People sometimes get depressed as they contemplate the sad fact that the last time human beings stood upon the surface of the moon was in 1972—nearly forty years ago. In contrast, people point to the history of aviation. Forty years after Orville and Wilbur Write made their first flight in 1903, air travel had become common. Passengers were flying around the world. The jet engine had been invented. And military aircraft were an important part of warfare.
But where is the comparable advance in space travel? Where are the lunar colonies, the flights to Mars, the mining of the asteroids and missions to the moons of Saturn?
The mistake comes in comparing two entirely different sorts of activities. Improvements in the technology of flight—the increase in size and the increase in the amount of travel actually are comparable between airplanes and spacecraft. In the forty years since Apollo ended, the ease of human travel into space has increased. Moreover, unmanned spacecraft have visited every planet in the solar system. Our civilization is dependent upon our spacefaring for its very existence now, with communication and navigation tied into the existence of orbiting satellites in ways that would have been unimaginable when Eugene Cernan of Apollo 17 became the last man on the moon.
No, the better comparison to our lunar explorations of the late sixties and early seventies (1969-1972) is not the history of airplanes. Instead, it is the history of Antarctic exploration.
On December 14, 1911, a group led by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first people to ever reach the South Pole. One month later, the British explorer and Royal Navy officer, Robert Scott arrived, but he died on the trip back.
For the next forty-five years, no human being ever stood upon the South Pole again. It wasn’t until October 31, 1956, when U.S. Rear Admiral George J. Dufek and his crew landed a R4D Skytrain—a modified Douglas DC-3—aircraft, that people once again touched the South Pole. They established the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which is still occupied year round by researchers.
Between 1911 and 1956 there had been multiple expeditions to the continent of Antarctica. Ernest Shackleton led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914 intending to cross the continent by way of the South Pole. His ship, the Endurance, was trapped and destroyed by the ice pack before they even reached Antarctica. They survived the disaster by trekking across pack ice to Elephant Island. Shackleton and five of his crewmates then took a small boat across the Southern Ocean to South Georgia, an island in the South Atlantic where they were finally able to get help and rescue their colleagues left behind. US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Byrd led five expeditions to Antarctica during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He even flew an airplane over the South Pole in 1929.
But between the first visit to the South Pole by Amudsen and Scott and 1956, there was no permanent human structure at the South Pole, and very little human presence in the interior of Antarctica at all. The few scientific stations in Antarctica were located on and near its seacoast.
But since 1956, the Amudsen-Scott South Pole Station has been continuously occupied. The base has been rebuilt and modified extensively since its founding. The current station was officially dedicated on January 12, 2008. It is an 80,000 square foot, two story building of modular design. Elevated, it can be raised and adjusted to keep it above the ever deepening snow level at the South Pole. During the summer, the station population is usually around 200 people; it drops by three-fourths during the winter months, when the station is cut off from any possibility of resupply. In 2010, forty-seven people spent the winter at the station.
Forty-five years passed between the first and only visit by human beings at the South Pole until a permanent base was constructed. It has been barely forty years since the last person visited the moon.
Currently, six people continuously orbit the Earth in the International Space Station, which has an interior volume of 32,000 cubic feet, about the interior volume of an average five bedroom house. Thus, it is much smaller than the current base on the South Pole. But of course it has been a hundred years since the first person stepped on the South Pole, while the first person went into space but fifty years ago on April 5, 1961, and the first person reached the moon but 42 years ago, on July 20, 1969.
So we’re really not doing so badly as some people like to think.