There and back again

By way of madwriter, this article on the possibilities of a one-man one-way Mars mission.

I was sort of almost partway with the premise of the article until I got to this:

Even though explorers in the past traveled, for example, to the south or north pole, knowing they might never return, and thousands of immigrants moved to the US in the 18- and 1900’s, knowing they would never see their homeland again, the human psyche has seemingly changed enough that a one-way ticket off the planet is not acceptable.

Because my understanding of polar exploration–and of mountain exploration, too, a related field–is that while the explorers understood well that there was risk, their goal was always to make a round trip. They were willing to risk failing to meet this goal, just as they were willing to risk failure in general–but the very definition of a successful mission for most explorers included not only getting there, but getting back again.

This is why Shackleton’s first polar party turned back something like 100 miles from the pole. He knew he probably could have reached it; but he also knew he might not have been able to make it back again, if he did, and making it back again mattered. Amundsen, who did reach the pole a few years later, did so because he planned for both the journey and the return–and, I suspect but don’t know, he would have turned around if he had to, too.

This is part of the reason Hillary considered his Everest expedition a success, whether or not Mallory got there before him–because he returned again, which is part of the challenge you’re taking on when you set out.

Even Scott’s polar party set food depots behind them, and put a fair amount of time and attention into them–when they failed to return after reaching the pole, it wasn’t for lack of trying. They died on account of bad planning or bad luck or both, depending on your interpretation of events, but not because they set out with the notion that they didn’t particularly care whether they returned.

When Everest guide Rob Hall said, “With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill. The trick is to get back down alive,” he wasn’t part of a new, more degenerate exploration of explorers; rather, he understood his history. (He also died on Everest on the same expedition as the one where he said this, as it turned out.)

Colonization is a different matter. My ancestors were among millions who’ve left their countries, assuming they would never return. But their goal wasn’t to visit inhospitable lands and return to tell of them; it was to find hospitable lands and to build a life there–not an option at the South Pole or the top of Everest. If we’re talking about going to Mars as a one-way journey because we’re building a colony and a hospitable environment there, sure.

But if we’re talking about visiting Mars as for exploration’s sake–well, before making comparisons to polar and other explorers, it might be worth better understanding the history of that exploration first. I have my issues with our risk-averse society, but it isn’t risk aversion to want to have a chance of returning home again–or if it is, then Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, and Hillary were all risk-averse, too.

And if that’s your definition of being risk averse, well, so am I. 🙂

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