heard of.  What better group with which to study motion sickness, than those literally immune to it.  The profoundly hearing impaired made deaf by spinal meningitis and without a functioning vestibular system, that delicate inner ear structure which gives us sense of balance.

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Gallaudet University was founded in 1864 as a grammar school for the deaf and blind and remains to this day, the world’s premier institution for the higher education of the deaf and hearing impaired.  In 1961, researchers with the US Naval School of Aviation Medicine paid a visit.  Hundreds of faculty and students were tested and a handful selected, for further tests.  There were parabolic flights.  Some were suspended for days, in swinging cages.

One group was deliberately taken into a severe storm off the coast of Nova Scotia, an outing former students remember as a lark, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.  Researchers didn’t enjoy the trip quite so much, passing the voyage in a state of green and gut-wrenching decrepitude.

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Gallaudet Eleven

Eleven Gallaudet students were selected as early as 1958, to spin for nearly two weeks in a room-sized centrifuge.  Though it was hard work, participants viewed the study as an adventure.  One remembers his experience as a way to serve his country, since he’d never be allowed to join the military.

Today, their names are all but forgotten.  Barron Gulak.  Harry Larson.  David Myers and others.  The forgotten pioneers of those early days of the American space program, without whom the first astronauts may well have viewed the moon landing, from the bottom of a barf bag.

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Featured image, top of page: “Space Sickness”. Hat tip graphic designer Douglas Noe (aka “Robotrake”), and society6.com