Why we MUST go to Antarctica, the Moon and Beyond.

The time is 7am on a Monday morning. Though what day of the week means little right now. Where we are and are going is not defined by our need to structure time. Here, and over there, time is insignificant. Here, and over there, the unpredictable and fiery wilderness rules with such force that our grandest quests are often reduced to petty attempts. That said when in the year we found ourselves do matter. The month is January, the height of summer in the Southern Hemisphere and the middle of a 4-month window when Antarctica is open to visitors. I am sitting at the window in the observation lounge located on deck 9, forward, on a luxurious expedition vessel. I take a moment to pause, appreciating what is too often taken for granted – the comfort and protection from the elements our human engineering has given us. Here I am, shielded from the wind, on a ship that is barely rolling despite a 5-meter sea thanks to its hull design and stabilizers. I can only imagine what it must have been like for the early explorers, in tall wooden ships, sailing blind and at the mercy of the weather. I am glad things have changed.

We sailed away last night, leaving Ushuaia behind. The seas have been relatively calm, for whatever calm means in this part of the world. Alfred Lansing who wrote the best-selling book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, quoted: “…the Drake Passage, the most dreaded bit of ocean on the globe—and rightly so. Here nature has been given a proving ground on which to demonstrate what she can do if left alone.” Sipping on my Yerba Mate tea, my mind is in a contemplative place. My gaze has been wandering over the expansive ocean for more than an hour, staring at the cape petrels as they ride the stormy water with such ease I wonder how these creatures, who appear so fragile, do it. 410 grams of chicken-sized bones, muscles no bigger than my pinky finger, and so little feathers they could all fit compressed in my closed fist. Yet, they seemed to be home, flying in 60 miles-per-hour wind with temperatures dipping below the freezing point.

This is my 7th voyage to the White Continent. While every visit is different and priceless, the main difference between then and now is my sense of awareness and appreciation. This reminds me of the first time I jumped out of a plane and skydived. Despite all the theory, effort, and training, when my fingers let go of the bar under the wing and released me from the plane, my breath stopped and my body froze. This is why instructors hold the parachute release when you first jump – to make sure it opens. Because independently how hard you try, you simply can’t process the rush, the panic your body goes into, realizing it is falling ten thousand feet above the ground. But jump after jump, the surprise becomes expected, and you start managing the adrenaline and the fear, and you finally get to fully process the insane and incredible magnitude of the moment – you are flying (well actually you are falling!!). You keep jumping and your skills improve, getting better and better while your brain goes into “solving mode” trying to find ways of making the process more efficient. Which brings me back to my visits to Antarctica. They have been the same. The first time, my senses were overwhelmed. It was the landscape, a land ruled by ice, where mountains were not the masters but the slaves, bent, cut, and shaped by a force we still try to understand. It was the weather, where one second you were enjoying the serenity of a desert, and the next, you were holding for dear life. It was the wildlife, these creatures: penguins, orcas, whales, albatross, and giant petrels (who I swear are flying dinosaurs) you grew up watching on television and were now right there in front of you, so close you could touch them. And yes I must admit, my first time was also a brag. How can it not be? Beside Space, there is only one place on Earth that remains fairly inaccessible and that is the White Continent.

But, after the second, third, and fourth time, I was managing the novelty and my brain was now capable of processing what I was experiencing – the incredible opportunity to connect and feel these places once only reachable through the sheer endurance of human suffering. Now, today on my 7th trip, while the penguins and icebergs are still appreciated, (you can’t ever really get too much of penguins and icebergs in your life! A friend of mine who has been visiting Antarctica for 35 years believes with all his heart that if they put penguins on television 24 hours a day in jails, the level of violence would drop significantly) my mind is more concerned about finding ways for the White Continent to keep delivering life-transforming experiences to the public for centuries to come.

