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.

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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

April 24, 1916 The World is Mad

In the early days of the Great War, the Endurance expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton disappeared into the ice pack, within sight of the Antarctic continent. Theirs was a 497-day struggle for survival, re-emerging twenty months later to learn, the war wasn’t over. Millions were dead. Europe had gone mad. The world had gone mad.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

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The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded across the continent, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic. Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

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The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

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H/T GreatWarPhotos.com

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island. It was December 5.

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The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent. The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for 497 days.

zeppattwarsaw2hThe disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.

Endurance trapped in ice, 1916

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, with no way to know she had only six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

World War I. 7th May 1915. An illustration of the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by German U-boat U-20 off the old head of Kinsale, Ireland.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

 

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That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”. The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

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The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

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The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

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The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20, ten days after the temporary German suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare . They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked clothing  rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

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The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.  Six days later, Italy turned on her future ally and declared war on Germany.  At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit him like a hammer.  “The war isn’t over. Millions are dead. Europe is mad. The world is mad“.

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A Trivial Matter
“The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica’s Vostok station”. – H/T LiveScience.com

March 7, 1912 The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration

The final camp became their tomb, a high cairn of snow erected over it. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribed with a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

The fourth son of a family of Norwegian shipowners and captains, Roald Amundsen always wanted to go to sea. His mother wanted no such thing and made him promise he’d go to school to become a doctor. Amundsen was 21 when his mother died. He kept his promise until that day.  There would be no more school after that.

Roald Amundsen
Roald Amundsen

Amundsen wanted to become an explorer, taking inspiration from the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition of 1848, and Fridtjof Nansen’s crossing of Greenland in 1888.

It’s been called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.

Amundsen was drawn to it as much as he helped create it. He was part of the Antarctic expedition of 1897-99 aboard the RV Belgica, the first to winter in Antarctica. He led the first expedition to successfully navigate Canada’s Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, in 1903–06.

Amundsen’s attempt to reach the South Pole set out on September 8, 1911. Using skis and dog sleds, Amundsen and his men created supply depots at 80°, 81° and 82° south, along a direct line to the Pole. The effort proved to be premature and had to be abandoned due to extreme cold.

A second attempt departed on October 19 with four sledges and 52 dogs, along the previously unknown Axel Heiberg Glacier.  The team of five men and 16 dogs arrived at 90° 0′ S on December 14, 1911,  the first team in history to reach the South Pole.

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Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

Amundsen expedition plants the Norwegian flag on the South Pole, December 14, 1911.

English explorer Robert Falcon Scott had attempted the South Pole in 1901–04, and was doing so once again in 1911. Though he’d had to turn back, the earlier expedition had established the southernmost record for that time, at 88° 23′ S. 97 miles short of the pole.

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.

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The doomed Scott party used a string to take this “selfie”, the day after becoming 2nd to reach the South Pole

Weak, poorly acclimated ponies slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition, four horses dying of cold or having to be shot because they slowed the team. When Scott decided to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35 miles short of its planned location at 80°, expedition member Lawrence Oates warned “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”

Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.
Unlike the previous attempt, Scott made it this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian expedition had beat him by five weeks. The anguish in Scott’s diary entry for January 17, 1912, is clear: “The worst has happened.  All the day dreams must go.  Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald Amundsen returned safely and publicly announced his attainment of the South Pole on March 7, 1912.

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Routes taken by Scott (green) and Amundsen (red) expeditions to the South Pole.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19. Team member Edgar Evans’ condition was visibly deteriorating as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier on February 4 left him “dull and incapable”. Another fall on the 17th left him dead at the foot of the glacier.

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  By March 16, Lawrence Oates was severely frostbitten. He left his tent for the last time in a valiant act of suicide, in the forlorn hopes that his comrades, might live.  Oates stepped into the maelstrom, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

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RV Belgica frozen in the ice, 1898

The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles to go.   A howling blizzard descended on camp the following day and lasted for days, as Scott and his companions wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others. The last words in his diary, were: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The frozen corpses of Scott and his comrades were found 8 months later, the last diary entry dated March 29, 1912.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming their 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, appears on the cross:

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

The team was eleven miles from the next supply depot.

Grave_of_the_Southern_PartySatellites measured the coldest temperature in recorded history on August 10, 2010 at −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F), in East Antarctica.   The Amundsen-Scott weather station at the South Pole reports the average daily temperature for March, at -50.3°C (-58.54°F).

A century of ice and snow have covered bodies, camp and the cross alike. Now encased 75′ down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, the bodies are expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276, perhaps to float away in an iceberg.

