Fun Facts: Exploration
"Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit"
—Frank Borman (American astronaut)
The first time that humanity "used up" a natural resource
was 4,000 years ago, when the supply of tin ore, needed to make
bronze, was used up in the Middle East around 2,000 B.C. The rich
tin mines of Cornwall, England were dug in the thirteenth century B.C.
by Phoenicians looking for tin. In over 3,000 years of mining, around
three million tons of tin have been removed from the Cornish mines,
and they still have not been exhausted.
When the troops of ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose I invaded
Syria and Carchemish on the upper Euphrates in 1525 B.C., they
were astounded to see the Nile "falling from the sky" and a river
that "in flowing north flowed south." The soldiers only knew Egypt
and the Nile, and so were fascinated to
see rain (the Nile falling from the sky) and the direction of
the flow of the southward-flowing Euphrates; to the Egyptians, south
meant "upstream", so they saw the Euphrates as flowing "backwards".
The Phoenician navigator Hanno was likely the first to circumnavigate
Africa, around 500 B.C. He observed that, at the southern end of Africa,
the noonday sun shone in the north. This observation sounded
ridiculous to the Greek historian Herodotus, who reported the tale, but
this report shows that Hanno likely either did circumnavigate Africa, or
or at least made a good attempt to do so. He likely wouldn't have
been able to imagine the sun shining in the "wrong" part of the sky if
he hadn't seen it.
In the third century B.C., Pytheas, a Greek geographer
and explorer, sailed along the Atlantic coast of Europe,
explored Great Britain, sailed north to "Ultima Thule" (Norway)
and traversed the Baltic Sea as far as
the Vistula. His work On the Ocean, while it has not
survived, is the earliest first-hand information
on northwestern Europe.
Without modern technology, the
Polynesians located almost all of the small islands spread over the
14 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, and colonized them all.
They had colonized most of modern-day Malaysia and Indonesia by 1500 B.C.,
Fiji and Tonga by 1200 B.C., Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar
by 500 A.D., and New Zealand by 1000 A.D.
Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis, a ninth century
manuscript, describes the many adventures of St. Brendan the
Navigator, who supposedly undertook a seven-year voyage across
the Atlantic Ocean, eventually reaching what might possibly
have been Newfoundland. In 1976–77, Tim Severin, a
British scholar, crossed the Atlantic on a boat
constructed based on the details described by Brendan, demonstrating
the feasibility of such a voyage.
It is possible that black explorers from western Africa visited America
centuries before Columbus. There is archaeological evidence that the
Olmecs, a Central American people, may have been in contact with blacks.
Also, when Columbus came to the New World, he heard stories about
blacks, and collected golden spearheads identical to those used in
West Africa. The Indians referred to the spearheads as "guanin",
which means "gold" in West African languages. Shorter distances
and favourable currents would have made travelling to America from
West Africa easier than from Spain.
The first European to see the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean was Vasco Núñez de
Balboa, on September 25th, 1513.
Henry Hudson did not discover the Hudson River or Hudson Bay;
others had previously explored these areas.
As most early literate civilisations were located around
the warm Mediterranean region,
the first mention of an iceberg in world literature did not appear until
the ninth century A.D., when an account of the travels of the Irish
monk St. Brendan in the North Atlantic, three centuries before, appeared.
It mentioned that he saw a "floating crystal castle."
Due to Iceland's geographical isolation from mainland Europe,
no-one had ever set foot on it until mediaeval times.
The first humans to arrive on Iceland were Irish explorers,
who arrived no later than the year 795. The colony that they established
did not last; when the Vikings arrived eighty years later, only a few
To encourage his fellow Norsemen to settle a large, snow-covered
island he discovered in the year 982, Eric the Red called
it Greenland. A few years later, twenty-five ships filled with eager
settlers sailed for Greenland.
The Vikings founded a settlement in North America almost 500 years
before Columbus "discovered" the New World. In the year 1000, Leif
son of Eric the Red, sailed from Greenland on an epic
westward voyage that took him past "Helluland" (likely Baffin
Island) and "Markland" (likely Labrador) to a land called "Vinland"
(modern-day Newfoundland). The Vikings later founded a
colony on Vinland, near what is now the fishing village of
L'anse-aux-Meadows. However, the Vikings soon discovered that the
lands were already inhabited by "Skraelings" (likely Inuit), who
were often hostile. After a few years, the first European colony
in the New World was abandoned and the colonists sailed home.
Cheng Ho, court eunuch and great admiral of the Ming
Dynasty, led Chinese fleets on seven voyages of conquest and diplomacy,
as far as West Africa,
between 1405 and 1433.
Due to Cheng Ho's voyages, 36 countries sent China tribute. However, in
1433, the eunuchs' opponents gained the upper hand in a power struggle
in the Chinese court, and the fleets were stopped, shipyards were
dismantled, and outbound shipping was forbidden. If these voyages had
continued, it is possible that the Chinese would have "discovered"
America before Columbus.
