Few people realize that a mere 101 days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their fateful steps, mankind officially reached the North Pole.

Today, the world looks back on that fateful date fifty years ago when man landed on the moon.

Yet few people realize that a mere 101 days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their fateful steps across a “fine and powdery” surface, mankind officially reached the North Pole.

That’s right: it wasn’t until April 6, 1969 – in the springtime of hasty planning at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston – that a human officially walked to the top of the planet. That first person was Sir Wally Herbert, a British polar explorer who reached the pole on foot with the help of fellow explorers, dogs, and air drops. Herbert chose to cross the frozen Arctic across its longest axis that crosses the North Pole, from Utqiagvik (Barrow) to Svalbard. In his 2007 obituary, The Telegraph called his expedition “a 15-month journey of 3,720 miles that has never been repeated.”

Sir Wally Herbert and expedition partners at the North Pole on April 6, 1969.

Traveling 234,000 miles to the moon, in contrast, took just three days.

Sir Herbert reached the North Pole precisely sixty years after U.S. Navy engineer Robert Peary and his steadfast expedition partner, Matthew Henson, claimed to have achieved 90 degrees north. Peary’s tale of success on April 6, 1909 made newspaper headlines around the world. New York’s satirical publication, Puck, printed a cover featuring the North Pole waving goodbye to the remaining members of the “Undiscovered Club,” which includes the South Pole, the Great American Novel, and universal peace. (Note that in that day, voyaging to the moon was unfathomable enough that it didn’t even merit inclusion among the “undiscovered.”)

Yet nobody has ever since been able to verify the two Americans’ claims, nor whether, if true, it was Peary or Henson, an African American born to sharecroppers, who first stood atop the planet.

That means that 1969 is the year in which two exploration milestones were definitively reached: conquering the North Pole and, three months later, landing on the moon.

Now, as various countries are preparing to send people back to the moon, two sites under consideration for housing a presence that lasts longer than one small step are the lunar poles. If the midnight sun seems like an odd phenomenon during summer across Earth’s northern reaches, imagine a midnight sun that never ceases at the moon’s north and south poles. Due to the fact that the moon is tilted nearly perpendicularly to the sun’s ecliptic, the sun is almost always sitting right on the horizon at these two places year-round.

This unyielding luminescence is responsible for what nineteenth-century French astronomer Camille Flammarion romantically identified as “pics de lumière éternelle,” or “peaks of eternal light.” More than just being French flights of fancy, however, these regions have practical potential, too. Setting up shop next to locations awash in permanent sunshine would provide constant power for solar panels and boast relatively mild temperatures (though, at -60 F, freezing even by Arctic standards), making them preferable to other parts of the moon. In contrast to Earth, the moon’s longitudinal extremes may ironically be its most “temperate” locations.

If humans set up a base on the North Pole, they might decide to call Peary Crater home. As seen in the map below, two other nearby craters named after famous polar explorers include Nansen, after Norway’s legendary Fridtjof Nansen, and Richard Byrd, an American rear officer who claims (not, again, without controversy) to have been the first to reach the North Pole, this time by air.

A map of the moon’s north pole. Source: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC)

Meanwhile, the south pole is perhaps home to the “sunniest spot on the moon“: a small hill on a ridge overlooking a crater named after – surprise, surprise – Ernest Shackleton. Also nearby are two uncomfortable crater bedfellows: Amundsen and Scott.

Gazing at maps of the moon shows how its toponymy reifies claims from the annals of Western exploration even if they are murky. The history of European, North American, and Russian efforts to penetrate new frontiers is literally written across its surface.

Yet as Asian countries like China, Japan, and soon India (should the recently scrubbed launch of Chandrayaan-2 to the moon’s south pole succeed) make their mark on the light and dark sides of the moon, those maps and place names may change. In fact, they already have: in 2008, Japan released incredibly feature-rich maps of the moon that included the locations of deposits of various types of minerals. The following year, in 2009, China’s Chang’e 2 probe took photographs that went into the most detailed map of the moon’s surface ever made. Now, this year, a successor to that probe, Chang’e 4, sent back photos from a place Pink Floyd only dreamed of: the dark side of the moon – specifically, a giant impact crater called South Pole-Aitken basin.

Japanese maps of the moon.
A stunning photo of Laplace A crater on the moon taken by China’s Chang-e 2 probe in 2010.

