Elegy for Modern Explorers: On the Importance of Pursuing New Frontiers
In May 1845, after a storied career of exploration, Sir John Franklin determined to undertake one final expedition: a search for the legendary Northwest Passage. At 59 years old, Franklin was no stranger to risk. He had once fought off a polar bear using only his ceremonial sword, survived a particularly harsh Arctic winter by resorting to a diet of lichen, animal hides, and human remains, and endured multiple violent encounters with local Inuit tribesmen. Absconding from a quiet retirement with his beloved wife Jane, Sir John set off with a crew of 129 men for the Arctic.
None of them would return. The expedition was poorly prepared. Despite his ample experience in exploration, Sir John omitted adequate winter clothing and equipment and neglected basic training for his crew. He was placed too much reliance on untested new technologies, like the steam engine. His ships became trapped in ice for three years. Haunting journal entries left by stranded crew members inform us that John passed away in 1848 before most of his men. Within two years of his death, not a single crew member was alive. Evidence suggests the specters of cannibalism, murder, and ‘debauchery’.
Franklin’s tragic journey did not truly conclude until 2016 when his ship, the ironically named HMS Terror, was discovered 48 meters underwater in Terror Bay. In the time between its sinking and rediscovery, the nature of exploration has irrevocably changed. Sir John’s world was in many ways larger, imbued with mystery and intrigue, and comprising unknown lands awaiting the arrival of audacious souls to map them and bring new order. Today, we know that there are no unencountered civilizations left and few uncontacted tribes remaining on the surface of Earth. The fastest trade routes and have been plotted. All the easy resources (and many distant and difficult ones) have been claimed and exploited.
Today explorers seek fame through increasingly gimmicky journeys which are valuable mainly for private and personal, rather than public, reasons. Yet there still remain true frontiers: above all the vast reaches of space. These frontiers require a different skillset than those of previous ages. Space and deep-sea exploration depend on careful calculations and programmatic planning. The ocean floor and deep space cannot be ‘brute-forced’ by funding sequential expeditions until one succeeds. A navigation error on a seafaring expedition might lead to a different island, or continent, but an off-course spacecraft will end only in an eternal void. The era of the swashbuckling, iron-willed adventurer has passed. In his place a new explorer archetype has arisen: the rogue-nerd.
One hundred and seventy-five years after Sir John’s death, nearly to the day, a crew of accomplished, yet pitifully under-prepared men undertook a new journey to one of these final frontiers. OceanGate’s Titan submersible was to journey over 3,800 meters to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to study and observe the wreck of the Titanic. Like the Franklin expedition, the Titan expedition relied on new technology, demonstrated clear negligence, and ended in the total annihilation of the crew. But this new exploration looked markedly different from Franklin’s.
OceanGate was founded in 2009 by Stockton Rush with the mission of exploring our oceans’ depths. While OceanGate advertised itself as an extreme expedition opportunity for the super-wealthy, they quietly supported NASA training missions, pursued private-public commercial ventures, and dreamed their submarines might eventually be used to explore the watery depths of Europa, underneath its thick crust of ice. By the time of its final descent, OceanGate’s third generation submersible, Titan, had completed fourteen successful, if occasionally troubled, dives.
The Titan was crewed by five men well-qualified to undertake such an expedition. However, just one hour and forty-five minutes into their journey Titan stopped communicating with its parent ship. As a captivated world imagined their oxygen dwindling in the dark and freezing cold, the crew’s plight became the focus of hot takes on Twitter from both the Left and the Right.
Overwhelmingly, the Titan expedition was derided. Some critiques seemed technically appropriate, such as the questioning of the reliance on a game controller to pilot the submersible, or the condemnation of the use of expired carbon fiber from Boeing to retain the hull’s integrity. Criticism from the Left consisted in predictable celebrations of the deaths of billionaires, but searing criticism also were directed from the Right. As Titan remained underwater, video surfaced of the CEO refusing to hire older white males in favor of a diverse team acceptable to the current zeitgeist. Moreover, apparently employees who raised concerns over what they claimed were basic oversights, they were dismissed or fired.
This type of criticism should sound familiar. In the past age of exploration, explorers were invariably ridiculed for being dirty, foolhardy and crazy. As Titan’s misfortune demonstrates, today’s generation of explorers, while characteristically different, cannot escape this contemptuous derision. For centuries, expeditions were funded by elite patrons who saw economic, cultural, and social value in projects that transcended ‘mere existence for the sake of existence’. Expeditions then as now were derided for their lack of preparedness and for their often strange and eccentric leaders. But this is an integral part of exploration. Expeditions by their very nature are haphazard, they don’t just fail occasionally, but usually.
The type of person who generates enormous economic and cultural output is naturally audacious and adventurous. Such a man or woman (or they) well understands the trade-off for undertaking daring endeavors. Titan’s passengers, which included two billionaires, were exceedingly wealthy. They could quite easily have used their funds to purchase an additional yacht, if not a golden ticket on Epstein’s jet. Instead, they patronized exploration and went so far as to join the expedition itself, a demonstration of the risk-adjacent mentality that is required for progress.
In spite of its seeming absurdity, the juice of exploration is worth the squeeze. Had the King and Queen of Spain determined to spend their gold on food for their subjects, rather than on funding a series of expensive expeditions to find more efficient trade routes, then America would not have been discovered and colonized when it was. Conversely, nations that withdrew from participating in the age of exploration condemned themselves to centuries of irrelevance. China, for example, had a brief flirtation with colonization prior to the European age of exploration when it funded Admiral Zheng He’s expeditions as far as the eastern coasts of Africa and Australia. Having set up a series of successful colonial trade outposts, the expeditions were inexplicably halted, and China resolved upon a policy of isolation. That policy condemned China to a steady economic and military decline, culminating in the ‘century of humiliation’.
The elites of early modern Europe recognized that risky exploration was necessary and essential. They supported explorers because the rewards were worth it. But contemporary society has largely forgotten the value of men who seek to go beyond at mortal peril.
After Franklin’s expedition, the British upper crust lost interest in the discovery of the Northwest Passage; it was only 50 years later in 1903 that the legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally crossed it. Similarly, when the Challenger space shuttle disintegrated into pieces, it marked the end of the first phase of space exploration. It has only been in the past decade, after an almost 30 year hiatus, that we have resumed pursuing this frontier — in the teeth of derision and mockery.
It has more or less been confirmed that the Titan imploded after descending several thousand meters on its journey almost immediately after losing contact with the parent ship. Speculation is that the carbon hull was the cause of Titan’s failure. The five men onboard would have been powderized faster than their nervous systems would have registered. Whatever remains of Titan’s wreckage will drift to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to rest beside the Titanic, and future expeditions will now have two wrecks to explore in that cursed patch of sea. Nevertheless, we must continue to support exploration and pursue new frontiers, no matter how seemingly ill-fated. And yes, even celebrate the five demised passengers of Titan – for they dared to go beyond.