Had Marco Polo not been captured by the Genoese and imprisoned,
the tales of his twenty-two-year adventure in the
Far and Middle East at the end of the thirteenth century may never
have been made known. When he returned to Venice
after his odyssey, he became a "gentleman commander" of a war vessel
striving to hold off Genoese traders. In a battle of Curzold Island,
his galley was captured and Marco was hauled off to Genoa and gaoled.
There he met a writer named Rustichello, who, after hearing Marco's
yarns, insisted that they be written down.
In the fifteenth century, Prince Henry the Navigator dispatched his
sea captains on voyages to explore the African coast. One of Henry's
hopes was that his men would discover the rich Christian kingdom of
"Prester John", which was supposedly cut off from the rest of Christendom
due to the Islamic conquest. Eventually, after Henry's death, the Portuguese rounded the
Cape of Good Hope and
sailed the east coast of Africa, only to find that Prester John's
kingdom did not really exist. While they found a Christian kingdom in
Ethiopia, it was dismissed as being that of Prester
John due to its poverty.
Christopher Columbus was not the only person of his time who
believed the world was round. Since the twelfth century, educated
people had been aware of the earth's actual shape. Where Columbus
differed with the educated people of his time was that he thought
the world to be much smaller than it actually was.
He believed the westward distance from Spain to Asia to be around
2,500 miles, only around one-fifth of the true distance of around 12,000
miles. Had America not been in his way, Columbus' expedition would
have ended in death on the endless sea.
Columbus visited England in 1477 and Iceland in the 1480s. Possibly
during these visits he heard that lands lay
far to the west, across the Atlantic Ocean.
Christopher Columbus' first transatlantic voyage travelled at
a rate of around 2.8 miles per hour.
Prince Henry the Navigator never navigated the seas on exploring
expeditions. He was given this title because he ran an exploration
institute at Sagres, Portugal, where astronomers, geographers,
admirals, and shipbuilders pooled their expertise for voyages along
the African coast that culminated, long after Henry's death, when
Vasco de Gama rounded the
Cape of Good Hope
and went on to reach India, in 1497.
Ferdinand Magellan was not the first explorer to sail around the world.
During his journey, he and several of his men were killed in the Phillipines.
One of his officers, Juan Sebastián de Elcano, led the
expedition back to Spain.
Pedro Álvares Cabral set out on March 9th, 1500,
from Portugal with the intent of rounding the Cape of Good Hope and
heading towards India. He decided to tack far across the Atlantic.
On April 22nd, he spotted a mountain, and thought he saw an
island in the Atlantic. He erected a cross on the island, and sent a
message to Portugal indicating that he had discovered the "Island of
Vera Cruz" for Portugal. He did not realise that this "island" was
actually Brazil, the largest country in South America.
Johannes Kepler calculated that the first voyages to the moon would take four
hours, and thought that the passengers would take narcotics in order to endure the trip.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I,
Earth's first artificial satellite. It was quite small, being about the
size of a basketball and weighing 183 pounds. It took about 98 minutes
to orbit the Earth on its elliptical orbit.
The first lunar missions were named "Apollo", a name suggested
by Abe Silverstein, who was an early director of the Lewis Research Center and one of the "founding fathers" of NASA's Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, now Johnson Space Center.
In 1964, the year of its independence, Zambia announced its space
program, claiming that Zambian astronauts would be on the moon by 1965.
Edward Muluka Nkoloso, Director-General of the National Academy of
Science, Space Research and Philosophy, trained his twelve apprentice
astronauts using a forty-pound oil drum. Trainees curled up inside the
drum and were rolled down a steep hill to give them the feeling of
rushing through space. Another training exercise involved swinging a
capsule around a tree on a long rope, with the rope being cut when the
capsule reached the highest point, producing the feeling of free fall.
The astronauts were also trained in walking on their hands, "the only
way humans can walk on the moon". As of today, Zambia has still not launched any
space missons, manned or unmanned.
Meriweather Lewis and William Clark were not the first European
explorers to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The first was
Vasco Nùñez, who crossed the narrow isthmus of
Central America in 1513. Lewis and Clark were not the first Europeans
to cross North America either. In 1793, the Scotsman Alexander
Mackenzie reached the Pacific Ocean via Canada.
The first person to set foot on Antarctica was an
American sealer, John Davis. He did so on February 7, 1821, but
was unknown until 1955, when his ship's log was discovered and studied.
In 1985, NASA estimated the probability of a space shuttle accident
to be 1 in 100,000.
However, on the 25th shuttle launch on
January 28, 1986,
Challenger exploded after
take-off, killing all seven astronauts aboard;
on February 1, 2003,
the 113rd mission, Columbia exploded on re-entry, again
with the loss of all seven astronauts.
Other groups had earlier estimated the probability of failure as being
closer to 1 in 100, a probability that now seems more reasonable.
The legacy of flying American flags to space started in 1961 with the flight of the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard. Students from Cocoa Beach Elementary School in Florida purchased a flag from a local department store. The flag was rolled up and placed between cables behind Shepard's head inside his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft.