Millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett opens the path to amateur exploration
The missing adventurer has inspired new risk-taker boom.
Oakland, Calif. — Mount Everest? Scaled. The moon? Trodden upon. Planet Earth? Mapped, modeled, and Googled via satellite.
This generation of humanity could be forgiven for feeling a certain exploration ennui.
But, in fact, the explorer ethos has received a fresh jolt of oxygen in recent years, led by a wealthy set of record- chasers and yeoman scientists and followed by Everyman adventurers who are transforming traditional notions of travel and sport.
One of these latter-day pioneers, Steve Fossett, remains missing at press time after not returning from a flight Monday over the sagebrush of northwestern Nevada.
"He's part of a renaissance that's going on in American culture right now," says Robert Zimmerman, an author and space historian. For decades, the space shuttle remained the last US rocket design. Now there are a flurry of planes and rockets, and Mr. Fossett along with others, like Sir Richard Branson and Dennis Tito, have helped generate buzz for the trend. "He made the general public interested."
While Mr. Fossett has led the pack in knocking off some of the arguably dwindling Guinness Book "firsts" for earth-bound travel, in doing so he has helped expand the horizons of technology and imagination.
"There just weren't that many firsts, left ... and he got a couple of the big ones," says Craig Ryan, an author of books on 20th-century balloonists who laid foundations for space travel.
"The great achievements that happen – like a man walking on the moon – it never was just one spectacular leap that got us there, it was always thousands and thousands of small steps. And Fossett is one of those steps," says Mr. Ryan.
In performing such feats as flying a plane solo around the world without refueling or stopping, Fossett provided the nerves for technological advancement. Engineer Burt Rutan designed both Fossett's circumnavigating plane and the spacecraft that won the X-PRIZE – a contest that has helped reenergize space exploration.
Fossett has plans to fly a glider up to 100,000 feet, says friend Dan Goldin, the former head of NASA. That extreme altitude has an atmospheric density similar to the surface of Mars.
"So here's a guy who's going to do old-fashioned aviation on Earth, and he's going to be really opening up the possibility for flying something on Mars," says Mr. Goldin. "People think all he wants to do is break records."
Goldin has hope that his friend will avoid the fate of other aviators like Antoine de Saint Exupéry and Amelia Erhardt. "If anyone could pull out, it's Steve."
The search continued yesterday for Fossett, who took off Monday morning from a private airstrip 70 miles southeast of Reno, Nev. He was flying a singe-engine plane in a reported attempt to locate sites where he could break the land-speed record in a rocket-propelled car, according to wire service reports.
Search teams from three states are scouring an area the size of Connecticut. No distress signal has been detected.
Fossett's fame reflects revitalized interest in exploration, say observers.
But many new discoveries still go on beneath the public radar, argues Mr. Zimmerman, who has no patience with notions that an age of exploration is coming to a close.
"Did Fossett complete the last final first? I would say hogwash. That is not to denigrate him, by the way," says Zimmerman.
In a strictly geographic sense, the unknowns on Earth are getting limited, he concedes. However, he points to spelunkers who just last week set a new depth record, descending more than a mile down a cave. Meanwhile, extraterrestrial geography remains wide open, as do scientific questions of all stripes.
Goldin agrees that vast frontiers of knowledge remain, suggesting that even in aviation humanity has only scratched the surface.
Nor are the remaining adventures just scientific pursuits for knowledge. At the annual meetings of the Explorers Club in New York City, he hears tales seemingly from Shackleton's day, including a story of an expedition to northern Russia above the Article Circle in the winter, where the husband's nose froze and broke off. Other people, he says, are diving out of balloons, exploring the ocean depths, and searching out new means of circumnavigation.
At the same time, there's a democratization of adventure going on among those of lesser means who are going where only the most outfitted expedition once dared to tread. Half of US adults have taken an "adventure trip" in the past five years, including some 31 million who tackled more rugged activities like whitewater rafting, scuba diving, and mountain biking, according to the Travel Industry Association. International tourist arrivals are reaching all time highs, with 800 million in 2005, according to the World Tourism Organization.
"Adventure is no longer just reserved for the very few," says Charles Bethea, associate editor at Outside's Go, a travel magazine for active and affluent men. "Middle-class mountaineers with relatively modest alpine experience are now tackling mountains perceived as insurmountable by most just 20 years ago."
Even in the rarified air of scientific endeavor, amateurs are taking part in the exploration, whether it's sifting through photos of distant galaxies for anomalies or volunteering on scientific expeditions through groups like EarthWatch.
Yet Goldin worries that US culture has become more risk averse, curbing the ability of the bravest to push the envelope.
"You cannot open the frontiers if you want 100 percent probability that nothing is going to go wrong," says Goldin. "That's the message of Steve Fossett."