In 1926, Amundsen and a team of 15 reached the North Pole in the airship Norge. Three previous claims to have attained the North Pole: Frederick Cook (1908), Robert Peary (1909), and Richard E. Byrd (1926), have all been disputed as being of dubious accuracy or downright frauds, leaving Amundsen the undisputed first to have reached both poles.

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The Observation Hill cross memorial to the Scott expedition, erected 1913.

Roald Amundsen and a crew of five disappeared into the Arctic on June 18, 1928, lost in the search for survivors following the crash of the Airship Italia.

Despite efforts to find them as late as August 2009, neither aircraft nor bodies were ever found.On hearing the details of Scott’s end, Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen is quoted as saying “I would gladly forgo any honour or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

Peter Markham Scott, the only child produced by the marriage of Robert Falcon and Kathleen Bruce Scott, went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature, which operates to this day as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Shackleton advert

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 16, 2003 Columbia Disaster

The first debris began falling to the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am. The last communication from the crew came one minute later. Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am eastern standard time.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) was floated 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 of that year, 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 would be left unpainted, to save weight.

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.

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

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 one 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 was incarcerated 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 was destined to be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, though his drawing survived.  He was fourteen 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.  He was also for a time 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, to come home.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 9, 1493 Of Mermaids and Manatees

“Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”, refers to a period between the 1st and 2nd century AD, when the force of Roman arms subdued most everyone standing against them. The conquered peoples described the period differently. Sometime in 83 or 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, said “They make a desert and call it peace”.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors accomplished much the same during the 13th and 14th century. The “Pax Mongolica” effectively connected Europe with Asia, making it safe to travel the “Silk Road” from Britain in the west to China in the east. Great caravans carrying Chinese silks and spices came to the west via transcontinental trade routes. It was said of the era that “a maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

Never mind the pyramids of skulls, over there.

The “Black Death” and the political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire brought that period to an end. Muslim domination of Middle Eastern trade routes made overland travel to China and India increasingly difficult in the 15th century. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, such travel became next to impossible. Europe began to look for a water route to the East.

It’s popular to believe that 15th century Europeans thought the world was flat, but that’s a myth. Otherwise, the cats would have pushed everything over the edge, by now.

The fact that the world is round had been understood for over a thousand years, though 15th century mapmakers often got places and distances wrong. In 1474, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli detailed a scheme for sailing westward to China, India and the Spice Islands. He believed that Japan, which he called “Cipangu”, was larger than it is, and farther to the east of “Cathay” (China). Toscanelli vastly overestimated the size of the Eurasian landmass, and the Americas were left out altogether.

This is the map that Christopher Columbus took with him in 1492.

Columbus had taken his idea of a westward trade route to the Portuguese King, to Genoa and to Venice, before he came to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486. At that time the Spanish monarchs had a Reconquista to tend to, but they were ready in 1492. The Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sailed that August.

By January 9, 1493, the expedition had been at sea for six months. Sailing off the coast of Hispaniola, what we now call the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids”.

They were Manatee, part of the order “Sirenia”. “Sirens” are the beautiful sisters, half birdlike creatures who live by the sea, according to ancient Greek mythology. These girls, according to myth, sang a song so beautiful that sailors were hypnotized, crashing their ships into rocks in their efforts to reach them.

Columbus seems not to have been impressed, describing these mermaids as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”

Small wonder. These marine herbivores measure 10 to 13-feet from nose to tail, and weigh in at 800-1,200 lbs.

Not everyone was quite so dismissive. A hundred years later, the English explorer John Smith reported seeing a mermaid, almost certainly a Manatee. It was “by no means unattractive”, he said, but I’m not so sure. It’s just possible Mr. Smith needed to get out a little more.

November 12, 1912 Frozen in Time

Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

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

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  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 which came with it.

RobertFalconScott.jpgIn the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were eagerly 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 Antarctic expedition, 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 that the Antarctic continent was once, 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 its time at 82° 17′ S, only 530 miles short of the pole.

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Kathleen Bruce Scott

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, and moved 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, who went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The elder Scott would not live to see it.

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Ernest Shackleton, ca 1909

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived at a point 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 ship “Fram” (Forward).

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

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.

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

Weak ponies, poorly acclimatized to 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” 35-miles short of the planned location at 80°.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  His words would prove prophetic.

Scott Expedition

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

Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned and began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed on February 4, “dull and incapable”.  Another fall two weeks later, left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Man-hauled sledges

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Titus himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity would become a threat and a burden to the team. He left his tent for the last time and limped into a blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

Noble as it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide, came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles yet to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.

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Starving and frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary in the final hours of his life “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, he worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “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 undocumented.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912, that last diary entry dated March 29.  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”.

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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.

It was eleven miles short of the next supply depot.

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

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 in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  One day to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown and nameless iceberg.

Feature image, top of page:  Last Camp of the Southern Party, of Robert Scott Falcon