Swords & Microscopes: Military led Scientific Expeditions

There has been throughout history a trend that some exploratory expeditions be led by member of the military for as long as there have been standing armies.  Excluding the epic journeys of the great maritime navigators of the Middle Ages (as the armed forces of that period were constructs of the feudal monarchies, not professional armies), there is still a precedent of state sanctioned as well as privately funded missions of science organized and led by persons in uniform.

In 1922, the British government sought to gain notoriety by mounting an expedition for the summit of Mt. Everest.  To organize the expedition, a committee from the Royal Geographic Society appointed a roughshod and capable young officer named Charles Granville Bruce. Bruce was an adventurer veteran of Gallipoli, a noted boxing champion, an amateur climber, and most importantly a regional expert on the cultures and politics of colonial India and Nepal, where he had served most of his time in the British Army.  His respect for the Indian troops he commanded during the war and on the frontier of the empire gave him an advantage over typical generals of the period who saw the men as mere laborers. He managed the funds allotted wisely, investing in local guides as well as new technologies such portable oxygen equipment and Kodak cameras.  The expedition was the first to ever reach an elevation of 26,000 ft, although they were unsuccessful at making the summit.  Impressed by the accomplishments, Bruce was appointed the leader of the next expedition in 1924, which very nearly made the summit 29 years before the recognized summit climb by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953.

Another more famous example is the U.S. Army’s “Corps of Discovery”- better known as the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804 to explore the vast territory of the Louisiana Purchase and seek potential waterway access from the Pacific Ocean, the mission was to be led by stalwart Army Captain Meriwether Lewis.  Assisting him was then Lt. William Clark. With a rotating roster that included army troops, civilian boatmen, hunters, guides, and the Native American wife of a French fur trapper- the overland journey from Missouri to Oregon (and back again) took the team 2 years. Through the leadership of Lewis and Clark, the expedition was fortuitously successful, and the history of the United States was changed forever.

In 1957-1958, the major world powers engaged in a cooperative scientific effort known as the “International Geophysical Year”. The IGY was designed a collaborative investigation into the physical sciences, including astronomy, physics, geology, astronautics, and numerous other disciplines.  In particular, a number of nations organized massive expedition to map and explore the continent of Antarctica.  Although a mission pf peaceful intent, the United States directed the U.S. Navy to lead the IGY missions in the Antarctic using their substantial logistical resources.  Icebreakers were used to push past the expansive ice sheets, aircraft were flown in to connect the isolated outposts across the landmass.  And hundreds of scientists were recruited to record the unique natural phenomena led by junior naval officers who found themselves a fighting not an enemy force, but the harsh polar elements.

I am an officer in the United States Air Force Reserve.  My duty whilst serving is as an aviator, but my role as an officer to is to lead.  Even before my entrance into flight school, this distinction was hammered into my psyche during my officer training programs.  The wings I wear on my chest are an indication of the medium in which I lead, no different than an infrantrymen’s crossed rifle badge or a submariner’s “dolphins”.  The authority and responsibility that are mine are symbolized in the Captain’s bars pinned on my shoulders.

I am not a scientist- although someday I hope to be.  My selection to the Hi-SEAS Mars analog mission was a surprise to me.  There are certainly more educated and knowledgeable researchers who applied.  But being appointed the commander of the crew made it clear to me that my role was to be different. Perhaps it was my military background that stood me apart from the other candidates. Could I apply my experience as part of an aircrew or leading teams in the service to this mission as military leaders have led scientists in the past?

I see myself as “A Science Enabler”, to quote Lisa May, director of NASA’s Mars MAVEN mission  My responsibility is the well-being of my crew AND to see to completion of our scientific objectives. The other 5 members of this team each have personal research they are conducting on behalf of their home institutions. Each of them is devoting countless hours to acquire data that will be used to make real space missions possible.  I intend on making that possible, despite any hardships we may face in this simulation.

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