Around midnight on June 16th 1903, a ship slipped quietly out of Oslo harbour. Its captain and owner, Roald Amundsen (above, second from left), had spent years planning an expedition to search for the fabled Northwest Passage, an Arctic sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific. All previous attempts to find it had failed. Most famously, a giant expedition in 1845, led by Sir John Franklin, had ended in disaster: he and his 129 men simply disappeared. Amundsen’s chances didn’t look good.
Polar exploration was the old-fashioned equivalent of space exploration: a competition in which rival countries vied to outdo each other in investigating a dangerous new frontier with a vaguely scientific justification. But the fate of polar adventurers turns out to have hinged on one thing above all others. An analysis of 92 expeditions by Jonathan Karpoff of the University of Washington found that the most accurate predictor of an expedition’s outcome was its source of funding.
State-sponsored expeditions like Franklin’s cost more, lost more men and ships, and made fewer discoveries. They had the wrong incentives. Their leaders were often picked because they were politically connected (like Franklin), rather than being dedicated and competent (like Amundsen). They tried to take everything with them, instead of travelling light and living off the land. Privately funded expeditions like Amundsen’s were more likely to succeed. They generally had hand-picked crews in a flat organisational structure, which gave everyone a clear role and direct stake in the mission’s success, while also promoting mental stability. Sure enough, Amundsen triumphed where Franklin had failed, successfully navigating the Northwest Passage and arriving in Alaska in 1906.
This offers lessons for people planning Mars missions today. A successful expedition should have a charismatic leader; a small crew of specialists; and should exploit local resources, like water from Martian ice caps. Space agencies already use Antarctica as a training environment for such missions, dubbing it “White Mars”. Future Martian explorers can learn from the forbidding, isolated polar environment – and from the history of its exploration.•