Voyager completes global flight


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Year
1986
Month Day
December 23

After nine days and four minutes in the sky, the experimental aircraft Voyager lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California, completing the first nonstop flight around the globe on one load of fuel. Piloted by Americans Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, Voyager was made mostly of plastic and stiffened paper and carried more than three times its weight in fuel when it took off from Edwards Air Force Base on December 14. By the time it returned, after flying 25,012 miles around the planet, it had just five gallons of fuel left in its remaining operational fuel tank.

Voyager was built by Burt Rutan of the Rutan Aircraft Company without government support and with minimal corporate sponsorship. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother and a decorated Vietnam War pilot, joined the project early on, as did Dick’s friend Jeanna Yeager (no relation to aviator Chuck Yeager). Voyager‘s extremely light yet strong body was made of layers of carbon-fiber tape and paper impregnated with epoxy resin. Its wingspan was 111 feet, and it had its horizontal stabilizer wing on the plane’s nose rather than its rear–a trademark of many of Rutan’s aircraft designs. Essentially a flying fuel tank, every possible area was used for fuel storage and much modern aircraft technology was foregone in the effort to reduce weight.

When Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force at 8:02 a.m. PST on December 14, its wings were so heavy with fuel that their tips scraped along the ground and caused minor damage. The plane made it into the air, however, and headed west. On the second day, Voyager ran into severe turbulence caused by two tropical storms in the Pacific. Dick Rutan had been concerned about flying the aircraft at more than a 15-degree angle, but he soon found the plane could fly on its side at 90 degrees, which occurred when the wind tossed it back and forth.

Rutan and Yeager shared the controls, but Rutan, a more experienced pilot, did most of the flying owing to the long periods of turbulence encountered at various points in the journey. With weak stomachs, they ate only a fraction of the food brought along, and each lost about 10 pounds.

On December 23, when Voyager was flying north along the Baja California coast and just 450 miles short of its goal, the engine it was using went out, and the aircraft plunged from 8,500 to 5,000 feet before an alternate engine was started up.

Almost nine days to the minute after it lifted off, Voyager appeared over Edwards Air Force Base and circled as Yeager turned a primitive crank that lowered the landing gear. Then, to the cheers of 23,000 spectators, the plane landed safely with a few gallons of fuel to spare, completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the earth by an aircraft that was not refueled in the air.

Voyager is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids

Year
1493
Month Day
January 09

On January 9, 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus, sailing near the Dominican Republic, sees three “mermaids”—in reality manatees—and describes them as “not half as beautiful as they are painted.” Six months earlier, Columbus (1451-1506) set off from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean with the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, hoping to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, his voyage, the first of four he would make, led him to the Americas, or “New World.”

Mermaids, mythical half-female, half-fish creatures, have existed in seafaring cultures at least since the time of the ancient Greeks. Typically depicted as having a woman’s head and torso, a fishtail instead of legs and holding a mirror and comb, mermaids live in the ocean and, according to some legends, can take on a human shape and marry mortal men. Mermaids are closely linked to sirens, another folkloric figure, part-woman, part-bird, who live on islands and sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.

Mermaid sightings by sailors, when they weren’t made up, were most likely manatees, dugongs or Steller’s sea cows (which became extinct by the 1760s due to over-hunting). Manatees are slow-moving aquatic mammals with human-like eyes, bulbous faces and paddle-like tails. It is likely that manatees evolved from an ancestor they share with the elephant. The three species of manatee (West Indian, West African and Amazonian) and one species of dugong belong to the Sirenia order. As adults, they’re typically 10 to 12 feet long and weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds. They’re plant-eaters, have a slow metabolism and can only survive in warm water.

Manatees live an average of 50 to 60 years in the wild and have no natural predators. However, they are an endangered species. In the U.S., the majority of manatees are found in Florida, where scores of them die or are injured each year due to collisions with boat.

READ MORE: The Ships of Christopher Columbus Were Sleek, Fast—and Cramped

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Mayflower lands at Plymouth Harbor


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Year
1620
Month Day
December 18

On December 18, 1620, the British ship Mayflower lands at modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts, and its passengers prepared to begin their new settlement, Plymouth Colony.

The famous Mayflower story began in 1606, when a group of reform-minded Puritans in Nottinghamshire, England, founded their own church, separate from the state-sanctioned Church of England. Accused of treason, they were forced to leave the country and settle in the more tolerant Netherlands. After 12 years of struggling to adapt and make a decent living, the group sought financial backing from some London merchants to set up a colony in America. On September 6, 1620, 102 passengers–dubbed Pilgrims by William Bradford, a passenger who would become the first governor of Plymouth Colony–crowded on the Mayflower to begin the long, hard journey to a new life in the New World.

On November 11, 1620, the Mayflower anchored at what is now Provincetown Harbor, Cape Cod. Before going ashore, 41 male passengers–heads of families, single men and three male servants–signed the famous Mayflower Compact, agreeing to submit to a government chosen by common consent and to obey all laws made for the good of the colony. Over the next month, several small scouting groups were sent ashore to collect firewood and scout out a good place to build a settlement. Around December 10, one of these groups found a harbor they liked on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. They returned to the Mayflower to tell the other passengers, but bad weather prevented them from landing until December 18. 

READ MORE: How the Mayflower Compact Laid a Foundation for American Democracy

After exploring the region, the settlers chose a cleared area previously occupied by members of a local Native American tribe, the Wampanoag. The tribe had abandoned the village several years earlier, after an outbreak of European disease. That winter of 1620-1621 was brutal, as the Pilgrims struggled to build their settlement, find food and ward off sickness. By spring, 50 of the original 102 Mayflower passengers were dead. The remaining settlers made contact with returning members of the Wampanoag tribe and in March they signed a peace treaty with a tribal chief, Massasoit. Aided by the Wampanoag, especially the English-speaking Squanto, the Pilgrims were able to plant crops–especially corn and beans–that were vital to their survival. The Mayflower and its crew left Plymouth to return to England on April 5, 1621.

Over the next several decades, more and more settlers made the trek across the Atlantic to Plymouth, which gradually grew into a prosperous shipbuilding and fishing center. In 1691, Plymouth was incorporated into the new Massachusetts Bay Association, ending its history as an independent colony.

READ MORE: What’s the Difference Between Puritans and Pilgrims

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Explorer Francis Drake sets sail from England


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Year
1577
Month Day
December 13

English seaman Francis Drake sets out from Plymouth, England, with five ships and 164 men on a mission to raid Spanish holdings on the Pacific coast of the New World and explore the Pacific Ocean. Three years later, Drake’s return to Plymouth marked the first circumnavigation of the earth by a British explorer.

After crossing the Atlantic, Drake abandoned two of his ships in South America and then sailed into the Straits of Magellan with the remaining three. A series of devastating storms besieged his expedition in the treacherous straits, wrecking one ship and forcing another to return to England. Only The Golden Hind reached the Pacific Ocean, but Drake continued undaunted up the western coast of South America, raiding Spanish settlements and capturing a rich Spanish treasure ship.

Drake then continued up the western coast of North America, searching for a possible northeast passage back to the Atlantic. Reaching as far north as present-day Washington before turning back, Drake paused near San Francisco Bay in June 1579 to repair his ship and prepare for a journey across the Pacific. Calling the land “Nova Albion,” Drake claimed the territory for Queen Elizabeth I.

In July, the expedition set off across the Pacific, visiting several islands before rounding Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and returning to the Atlantic Ocean. On September 26, 1580, The Golden Hind returned to Plymouth, England, bearing treasure, spice, and valuable information about the world’s great oceans. Drake was the first captain to sail his own ship all the way around the world–the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan had sailed three-fourths of the way around the globe earlier in the century but had been killed in the Philippines, leaving the Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano to complete the journey.

In 1581, Queen Elizabeth I knighted Drake, the son of a tenant farmer, during a visit to his ship. The most renowned of the Elizabethan seamen, Sir Francis Drake later played a crucial role in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Francis Drake

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First European explorer reaches Brazil


Year
1500
Month Day
January 26

Spanish explorer Vicente Yanez Pinzon, who had commanded the Nina during Christopher Columbus’ first expedition to the New World, reaches the northeastern coast of Brazil during a voyage under his command. Pinzon’s journey produced the first recorded account of a European explorer sighting the Brazilian coast; though whether or not Brazil was previously known to Portuguese navigators is still in dispute.

Pinzon subsequently sailed down the Brazilian coast to the equator, where he briefly explored the mouth of the Amazon River. In the same year, Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal, arguing that the territory fell into the Portuguese sphere of exploration as defined by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. However, little was done to support the claim until the 1530s, when the first permanent European settlements in Brazil were established at Sao Vicente in Sao Paulo by Portuguese colonists.

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Charles Wilkes claims portion of Antarctica for U.S.


Year
1840
Month Day
January 19

During an exploring expedition, Captain Charles Wilkes sights the coast of eastern Antarctica and claims it for the United States. Wilkes’ group had set out in 1838, sailing around South America to the South Pacific and then to Antarctica, where they explored a 1,500-mile stretch of the eastern Antarctic coast that later became known as Wilkes Land. In 1842, the expedition returned to New York, having circumnavigated the globe.

Antarctica was discovered by European and American explorers in the early part of the 19th century, and in February 1821 the first landing on the Antarctic continent was made by American John Davis at Hughes Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula. During the next century, many nations, including the United States, made territorial claims to portions of the almost-inhabitable continent. However, during the 1930s, conflicting claims led to international rivalry, and the United States, which led the world in the establishment of scientific bases, enacted an official policy of making no territorial claims while recognizing no other nation’s claims. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty made Antarctica an international zone, set guidelines for scientific cooperation, and prohibited military operations, nuclear explosions, and the disposal of radioactive waste on the continent.

