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The Silent Landscape


The Scientifics began writing the report of the voyage almost as soon as they returned to their home institutions. Their activities were coordinated from the Challenger office in Edinburgh, and subspecialists, such as the noted foraminiferal expert, H. B. Brady, were commissioned to write some portions. The enterprise lasted until 1895. During this time tragedy and hard work, as the epilogue to THE SILENT LANDSCAPE notes, were once again the lot of the men of Challenger.

The most tangible legacy of the voyage of HMS Challenger though must surely be the great ocean drilling programs of the late twentieth century—the Deep Sea Drilling Project (DSDP) and Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), whose findings I have mentioned throughout this book. There is no clearer indication of the importance of HMS Challenger's voyage than that the first dedicated scientific drilling ship in history, GLOMAR Challenger, was named after her. GLOMAR Challenger was retired in the mid-1980s when the ODP replaced the DSDP and a new ship, the JOIDES Resolution, was commissioned. Now the Resolution, in its turn, is about to hang up its drill string and the ODP is to be replaced by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) with several drilling ships and platforms, some able to drill in oil-rich areas, places where its predecessors could not go.

But what became of HMS Challenger herself? The truth is almost too much to bear. She was commissioned as a Naval Reserve coast guard and drill ship at Harwich in July 1876 before finally being paid off at Chatham in 1878. There she remained in reserve until 1883, after which she was converted into a 'receiving hulk' on the River Medway in Kent. There she stayed, dreaming faded dreams of lost glory, until she was finally broken up for her copper bottom in 1921. Today virtually nothing remains of her except her figurehead which is on display at the Southampton Oceanography Center in Great Britain, not far from where she departed on her epic voyage over 130 years ago.

But Challenger's legacy is not dead, for we should remember that two of humankind's greatest technical achievements were named after her: the lunar module of the Apollo 17 mission - the last (to date) manned voyage to the moon - and the Space Shuttle OV-99 that tragically exploded during launch above Cape Canaveral in July 1986 were both named after that same, small, Victorian sail-and-steam corvette.

As we honour the Apollo astronauts as well as the brave crew who lost their lives aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, perhaps we should also spare a thought for the ship for which those technological marvels were named, and recall that perilous voyages of discovery have always been a part of our indomitable human spirit.


Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk