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Aim High

Rocket scientists aim high. They reach for the moon and beyond. Their dreams are gigantic in scale. They may not always achieve their goals, but they know that you never hit a target that you don't aim at. (As hockey great Wayne Gretsky said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take.") Sometimes their dreams come true, but even when they don't, the achievements of rocket scientists are great.

Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, aimed high. Maybe we should say he aimed low, because his target was the South Pole. In 1902, he traveled with Robert F. Scott to within 460 miles of the pole. In 1908, he commanded his own expedition but was forced back after falling short of the pole by 97 miles. To have gone on to reach his goal would have meant certain death to his crew. Though Shackleton was criticized by some, he considered the safety of his men to be of far greater importance than his stated mission. Scott, who was rigorously trained in the British navy, was of the school that some loss of life was inevitable. Similar arguments have been made in defense of the space shuttle, but as we shall see later, there are better, safer ways to explore space.

On December 14, 1911, Shackleton's dream was dashed when Roald Amundson of Norway reached the South Pole. One month later, Scott and his party reached the pole but died on their return trip. In the next few years, Shackleton, undaunted by the success of Amundson, planned a daring adventure: the first transcontinental expedition of Antarctica.

In the attempt he made his greatest failure. He lost his ship but saved every member of his crew in a dramatic two-year misadventure (told in a terrific book by Margot Morrel and Stephanie Capparell: Shackletons Way).

Shackleton failed in nearly every mission he launched, and yet he is considered today to be the greatest of the Antarctic explorers. He aimed high, but he changed his plans to fit the circumstances— he didn't believe in Pyrrhic victories, and he didn't lose a man in his command.

He is a shining example of how we should approach human exploration of Mars and beyond.

Not long ago, a crater was discovered on the moon that circumscribes the lunar South Pole. It was named in Shackleton's honor. Someday, astronauts may explore the depths of Shackleton Crater— a region of eternal darkness—to search for a substance more precious than gold: ice.

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