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Polar exploration of the 19th century was the space travel of its day. There were moments of glory, like Ernest Shackleton’s heroic journeys to the Antarctic. There were moments of terror, such as Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage, which likely ended in starvation, cannibalism, and death. But one journey that has been largely forgotten has one of the most important stories of all. That’s the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899.

The Belgica was one of the first polar expeditions to Antarctica at the end of the 19th century. The voyage was meant to bring fame to all aboard the ship—and it certainly did, but at a very steep cost and not in quite the way the crew had imagined. Today’s guest is Julian Sancton, author of Madhouse at the End of the Earth: The Belgica’s Journey into the Dark Antarctic Night


The Belgica would ultimately earn its fame as a harrowing survival story after the ship and her inhabitants—thanks to the deliberate decision of their captain—became trapped in the ice of the Bellingshausen sea. Surrounded on all sides by immovable sheets of ice, which threatened every day to crush the ship, the men of The Belgica were subjected to a months-long sentence of physical and mental anguish, becoming the first humans to confront the horrors of a completely sunless Antarctic winter.

They survived the world’s most hostile environment and continue to teach the world about human extremes; those who do still remember The Belgica today are mainly the teams at NASA who study the lessons it offers on the physical and psychological limits of the human body as they look towards potential manned expeditions to Mars.

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