The whole story of exploration: part three, digital earth and beyond

A phenomenal change in exploration technology took place in the 20th century and beyond, taking us from the first cars in Antarctica to a whole new digital landscape.

Ernest Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition (1907-09), otherwise known as ‘Nimrod’, after the ship that took his men south, was one of the pivotal moments in the history of exploration. Nimrod achieved a number of significant technological ‘firsts’, including the first motorised terrestrial transport, the first printed book on the White Continent, and mineral extraction (albeit on a very small scale). While Shackleton fell short of the pole itself (but he did bag a ‘farthest south’ at 88°23’S, 97 nautical miles from the pole), his expedition set a benchmark for what could now be achieved.

The 1920s saw a French team of Georges Marie Haardt and Louis Audouin-Dubreuil make the first crossing of the Sahara by motor car in Citroën half-tracked vehicles. By the end of the 1950s, Sir Edmund Hillary, fresh from being the first man to the summit of Mount Everest, became the first to drive to the Geographical South Pole, this time in a modified Massey Ferguson TE20 tractor (although his expedition in search of the Himalayan Yeti wasn’t quite as successful). In the 1970s, Hillary navigated the entire course of the river Ganges in India by jetboat. The pattern was set: explorers were using engines to power expeditions. Perhaps the most significant was the Saturn V rocket that took the three-man Apollo 11 crew out of Earth’s orbit on the initial phases of their successful quest to become the first humans to set foot on a celestial body.

As the century progressed, “a lot of the successes or failures of expeditions were communicated by telegraph”, says the Royal Geographical Society’s Eugene Rae, “but it wasn’t until the 1920s that we start to see the first real use of radio, which had been refined during the First World War for military communication.” Half a century later, US President Richard Nixon placed a telephone call from the White House to the Lunar Module in order to speak with Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong. “This certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made,” he said, adding to the list of technological achievements Nasa had developed in response to the Cold War ‘Space Race’. Space exploration dominated the headlines in the 1960s (to the point where Wally Herbert’s achievement of becoming the first man to walk to the North Pole was virtually overlooked by the world’s press), and media kits from Nasa describes the Apollo 11 crew as ‘astronaut-explorers’.


The ability to make arduous journeys in short spaces of time in relative safety meant terrestrial exploration in its original sense of scientific enquiry and geopolitical gain was shifting towards extreme adventure. Part of the reason for this, as British polar explorer Pen Hadow explains, was that with the basic mapping of the world completed “we now know where everything is”. The issue was to become what we did with that knowledge. While record-breaking in the world of exploration – fastest, first, only, and so on – has always attracted the newspaper headline writers, what excites the exploration community more is the acquisition of scientific knowledge, data and digital mapping.

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough of all came in the form of satellite-based radio-navigation or global positioning system (GPS), the first of which was the US government’s Navstar. With geolocation and time data available to anyone with a GPS receiver (who was also in line of sight of four satellites), Navstar provided critical position information to military, commercial and civil users. While the US was the great innovator in this technology, China, India, the EU, Japan and Russia have all developed similar systems. By the year 2000, GPS accuracy was to within five metres (an issue somewhat blurred by the US introducing and then lifting ‘selective availability’), while today, GPS can resolve to 30cm. Combine geolocation with GIS (Graphic Information System) mapping and you can drive your car anywhere without any local geographical knowledge. “That’s the problem,” says polar explorer Martin Hartley, who thinks that digital technology, for all its benefits, “is creating a generation of people who don’t know how to read maps.”

Ironically, for Hartley, it’s also why explorers get lost more than ever before. “All you need is a power failure or for the satellite network to be unavailable, and people who don’t have any traditional exploration fieldcraft are going to find themselves in trouble.”

While Nasa is claiming it is attracting private-sector funds for a return to the Moon, the future of exploration on Earth lies in the oceans. In 1960, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh reached the bottom of the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench and, in reaching a depth of 10,740m, they had gone significantly deeper than Mount Everest is high. More importantly, they raised a flag for a trend that will become widespread in the 21st century. With the oceans covering 70 per cent of the planet’s surface, and with only 5 per cent of the ocean floor explored, major scientific collaboration in deep-sea investigation is exploration’s most significant path forward.

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