Today, we observe the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing (see this for details on the observance). The world justly lionizes Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins for achieving a manned lunar landing. And Armstrong’s declaration, “One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind,” remains an iconic marker for the advancement of civilization in the 20th Century. The observance looks like a media event; and much of it seems to be about technology (rockets), big organizations (NASA), geopolitics (the space race), and national will (JFK’s aspiration to put a man on the moon). All of this strikes me the way I encounter anodyne restaurant reviews, political tracts, or economics theories: where are the real people in all of that? What was the experience of the whole team? With what did they contend? What can we learn from them that could be relevant to the rest of us on Earth in our daily lives? Ultimately, the observance asks a radical question: generally, why do explorers matter?
The obvious—but wrong—answer is that explorers matter most because of what they found. Don’t misunderstand me: what explorers found was important and changed history. But in so many cases, the odds seem high that someone else would have made the same discovery in the same era if the explorer we now celebrate had not done so. For instance, records suggest that Chinese Admiral Zheng discovered America in 1421 (see this). Was it a matter of luck to one and misfortune to the other that we today celebrate Columbus instead of Zheng?
I think we should celebrate explorers, but for reasons that transcend what they discovered. Let’s give more attention to the who and how.
First, explorers matter because they can illuminate attributes of leadership. The need for leadership in so many areas is so great today. Explorers can help to orient us to the kind of people the world needs. Mind you, great explorers in the past tended to harbor great flaws; these are not obvious candidates for sainthood. But consider what we learn from the story of Apollo 13, or from the early test pilots and astronauts profiled in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Then, too, there is the remarkable story of Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica, told in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance, and in Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth. Explorers show us that great leadership is less about self-aggrandizement, risk-seeking behavior, or the determination to reach a goal at all costs. Instead, explorers show us the huge importance of team-building, careful planning, faultless execution, and courage.
Second, explorers expand our ambition. They inspire us to think beyond what is possible. How many young girls have been emboldened by astronaut, Sally Ride, to study STEM subjects and become explorers themselves? The song, Northwest Passage, by Stan Rogers describes a modern-day traveler seeking to re-create the trip of Sir John Franklin, who sought unsuccessfully a northwest passage through the Arctic Ocean to Asia—what moves the traveler is
“To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea, Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage,/And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”
Finally, the experience of explorers matters because they show how to prevail in the face of great adversity. Indeed, in the experience of explorers, the adversity seems to be the main point. Montaigne said, “It is the journey, not the arrival, that matters.” We want to know how the explorers contended with the journey: the hardship, doubts, setbacks, and even success; we relish the stories of explorers because they show the rest of us how to go far away, and come back again. It is the return of the explorers that creates the example of testing the limits—in Stan Rogers’ song, “to find there but the road back home again.”
History teaches us that we worship heroes at our own risk. But what passes today for the celebration of a profound achievement in the annals of exploration misses some big points. Such commemorations need to bring us face to face with lessons about leadership, ambition, and adversity that the present generation can harness in its own outbound journeys.
The song, Northwest Passage, by Stan Rogers is well worth listening to this day, to give an alternative tone to the media event. The chorus of the song is:
Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage,
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.
Other verses include:
Westward from the Davis Strait ’tis there ’twas said to lie,
A sea route to the orient, for which so many died,
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered broken bones,
And a long forgotten lonely cairn of stones.
Three centuries thereafter, I take passage over land,
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his “sea of flowers” began,
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again,
This tardiest explorer driving hard across the plain.
And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west,
I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest,
Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me,
To race the roaring Fraser to the sea.
How then am I so different from the first men through this way,
Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away,
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men,
To find there but the road back home again.