The history of exploration of the Earth’s frontiers and beyond to outer space is constantly being rewritten as newcomers make advances, lofty claims are debunked, and old archives (and old wounds) are reopened. Not too long ago, I came across a story that Buzz Aldrin gets frustrated at being called the “second man on the moon” when all three astronauts who were on board Apollo 11 went through the same training – part of which included a stint on Iceland, whose geology bears some of the closest resemblance of any rock formations on Earth to the moon. (Refer back to the featured image at the top of this post to see an iconic photo of American astronauts-in-training in a delightful mix of cowboy boots and Icelandic sweaters, or lopapeysa.

Not content to rest on his lunar laurels, in 2016, Aldrin became the oldest person to reach the Earth’s South Pole (although he fell ill and required evacuating).

Old habits die hard.

Categories: History


In 1969, humans reached the moon – and the North Pole, too

  1. This was really interesting to read in many, many, ways and the part on the official ‘first’ at the North Pole fascinating. There is very little general acknowledgement of Herbert’s achievements. Interesting about lunar exploration as well.

  2. This is fascinating. And to to think, it took 15 months to get to the North Pole, but only 3 months to get to the moon? Consider my mind blown. 🙂

  3. Fantastic article and Wally Herbert’s achievement was extraordinary by anyone’s measure but I’m surprised Wally was “officially” the first with both the Norge and Italia airships (1926 and 1928 respectively) and Ralph Plaisted et al on their snowmobiles in April 1968. What made the journey “officially” the first?

  4. “Ralph Plaisted and his three companions, Walt Pederson, Gerry Pitzl and Jean-Luc Bombardier, are regarded by most polar authorities to be the first to succeed in a surface traverse across the ice to the North Pole on 19 April 1968, making the first confirmed surface conquest of the Pole.” This is the Wikipedia entry for Ralph Plaisted. Several people had been there by air by then, but The Plaisted Polar Expedition was first to go from land to the Pole, where an aircraft picked them up. Herbert’s group went across the Arctic Ocean, from land to the Pole and then to a small island on the other side. The Royal Canadian Air Force dropped supplies that enabled them to winter on the ice of the Arctic Ocean enroute to the Pole.

    1. I suppose “first” is always a relative matter. I believe Wally Herbert was the first to make it to the North Pole by muscle power (of humans and dogs) alone, whereas Plaisted and his team traveled largely by snowmobile.

  5. I am curious as to where you found out that Wally Herbert was first to the Pole. Most history books still tout Perry as the first even though most experts have decided that Perry was deluded or a liar. Jerry Pitzl’s book based on his own diary from the Plaisted Expedition is about to be published. He takes Perry to task in the second half of his book.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. I have clarified that I meant to write that Wally Herbert was the first person officially known *to walk* to the Pole (not just be at the Pole).

      I look forward to Jerry Pitzl’s book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.


    2. Hi Tim. I’d love to connect with you if you’re game. I’m based in Minnesota and have a keen interest in the Plaisted expedition(s) and even own a pair of boots from it. If you’re willing, can you send me an email at jason@swimpruf.com? I’d be interested to know if you have any recollections or stories from your father’s experience.

      Thanks! Jason

  6. I must protest and try to set the record straight.
    Achieving the trek by muscle power alone although with dogs to assist seems a fine distinction. The Plaisted expedition did not have a leisurely ride. They worked hard every day to cross 30 ft. pressure ridges and open leads as wide as 1 mile. As every Arctic explorer has noted it is remarkable to be able to travel a mile without encountering ice that must be beaten down or gone around or over. So Wally went old school to move his supplies and Ralph used some of the (then) newest technology to move his supplies. Both men had air support also. Wally radioed to his support staff when he achieved the North Pole (almost a year after Ralph). Whereas the Plaisted Expedition’s achievement was verified by a fly over of the U.S. Air Force on a weather mission.

    Wally’s most remarkable achievement was a complete crossing of the Arctic ocean the long way, Alaska to Norway – on foot. That was a first and never again repeated.

    Check this out: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/magazine/an-insurance-salesman-and-a-doctor-walk-into-a-bar-and-end-up-at-the-north-pole.html

    The biggest differences I see are that Wally was an well experienced traveler in the vicinity of both poles and so had government and institutional support. While Ralph was an avid hunter and outdoorsman but had never been much further north than lower Canada. So without explorer credentials, he had to persuade industry and private individuals for his support.

    My father Walt Pederson was one of those men that made the trek with him.

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