12/20/2011 03:52 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012

Heroic Exploration: Well and Truly Dead?

It's hard to believe, but only a century ago the heroic age of exploration was easing to a close. At the bottom of the world, Robert Scott and his four companions were wearily sledging across 800 miles of ice, destined to find the tent of their triumphant rival, Roald Amundsen, flapping in the wind at the South Pole. In Peru, Hiram Bingham had just clawed his way up a tangled mountain ridge, where he beheld a lost redoubt of the Incas, Machu Picchu.

The blank spots on the globe were evaporating. But more than that, exploration as a heroic endeavor -- lonely, dangerous, and dependent on personal grit -- was largely over. Future expeditions rode to their destinations on motorized transport, and could radio the cavalry if trouble threatened.

Yes, things still went wrong, and people occasionally died. But arguably it wasn't the same. Ask your best friend to name five illustrious explorers. Dollars to Dunkies, they were all afoot before the First World War. Everything thereafter is diluted by too much knowledge, and too much technical support. In the 1930s, the story of finding King Kong Island in a south sea fog already harkened to a lost past. Most people knew that such an island didn't exist.

Of course there is still unexplored terrestrial territory, but most of it is waterlogged. Submersed secret places, such as the Challenger Deep, which today lure hi-tech adventurers like Richard Branson and James Cameron, will undoubtedly provide welcome fodder for National Geographic. In the sky, the moon and Mars continue to beckon. But billionaires in hi-tech mini-subs or elaborately trained astronauts on choreographed missions smack of puppeteering, lacking the sheen of individual triumph.

So is it all over? Is heroic exploration -- which arguably began fifty thousand years ago when our hirsute ancestors wandered out of Africa -- now only past tense? Have geographic societies become mere dinner clubs for celebrating the easy, the quirky, and the small?

Possibly. But I suspect that the banality of a world lacking in secrets -- a globe whose every acre can be perused with the click of a mouse -- is only a temporary setback. Homo sapiens' long-term legacy of setting out for terra incognita will, I think, resurface.

I'm not speaking of a Star Trek future here. Sure, massive pan-planetary federations may eventually field enormous star ships to boldly go... somewhere. And while that would be interesting and worthwhile, it doesn't strike me as heroic.

Rather, I'm picturing an intermediate era -- a moment in future history between the infancy of the space age and its presumed maturation, a half-millennium hence. A time -- possibly towards the end of this century -- when the cost of access to space will be beaten down from its current $10 thousand a pound to one percent of that (think "space elevator"). When small spacecraft, perhaps driven by solar sails, will become as plentiful and affordable as Cessna's or private yachts. When people having a taste for adventure, acclaim, or merely making some money will enter the realms just beyond Mars. Here, millions of rock islands swarm in the main belt of the asteroids. Some are no bigger than a suburban mall, and others are as large as Texas. But one in six is made of valuable metals.

Mining asteroids is a well-oiled trope of science-fiction. But someday actually doing it will make economic sense. Many of the essential metals of our society, such as platinum, copper and zinc, are rapidly becoming scarce. The asteroids might offer a replacement supply, providing the materials our descendants will need for a high quality life.

But which asteroids are worth taking apart and hauling back to Earth? That's not easy to tell. Astronomers can examine many of the larger main belt targets telescopically, but the paucity of spectral lines for identifying the solid metals means that only close-up inspection can separate the valuable digs from the dross.

And that gives the nod to prospecting. Traditionally, prospecting has been a risky and highly individualistic precursor to commercial mining. But it might once again become an activity for small groups of entrepreneurs. And like prospecting in the 19th century, reconnaissance of the asteroids would of necessity take place in an arena where trouble is likely and help is distant. Heroic stories of individual triumph and failure, set on landscapes never seen by humankind, are in the cards.

Today, with GPS and cell phones as common as crickets, it's hard to believe that anyone could hope to emulate the exploits that filled the five centuries between Vasco da Gama and Robert Scott. But just you wait: any reports on the death of heroic exploration may be premature.