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Robert Falcon Scott reaches the South Pole


Year
1912
Month Day
January 18

After a two-month ordeal, the expedition of British explorer Robert Falcon Scott arrives at the South Pole only to find that Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, had preceded them by just over a month. Disappointed, the exhausted explorers prepared for a long and difficult journey back to their base camp.

Scott, a British naval officer, began his first Antarctic expedition in 1901 aboard the Discovery. During three years of exploration, he discovered the Edward VII Peninsula, surveyed the coast of Victoria Land–which were both areas of Antarctica on the Ross Sea–and led limited expeditions into the continent itself. In 1911, Scott and Amundsen began an undeclared race to the South Pole.

Sailing his ship into Antarctica’s Bay of Whales, Amundsen set up base camp 60 miles closer to the pole than Scott. In October, both explorers set off; Amundsen using sleigh dogs and Scott employing Siberian motor sledges, Siberian ponies, and dogs. On December 14, 1911, Amundsen’s expedition won the race to the pole. Encountering good weather on their return trip, they safely reached their base camp in late January.

Scott’s expedition was less fortunate. The motor sleds soon broke down, the ponies had to be shot, and the dog teams were sent back as Scott and four companions continued on foot. On January 18, they reached the pole only to find that Amundsen had preceded them by over a month. Weather on the return journey was exceptionally bad, two members perished, and Scott and the other two survivors were trapped in their tent by a storm only 11 miles from their base camp. Scott wrote a final entry in his diary in late March. The frozen bodies of he and his two compatriots were recovered eight months later.

READ MORE: The Treacherous Race to the South Pole

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Reconquest of Spain


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Year
1492
Month Day
January 02

The kingdom of Granada falls to the Christian forces of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I, and the Moors lose their last foothold in Spain.

Located at the confluence of the Darro and Genil rivers in southern Spain, the city of Granada was a Moorish fortress that rose to prominence during the reign of Sultan Almoravid in the 11th century. In 1238, the Christian Reconquest forced Spanish Muslims south, and the kingdom of Granada was established as the last refuge of the Moorish civilization.

Granada flourished culturally and economically for the next 200 years, but in the late 15th century internal feuds and a strengthened Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella signaled the end of Moorish civilization in Spain. On January 2, 1492, King Boabdil surrendered Granada to the Spanish forces, and in 1502 the Spanish crown ordered all Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity. The next century saw a number of persecutions, and in 1609 the last Moors still adhering to Islam were expelled from Spain.

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Robert Peary almost reaches the North Pole

Year
1909
Month Day
April 06

On April 6, 1909, American explorer Robert Peary accomplishes a long elusive dream, when he, assistant Matthew Henson and four Eskimos reach what they determine to be the North Pole. Decades after Peary’s death, however, navigational errors in his travel log surfaced, placing the expedition in all probability a few miles short of its goal.

Peary, a U.S. Navy civil engineer, made his first trip to the interior of Greenland in 1886. In 1891, Henson, a young African American sailor, joined him on his second arctic expedition. Their team made an extended dogsled journey to the northeast of Greenland and explored what became known as “Peary Land.” In 1893, the explorers began working toward the North Pole, and in 1906, during their second attempt, they nearly reached latitude 88 degrees north–only 150 miles from their objective.

In 1908, the pair traveled to Ellesmere Island by ship and in 1909 raced across hundreds of miles of ice to reach what they calculated as latitude 90 degrees north on April 6, 1909. Although their achievement was widely acclaimed, Dr. Frederick A. Cook challenged their distinction of being the first to reach the North Pole. A former associate of Peary, Cook claimed he had already reached the pole by dogsled the previous year. A major controversy followed, and in 1911 the U.S. Congress formally recognized Peary’s claim.

In recent years, further studies of the conflicting claims suggest that neither expedition reached the exact North Pole, but that Peary and Henson came far closer, falling perhaps 30 miles short. On May 3, 1952, U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph O. Fletcher of Oklahoma stepped out of a plane and walked to the precise location of the North Pole, the first person to undisputedly do so.

READ MORE: Exploration: Conquistadors and Explorers

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Ponce de León claims Florida for Spain

Year
1513
Month Day
April 02

Near present-day St. Augustine, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León comes ashore on the Florida coast, and claims the territory for the Spanish crown.

Although other European navigators may have sighted the Florida peninsula before, Ponce de León is credited with the first recorded landing and the first detailed exploration of the Florida coast. The Spanish explorer was searching for the “Fountain of Youth,” a fabled water source that was said to bring eternal youth. Ponce de León named the peninsula he believed to be an island “La Florida” because his discovery came during the time of the Easter feast, or Pascua Florida.

READ MORE: The Myth of Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth 

In 1521, he returned to Florida in an effort to establish a Spanish colony on the island. However, hostile Native Americans attacked his expedition soon after landing, and the party retreated to Cuba, where Ponce de León died from a mortal wound suffered during the battle. Successful Spanish colonization of the peninsula finally began at St. Augustine in 1565, and in 1819 the territory passed into U.S. control under the terms of the Florida Purchase Treaty between Spain and the United States.

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