Guest article by Nick Nielsen and Jacob Shively of Icarus Interstellar.

Science is an intellectual adventure. Sometimes it is also a physical adventure.

The recent flyby of Pluto and its moon Charon by NASA’s New Horizons mission, for example, has reconnoitered new reaches of space for science, and it has expanded our knowledge of the outer solar system. The mission will continue through the Kuiper Belt, investigating a realm far from immediate human experience.

Yet when some adventurous soul does travel as far as Pluto, perhaps to set a record, or merely for bragging rights, it will be a day far more memorable -- and perhaps more scientifically valuable -- than New Horizon’s feat.

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Sometimes adventures not intended as anything more than personal excitement or narrow competition have resulted in surprising discoveries. In earlier eras, adventure was often necessary to advance science. Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole in 1909 and Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911 exemplify the spirit of adventure science, but they had many predecessors.

Early modern mariners literally sailed off the map, and their stories are now an essential piece of human culture and history. Later, the French Geodesic Mission to the equator of 1735-1739 was recounted in the 1748 book Relación histórica del viaje a la América meridional by Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, which is as much about the adventure as about the science of the expedition.

The accounts of the French Geodesic Mission partly inspired Alexander von Humboldt’s 1799-1804 travels in South America. Humboldt himself became one of the most famous Europeans on the 19th century and inspired the academic field of biogeography. Darwin’s years on board the Beagle opened his eyes to the diversity of life, and continued to serve as an inspiration for decades after his return. We’re told his later theories even had some impact on the scientific community.

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Now the Earth has been largely explored, and adventures in exploration become increasingly more contrived as the world is known in increasingly fine detail. The adventure science of Humboldt, Darwin, Peary, and Amundsen no longer holds its esteemed position either in popular imagination or in serious science.

Wealthy, idiosyncratic elites like James Cameron still spark occasional headlines, yet the era is gone in which adventurers could make a disproportionate contribution to science by going where no human being had previously set foot, or where no trained scientific observer had recorded their experiences. Researchers willing to sleep in the rough and forego the comforts of home still make discoveries in Earth’s jungles, deserts, deeps and tundras, yet their work remains bound to restrictive grants and professionalized disciplines.

Not only has the world been explored, but the conditions of science have changed. “Big” science now makes headlines. Scientific research papers in fields like particle physics and genetics might boast lists of up to three thousand co-authors or more. The scientific instruments necessary to conduct cutting edge experiments in particle physics, for instance, cost billions of dollars and take years or decades for construction. Once constructed, they must be maintained and updated at further expense.

The first high-resolution image of Pluto's surface, as seen by NASA's New Horizons mission at close approach on July 14, features 11,000 ft high ice mountains. This mountain range has been informally named "Norgay Montes" after Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who, in 1953, reached the summit of Mount Everest with New Zealand mountineer Sir Edmund Hillary.NASA

Thomas Edison was among the first to demonstrate the power of this kind of systematic research, yet such expenses can only be borne by large, well-financed organizations. This kind of institutionalization comes with a battery of social as well as scientific constraints. In this context, the individual (to say nothing of the adventurer) experiences little scope for innovation or eureka moments.

The great age of adventure science has given way to an age of big science, but there may yet be a role for adventure science in the future. Adventure science is a considerable departure from “big science,” and the renewal of adventure science in our future will mean renewed opportunities for individuals to contribute to science in a way that individuals cannot contribute today.

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Once the costs of human spaceflight are reduced to a point that spaceflight can become routine, the greater part of humanity will continue to prefer the comforts of Earth, but some individuals, drawn by a need to explore, will strike out into the cosmos. What they learn may accrue to us all. A single geologist walking the surface of Mars with a shovel and a rock hammer could make discoveries of great significance.

The space age of adventure science will not remake civilization. We will not, for example, go into space in order to transmit energy down to Earth. By the time we have a robust and routine presence in space we will already have solved our energy problems on Earth. The terrestrial power grid is already in the midst of being reconfigured for sustainability, and increasingly sophisticated technology will allow us to continue to live well while no longer fouling our own nest (one of the authors of the present article has argued this position in The Conversion of the Terrestrial Power Grid and The Human Future in Space).

And we will not go into space in order to relieve the population pressure on Earth. Buckminster Fuller once observed that, “The entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” We are not yet at the point of a global Hong Kong, yet urbanization continues along with improved efficiencies that allow greater densities to live in comfort. And increasing these population destinies will not continue indefinitely. If demographics is destiny, our destiny today is likely that of peak population at some time in the coming century, followed by demographic contraction.

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However, when we do become a thoroughly spacefaring civilization, it will be for the opportunities that the cosmos presents to us, and not least among these opportunities will be adventure science. Cold, distant, and dark places like Pluto, no less than sunlit worlds like Mars, will be an irresistible call like a Siren song for those who crave adventure. Adventure will become exploration, and exploration will be translated into knowledge.

Big science, too, will eventually follow adventure science into the cosmos, but only after adventure science has blazed a trail.