There has been a lot of coverage on why we shouldn’t go to Antarctica. Why we should not go to the Moon. Why we should not venture beyond Earth. In fact, there has been a lot of coverage about what humans should not do. (I won’t hyperlink or give any time to these stories, you can Google them if you want) We are always so quick to highlight the shortcomings of our species but rarely take a moment to recognize and celebrate our achievements. If we took to word what environmentalists and many others are saying about us, we should just run to the end of the cliff and jump. Why bother really? According to them, we are nothing more than a cancer to the planet, a curse, and the worst thing that ever existed. For them, life on Earth would be much better if we were not around. I don’t have children but I do mentorship and have worked with many youths. If you keep telling them they are bad, they will become the exact thing you hope they would not, with their self-esteem a shadow of what it could be. Take a minute to ponder how a narrative based on guilt and shame has hindered our progress and our capacity to find solutions. What would our world look like if we had focused on moving forward with acquired wisdom rather than pointing the finger backward, searching for someone to blame? Believing there is a magical point in the past where everything was perfect before humans ruined everything. The truth is anyone who looks over their shoulder with nostalgia or with the thought things were better, is always doing it in a vacuum, choosing to bring forward the romantic relics while hiding the harsh realities they have chosen to forget.

It took about one billion dollars, 13 years, and traveling a little over 3.5 billion kilometers to get what is probably the most important insight humanity has ever come up with (I would usually summarize the quote but the magnitude of what these lines represent, take the time to read them and let them sink in):

”We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Carl Sagan

We don’t get this kind of wisdom by staying put. We don’t get to learn from the past if we stay in the past. We get to find solutions by making mistakes. We get to become resilient by getting up after we fall. That is the definition of insight. The capacity to look behind with acquired knowledge. There are no insights unless you have a point of reference. And that reference is always behind after we move forward.

Many will say learning from the past is finding what you can and can’t do. Wrong. It is discovering what works and what doesn’t. The verb CAN is all about the immediate. It has no longevity. It has no growth. It is a point of affirmation or a restrain. It is an action in a moment with no concept of consequences. WORK on the other hand is all about longevity. It is about growth. It doesn’t care about the can and can’t. It cares about finding solutions. Work implies a sustainable effort to adapt and evolve. And what works today will not necessarily work tomorrow. So work is always something in progress. Because life is dynamic and always changing, there is no end point for work. Hence its most important companion, “maintenance”. Therefore, “work” is not singular, contrary to “can”, it is a relationship.

Now one more thing before I circle back to Antarctica, the Moon, and Beyond. We could spend hours discussing entropy, evolution, the dynamics for growth, and why nature is messy by design, but the main thing to remember is you can never stop life from moving forward. It will always find a way. All of the organisms on the planet have evolved with the need for mobility, to move beyond where they started. This is what life does. It grows in all directions, looking for new horizons where it can spread and evolve. It is like water. You can never control it. All you can do is manage it. And humans are no different, just that we don’t wait for evolution to find solutions, we engineer our way forward.

Why is all this relevant? Because we have now attained the necessary technology to either visit the last far remote and inhospitable places on Earth with relative comfort or bring the human footprint beyond Earth. This year, it is estimated that 100,000 people will make the trip across the Drake Passage*. Visits to Antarctica next year and every year after will only go up. That is not a debate, it is a certainty. If Captain Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton magically found themselves strolling the docks in Ushuaia this past December on a Saturday afternoon with all the ships moored to the pier, their brains would have not been able to process the sight. Much like it is impossible for us today to understand a future where the Moon will just be a weekend getaway.

(*Of that number, 35,000 will stay onboard and not set foot off the ship. Why? Because their ship is too big and not equipped for expedition.)

For many this new reality is an abomination, a senseless encroachment from our endless appetite to conquer and consume and their solution beyond their panic is to bring the CAN’T. Antarctica and the Moon are no-go and we have to stop any attempt to infest these places (a reference to humans being a cancer and curse). How many times have I heard the argument:” So we messed up this planet and now we are going to mess up these places that have been perfect for billions of years” As if Nature and the Universe were this utopia where love and life exist by themselves, in a vacuum without their counterpart. As if the absence of everything was equivalent to perfection. We all exist and raise our children on lands that were once remote and sacred to others. Let’s not kid ourselves, our existence was built on a past where others had to do the dirty work so we could benefit from their sacrifice. Even just believing that driving across America is a teenage right of passage and at the core of the American free spirit was once seen by some as the end of the American Wild. The world is complex and we must understand that complexity without pointing the moral finger. Pretty much everyone who enjoys the outdoors does so by using logging roads and the vast majority of funding for conservation comes from hunting. But embracing moving forward does not take away our responsibility to do so with care and respect. There is a future to be built, places to go, challenges to solve, and crises to avoid and none of those will be solved unless we accept the fundamentals of evolution and our role in shaping it.

Antarctica, the Moon, and Beyond are happening and there are two ways we can go at it. We can throw all the CAN’Ts we want and hide ourselves behind the status quo, or we can lead and make sure our vision becomes a reality. Lincoln said:

“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

I feel we have become complaisant with the work and maintenance required to build the future we dream of. Our ancestors were brought up with the idea they had to work and make sacrifices if they wanted to shape the future. Now we take our institutions and rights for granted, crying at the political circus without getting involved, even if it means just voting! Do you know there are seven countries with claims to Antarctica? Do you know Russia’s Continental Arctic Shelf has recently been recognized and approved by the UN? Did you know the Artemis Accord, this new contract aiming to shape the future of space exploration has been signed by only 33 countries. Not on the Accord? 162 countries, including China and Russia. The Outer Space Treaty which was created in 1967 is facing controversies regarding legal claims over space mining. No kidding, 57 years later! Just for context, in 1967, the Concorde was a prototype, Elvis and Priscilla had just gotten married, the Vietnam War was in full force, and OJ Simpson was a hero. Our future in Space relies on an accord signed the same year Rachel Welch and Bob Hope entertained the US troops in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Pippa Malmgren, whom I interviewed on the FUTURE of SPACE recently said:

Space is now both the most valuable open science lab humanity has ever had access to and the most valuable strategic domain. How do we capture the abundance of space without getting into conflict? Thats the question facing our generation”.

While we can argue on the pros and cons of America, it did manage to shape our relationship with the wilderness worldwide. Yellowstone National Park, signed into law on March 1, 1872, by President Ulysses S. Grant (a Republican), is generally considered the first national park in the world, even if the Bogd Khan Mountain National Park in Mongolia dates as early as 1778. Today, there are 6,555 National Parks in the world. Theodor Roosevelt’s achievements (another Republican, and avid hunter) in the conservation of natural resources and extending federal protection to land and wildlife can’t be dismissed. He established the United States Forest Service using executive orders on several occasions to protect forest and wildlife lands, signing into law the creation of five National Parks, with the 1906 Antiquities Act, under which he proclaimed 18 new U.S. National Monuments. Roosevelt also established the first 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, and 150 National Forests. To this day, we still owe much of our availability and access to the wilderness thanks to Roosevelt and Grant. Had it not been for those two, I am not sure our outdoor “gene” would be part of the American identity.

If some want to drive their cars on roads that were previously wild lands, to a fancy hotel where they can enjoy the benefits of modern civilization, living and breathing in a complex economy where the things they complain about are responsible for the same things they cherish, and tell the world to leave Antarctica and the Moon alone, that is their right. But I won’t count on them to build the future. Wayne Gretzky famously said:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Life is moving forward, as it has for billions of years and will do for billions more. And if we want to make sure we continue improving, if we want to make sure our tomorrow is aligned with our vision, then we must take the lead. We must skate where the puck is going. We need not to do less, but more and better. We need to keep exploring and push the boundaries. We need to develop new technologies necessary to extend our reach, so they can help solve today’s problems. Not only do we need to go to Antarctica, the Moon, and Beyond, but we must honor our role in managing its development and protection. Not doing so will be naive and doomed, leaving the opportunity for others to shape it with different objectives. We would only have ourselves to blame then, being the latest addition to a series of societies that failed to evolve, overtaken by others who saw the opportunity to shape the world of tomorrow.

With For All Moonkind, Inc.Michelle L.D. Hanlon on CNBC. With Dean Cheng & Jim Free .