Sep 30 2012

The Napoleon of the Poles and Our Future in Space

Published by at 8:55 pm under Wave Guide 9: Global Conflict

Stephen Bown’s new biography (The Last Viking) of Roald Amundsen expands our insights about the great Norwegian explorer who – during the early 20th Century Maslow Window – discovered the South Pole in December, 1911.

Amundsen was a stunningly ebullient character during perhaps the most ebullient time in the history of the United States.

According to Bown,

Amundsen was a towering public figure. In an era before the Internet, television, radio, and easy travel, he excelled at selling excitement and adventure to the public … The New York Times archives between 1903 and 1928 reveal over four hundred articles about Amundsen.

And for Theodore Roosevelt’s America, Amundsen realized the likely ebullient appeal of his planned, but still secret race to the poles.

Americans seemed less preoccupied with the objects of science and more accepting of conspicuous achievement, especially in a sporting event … Adventure was a form of entertainment, and Amundsen was increasingly aware of his role in satisfying the demand for vicarious competition in a dangerous and little-known region.

Amundsen (1872-1928) would have enjoyed living in the transformative 1960s Maslow Window, and in fact once wrote that he was glad he hadn’t been born later,
“… because then there would have been nothing left for him to do but go to the Moon,” – a particularly revealing comment because he died 41 years before the Apollo Moon landing.

Amundsen’s success and fame as an explorer were no accident, and his meticulous approach was later emulated by NASA mission planners who achieved the Moon during the 1960s Maslow Window. Indeed,

His military-style execution of his objectives, carried out with gusto and flamboyant self-promotion, changed forever the way the geographical world would be perceived and future expeditions planned.

This well-deserved praise being said, it is also true that Amundsen – often called the “Napoleon of the Poles” — carried out a cold, but effective Sputnik-style deception of not only his polar competitor (the British explorer Scott who died after realizing Amundsen had won the polar race), the Norwegian government, his financial backers, and even his own crew, until the last moment.

They all thought he was headed to the North Pole, but Admiral Peary had already claimed that distinction in 1909.

After being late to the North Pole Sweepstakes, Amundsen was determined to claim “the last remaining symbol of geographical conquest” because the South Pole was “his final chance to achieve fame as an explorer, to build a reputation that could be leveraged to undertake other projects in the future.”

We can forgive Bown’s biographer-like attempt at moral equivalence when he compares Scott’s use of publicity to “clear the field” of competitors to Amundsen’s sweeping deceptions.

However, on the next page Bown has to admit that…
“… if Scott had known he was in a race, he might have set sail earlier, or perhaps the excitement of a race would have helped Scott with his own fundraising.”

The Amundsen story has a lesson for future international cooperation in space, especially transformative space initiatives like manned Mars missions. Although I proposed a Grand Alliance for Space in 1992 (see InterSpace), the history of great explorations in the 20th Century suggests we should exercise caution.

As I wrote in 2008:

The Amundsen-Scott pole mania episode is reminiscent of the 1950s Cold War, which featured the International Geophysical Year’s plans to launch satellites into Earth orbit and resulted in the surprise Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957; Sputnik ignited the Race to Space as the Apollo Maslow Window opened. As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, is an Amundsen/Sputnik-type surprise likely to trigger the Next Race to Space?

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