Who Was Ernest Shackleton? A Brief Biography

Ernest Shackleton

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nearly a century after his death, Ernest Shackleton is back in the news after Blue Origin tweeted a photo of the Antarctic explorer’s ship, Endurance, with the date 5.9.19.

The tweet has fed speculation that Jeff Bezos’ company might announce a mission next week to a crater at the south pole of the moon that is named after Shackleton. (For more about that, see Why Everyone Interested in Shackleton Crater.)

You might also be asking: Who was Shackleton? What did he accomplish at the South Pole? Why is a crater on the moon named after him? And what does all this have to do with Bezos?

All excellent questions. Let’s find more about one of history’s greatest explorers.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Born: February 15, 1874
Kilkea, County Kildare, Ireland
Died: January 5, 1922
South Georgia, Falkland Islands Dependencies
Nationality: British

Shackleton was an Anglo-Irish explorer who led three expeditions to the South Pole during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He is most famous for leading the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17 — a tale of survival against seemingly impossible odds even more compelling as the Apollo 13 mission more than half a century later.

Shackleton didn’t just lead the original successful failure. There is much more to his story.

A Passion for Adventure

Ernest Shackleton was born on Feb. 15, 1874 to Henrietta Gayan and Henry Shackleton, who were farmers in County Kildare, Ireland. A voracious reader with a thirst for adventure, Ernest left school at the age of 16 to join the Merchant Navy. By 1898, he rose to the rank of Master Mariner, which qualified him to command a British ship anywhere in the world.

Discovery in Antarctica

In 1901, he joined the Discovery expedition to Antarctica led by Robert Falcon Scott. Shackleton served as third officer aboard the Discovery, which left London on July 31, 1901 and arrived at the South Pole five months later on Jan. 2, 1902.

Shackleton participated in an experimental balloon flight the following month. He also helped to establish a safe route onto the Great Ice Barrier by making the first sledging trip with two other men from the expedition’s winter quarters in McMurdo Sound.

Shackleton also accompanied Scott and scientist Edward Wilson on a march that set a new farthest south record of 82° 17′. The march was not, however, a serious attempt to reach the still unconquered South Pole.

Ernest Shackleton, Scott, and Edward Wilson before their march south on Nov., 2, 1902.

Shackleton, Scott and Wilson suffered scurvy, frostbite and snow blindness during the difficult march. All 22 dogs on the trip died after their food became contaminated.

Although Shackleton admitted to having “broken down” physically during the return trip, he later denied a claim by Scott that he had to be carried on a sledge. The charge would contribute to a permanent falling out between the two Antarctic explorers.

After the group arrived back at Discovery, Scott said his ailing third officer on a relief ship to New Zealand to recuperate in February 1903.

The Nimrod Expedition

Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams during the Nimrod expedition.

The falling out with Scott made Shackleton want to return to Antarctic to best his former commander. On Jan. 1, 1908, Shackleton left New Zealand aboard the Nimrod as head of an expedition that would achieve exactly that.

After wintering over at Antarctica’s Cape Royds, Shackleton and three other men set a new farthest south record of 88° 23′, which was only 180 km (112 miles) from the South Pole. On the march, they became the first people to travel on the South Polar Plateau and discovered Beardsmore Glacier.

It was another difficult march for Shackleton. The men were on half rations during most of the return trip to Nimrod as they battled the elements and starvation.

Members of the Nimrod expedition also were the first to climb to the summit crater rim of Mount Erebus. The southernmost active volcano on Earth, Mount Erebus has a summit elevation of 3,794 meters (12,448 ft).

A Hero’s Welcome

Poster for Shackleton lecture

Shackleton and his men were greeted as heroes upon their arrival back in Great Britain in 1909. Members of the Nimrod shore party received silver Polar Medals for their accomplishments. Shackleton received a clasp for a silver medal he had received for his earlier trip to Antarctica.

King Edward VII received Shackleton on July 10 and promoted him to Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Four months later, the king awarded him a knighthood.

The Royal Geographical Society awarded Shackleton a gold medal for his leadership of the expedition. Trinity House also appointed him as a Younger Brother, which is a high honor awarded to British mariners.

During his stay in England, Shackleton kept busy with a series of lectures, public appearances and social engagements. At first, he swore off any return to the frigid wastelands of the Antarctic. But, he eventually grew restless and began planning to return for the third time.

Back to Antarctica

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen ended the race to the South Pole in December 1911. Shackleton’s former commander, Scott, reached the pole five weeks later only to perish along with all of his men on the return trip.

Endurance crew trying to free the ship from ice.

With the race to the pole finally won, Shackleton focused his next expedition on crossing Antarctic from sea to sea via the pole. It would be a 2,900-km (1,800-mile) journey that Shackleton and his 27-member team would never complete.

The Endurance set off for the South Pole from the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia island on Dec. 5, 1914. The following month, the ship became trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea, forcing Shackleton and his men to struggle through the cold, dark Antarctic winter.

In October 1915, the crew was forced to abandon ship as ice began to crush Endurance. The ship sank on Nov. 21, with Shackleton and his men camped on the ice. All hope of crossing Antarctica was abandoned; survival became the only objective.

Endurance just before she sunk beneath the ice.

After nearly 15 months stuck on ice floes that were beginning to break up, Shackleton and his men put back to sea on April 9, 1916, aboard three lifeboats christened the James Caird, Dudley Docker, and Stancomb Wills. After a perilous journey, the men landed safely on uninhabited and rarely visited Elephant Island.

On April 24, Shackleton and five men set off on a 1,300-km (800-mile) journey to South Georgia island in the beefed-up James Caird lifeboat. After battling heavy seas that soaked the crew and iced over the boat, the group landed at the southern end of South Georgia some 16 days later on May 10.

Launching the James Carid from Elephant Island.

The closest whaling station at Stromness lay on the other side of the island. With two of the crew in poor physical condition, Shackleton ruled out another sea voyage in the lifeboat.

Instead, he and two expedition members made a perilous land crossing. After a non-stop, 36-hour journey across jagged mountains and icy glaciers, the group reached Stromness on May 20. A whaling ship was sent to pick up the crew members left on the other side of the island.

The Endurance crew on Elephant Island.

Due to bad weather and ice clogged seas, it would take Shackleton four attempts over the next three months before he was able to rescue the 22 men left behind on Elephant Island. On Aug. 30, 1916, the group was brought aboard the steam tug Yelcho, which the Chilean government had loaned Shackleton for the rescue effort.

Once More Into the Cold

After a brief lecture tour in the United States, Shackleton arrived back in England on May 29, 1917. His return after three years away away received little attention amid the carnage of the First World War.

After serving in the British Army, Shackleton again turned his attention to Antarctica. In September 1921, he set sail from London aboard the Quest on one final expedition. Eight members of the Endurance crew joined him.

Shackleton would never made it back to Antarctic. He died of a heart attack on Jan. 5, 1922 at the age of 47 while the Quest was anchored at South Georgia. He was buried there at the request of his widow, Emily.

For many decades, Shackleton was overshadowed by Scott in accounts of Antarctic exploration. Interest in Shackleton and his exploits were revived in 1959 with the publication of Alfred Lansing’s book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage. Additional books praising the explorer were published in the decades that followed as Scott’s reputation dimmed.

Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is taught in business schools because it holds valuable leadership lessons in adapting to changing circumstances. Despite extraordinary obstacles, he brought every member of his expedition back alive.

Of a Crater on the Moon

Shackleton crater (Credit: NASA)

In 1994, the International Astronomical Union honored Shackleton’s achievements in exploring Earth’s last unexplored continent by naming a crater at the moon’s south pole after him.

NASA has identified Shackleton crater as a possible location for a permanent crewed base on the moon. The crater is believed to hold ice that could be processed into water and fuel to support the base. The crater’s rim is also bathed in near constant sunlight, making it a good location to establish a crewed base powered by solar panels.

Blue Moon lander (Credit: Blue Origin)

In 2017, Bezos’s Blue Origin unveiled plans for a lander named Blue Moon that would be capable of delivering payloads of up to 10,000 lbs (4,536 kg) to a permanent crewed outpost on the rim of the Shackleton crater. The first projected mission is planned for 2024.

Bezos has said he is willing to fund development with his own money, but that the program would go faster with NASA funding. Blue Origin proposed such a partnership before unveiling the lander to the public two years ago.

Last year, Blue Origin received a $13 million contract under NASA’s tipping point technologies program to support development of the lander. The company also has a Space Act Agreement under which it is paying the space agency for its assistance in developing the vehicle.

Blue Origin’s recent tweet of a picture of Endurance and the date 5.9.19 is likely related to planned Blue Moon missions to Shackleton crater.

Shackleton, Bezos & Two Ages of Exploration

Jeff Bezos

Following a visit to Antarctica in 2016, Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria pondered the similarities between Shackleton and modern-day billionaires Bezos and Elon Musk who are pushing back the frontiers of space.  He noted that both eras of exploration involve a mixture of exploration and commercial activities.

Apart from tourism, there’s no discernible industry in Antarctica today. That wasn’t true in Shackleton’s day — decades before men like him set out to explore the region, seal and whale hunters toiled in the waters around the continent. While we rightly celebrate Shackleton the explorer, we should remember that most of the seamen who ventured to Antarctica were seeking not glory, but whale oil. Indeed, the driving force behind the exploration of Antarctica was commerce….

As our planet now wrestles with the environmental consequences of the energy sources that supplanted whale oil, our Antarctica trip made me wonder how we will respond to this new challenge. The answers might lie in space exploration. Entrepreneurs like Bezos and Musk, whom I admire for their creativity and initiative, want to profit from launching satellites and providing novel experiences for rich tourists — and perhaps by finding and claiming valuable new natural resources. It’s a modern set of economic motives that aren’t much different from those that set whalers sailing south more than a century ago.

What will the commercial exploration of space mean for humanity? It may unleash yet another wave of creative destruction by providing a safer refuge for humanity if the environment on our planet continues to degrade. Some of our most polluting activities could be offshored to space to help save our planet. Or it could merely exacerbate our growing sense of inequality as only a precious few can enjoy the wonder of traveling into space. Will space explorers create new ventures that benefit us, or will they (like the old factory whaling ships) exploit and ravage natural landscapes that had been untouched? Will even less human restraint in space require even more regulation? However this next age of exploration unfolds, these questions will need to be answered.

A century ago, Shackleton and his men explored the frigid reaches of Antarctica. In the decade ahead, astronauts will venture to the south pole of the moon to continue exploration begun by NASA’s Apollo program 50 years ago. It would be fitting if that exploration included Shackleton crater.