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10 Scientific Expeditions That Were Doomed From the Start

The road to scientific advancement is never easy. Behind every great discovery or new piece of knowledge lie many hours of toil, labor and, in some cases, danger — not least when the pursuit of scientific knowledge requires journeying into the wild, into the skies or across the frozen seas. Considering the fact that even the most well-planned of scientific expeditions can be fraught with risks and end in tragedy, is it any surprise that there are those that were flagged for failure from the start?

10. The Search for “Z”

Traversing a hostile jungle filled with jaguars, poisonous snakes, unfriendly locals, malaria and other dangers would seem to require a high level of preparation and care. However, archaeologist and explorer Percy Fawcett was convinced that a lost European city he referred to as "Z" — filled with gold and the secrets of human civilization — was hidden in the jungles of western Brazil. In 1925, rather than continue with local guides, he, his son and his son’s friend forged their way into the jungle alone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were never heard from again.

9. S.A. Andrée's Arctic Expedition

A self-invented balloon steering system was set to take engineer, physicist, aeronaut and polar explorer Salomon August Andrée from Sweden over the North Pole to Russia or Canada. However, the system was not only unworkable, but actually dangerous. Add this to the fact that Andrée never bothered testing his balloon before take-off, refused to alter his plans when it was found to be leaking, and overloaded his basket with scientific equipment, and you have a recipe for disaster. In 1897, he set off with two companions. Ten hours and 29 minutes after take-off the balloon began making ground contact, and 41 hours later it crashed. No one was harmed, but Andrée had not packed suitable survival equipment or clothing. After three months in the Arctic the team found their way to Kvitøya Island, where they met their bitter end.

8. Soyuz 1

In 1967, the space race was in full swing and the Russians had not had a man in space for over two years. Soyuz 1, part of the Soviet lunar program, was designed to launch cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov into space, where he would meet with Soyuz 2, to be launched the next day, before returning to Earth. The mission of Soyuz 2 was altered to include repairing Soyuz 1 after solar panel and stabilization mechanism failures left the spacecraft low on power and with difficulty maneuvering. Tragically, thunderstorms prevented the launch of Soyuz 2, and Soyuz 1 re-entered the atmosphere without repair, where failure of the main parachute and entanglement of the reserve chute led to an explosive impact and the death of Komarov. Prior to the launch of Soyuz 1, test flights had been plagued with failures, with over 200 design faults reported by the engineers, yet still the mission went ahead.

7. Burke and Wills

In 1860, a Melbourne club of scientists and businessmen decided to fund an expedition into the heart of the largely unexplored Australian continent, seeking to learn more about the flora and fauna of the country and find a path to the Gulf of Carpentaria — 2,000 miles away. Rather than pick experienced, competent men to lead the expedition, they chose Robert O'Hara Burke, a charming man with a complete lack of bushcraft skills and common sense. Along with William John Wills and an expedition of 19 men, Burke set off into the interior, tugging along such "useful" equipment as a bathtub, oak tables and stools. Burke sacked staff as he went and decided to throw away equipment without considering what was and was not necessary. Burke, Wills and two other men did reach their destination, but on the way back ran low on food and supplies, reaching the meeting point for the expedition five weeks late — and just hours after the camp had been abandoned. Burke and Wills died of starvation at the camp. Overall, seven men died on the expedition and only one completed the entire journey to and from Melbourne.

6. The Terra Nova Expedition

In 1910, Robert Falcon Scott and four others set out to be the first people to reach the South Pole, only to discover in 1912 that a Norwegian team had beaten them by a month. The expedition had been fraught with difficulties surrounding poor purchasing of packhorses, the loss of supplies when their ship was struck by a storm and, ultimately, a lack of knowledge about proper nutrition. At the time it was not known that vitamin C prevented scurvy, and in fact the men’s rations did not contain half the calories they had estimated. On the return journey the entire party perished due to cold, exhaustion and hunger.

5. Amelia Earhart

As an early icon of female empowerment, Amelia Earhart wasn’t content to simply be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She had to take it one step further and take the longest route — 29,000 miles around the equator. Calling her Lockheed Electra 10E her “flying laboratory,” and installing instruments to take readings during her flight, she intended to set a record, contribute in some way to science and, most importantly, publicize her book. Despite the modification to the plane of a larger fuel tank, the route that Earhart chose was simply too grueling, and she disappeared in 1937 as she attempted to complete the 2,556 mile journey from New Guinea to Howland Island. It is widely accepted that lack of fuel caused the plane to crash and sink without a trace — a result, in the words of Capt. Laurance F. Safford, of “poor planning, worse execution”.

4. Challenger

In 1986, poor weather and warnings from NASA engineers were ignored, and the Space Shuttle Challenger was launched. Just 73 seconds after liftoff, the shuttle broke up and disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the fact that some members of the crew survived the initial break-up of the shuttle, the lack of an escape system led to the deaths of all seven who were on board. Administrators knew of a potentially fatal design flaw in the O-ring, the malfunction of which began the chain of events that resulted in the disaster. However, they did not address the problems and failed to pass the concerns of engineers to their superiors, dooming the crew of the Challenger to an early death (and the shuttle program to a suspension of over two-and-a-half years).

3. The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition

Heroic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton resolved to lead the first expedition to cross the Antarctic by land. The expedition lasted from 1914 to 1917, with the folly and doom of the mission soon apparent after pack ice was discovered much further north than expected. Although Shackleton was experienced in exploration and the ship was well provisioned, the might of Mother Nature foiled his hopes from the start. The ship soon became stuck in the ice — eventually sinking — leaving the 28 voyagers stranded. The expedition made for Elephant Island, and then Shackleton and five others made an 800-mile journey in an open boat to find help. Despite his success in managing to rescue his men, Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition was an utter failure in accomplishing its objectives, and the omens had been there from early on.

2. Ludwig Leichhardt

When you have tried to cross an inhospitable span of land not once, but twice, you might decide that it is not a feat you can accomplish. Prussian naturalist and geographer Ludwig Leichhardt, however, did not recognize this message, and in 1848 tried for a third time to cross Australia from east to west, documenting the continent’s flora, fauna and geology. The expedition disappeared, likely dying from lack of water. In fairness to Leichhardt, it was later determined that he made it two-thirds of the way through the desert interior, and while his incompetence in no way compares to that of Robert O'Hara Burke, he too was not the greatest of bushmen.

1. The Karluk Disaster

The Karluk was a whaling ship that was refitted to take meteorologists, anthropologists, biologists and geologists to the far northern Arctic island of Herschel, where they intended to search for land masses and document the plants, animals and other scientific interests of the area. The ship set off from British Columbia in 1913, but the decision to refit an old wooden vessel rather than a new ship that could break ice proved disastrous when the winter cold trapped the ship in pack ice. Six members of the expedition eventually reached Alaska — this after they'd left the ship to hunt caribou only to find it had drifted out of sight on their return. The remaining members abandoned the ship months later when it began to sink. Eleven men died at various points in their exile, with two surviving after making a dangerous journey to seek help and the remaining survivors being rescued by a Canadian ship.

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