So I recently became interested in the greatest explorations of all time because I was wondering if one could glean what particular elements were present during each one that made them especially great. So I set about making a list - and I've got some discussion about this which I'll post later.
My criteria was mainly one thing - How did the exploration in question affect the everyday lives of people of the world?
Since I'm not a historian I may have missed on a few of these, I also owe much to friends and coworkers who helped provide suggestions and arguments. Here is the list:
Tier 1 – Greatest Explorations
Cultural and historical impact is huge and worldwide.
The historical and cultural impact of this voyage is indisputable
Hubble Space Telescope
This borders on a different category, but did travel to orbit. Our first real step into understanding our universe.
My personal #1, the pictures returned from these spacecraft continue to inspire and set the stage for exploration of the solar system. Pioneer should be lumped in here as well I think.
Alexander the Great
Reshaped Europe and Asia, both through conquest and scientific/cultural exchange.
The most influential expedition in our understanding of where we came from. Although this also borders on a strictly scientific discovery (which is a different kind of exploration), but he did go somewhere relatively unexplored.
Whether or not he really existed and did what he claimed, the account of his travels is part of the foundation of western culture and represents the quintessential exploration.
Tier 2 – Great Explorations
Credited with bridging east and west. Perhaps most famous because of the book written about his travels by an author after he returned.
The Arab Marco Polo. Lived in the 14th century and travelled from Morocco all the way to China and back again. Also wrote extensively about his life.
Possibly the most important scientific mission of the Apollo era. Also brought in the “grandeur”.
First visit to Mars which had captivated imaginations for decades. Probably ranked here because I’m biased.
Discovered the source of the Nile – a major discovery for the era. Also represents the Victorian exploration of Africa which had a huge impact on the culture at the time.
First circumnavigation of the globe, although a Pyrrhic victory. Discovered the Magellan strait, and also discovered the international date line because their ship log suggested it was a day later than it really was after they returned.
Lewis and Clark
Probably put this here because we live in the US. Anyhow, a seminal exploration of the American west – also represents many others that came afterwards.
Napoleon in Egypt
He brought along scientists and photographers and rediscovered ancient Egypt in Europe. This ignited a cultural phenomenon.
Tier 3 – Human Achievement
(However usually didn’t result in substantial cultural change or scientific discovery)
First to reach south pole. Widely heralded and an incredible testament to pure exploration. Also Amundsen discovered the NW passage – a big feat for its time.
First to orbit the Earth – if I lived in Russia this would replace Apollo 11. Not sure how to weight these, but I don’t think both deserve to be in the top tier. I think the returned samples from Apollo 11 and science from them put it at the top.
A seminal figure in global exploration
Incredible achievement even though Everest isn’t really the highest mountain…
Incredible statement on the power of human endurance and innovation.
Sir Francis Drake
Pirate, Explorer, Hero. Was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Globe.
Xenophon & the 10 thousand
This is from a famous account of a greek mercenary contingent stranded deep within the Persian empire and having to fight its way back home. Also primarily famous because of the written account.
Famous book, and an incredible journey that represents the real explorers who first crossed the pacific.
Incredible story – probably more famous because of the photos and accounts that survive.
Another classic accomplishment – 33 hours straight!
First western settlement of the North American continent – historical significance was perhaps foiled by global cooling?
Chinese Exploration – Admiral Zheng He
According to Wendell, if these expeditions hadn’t stopped, there may have been a Chinese armada at England in the 15th Century.
Tier 4 – Honorable Mentions
Ballard - Titanic
Galileo to Jupiter
Magellan to Venus
Cassini to Saturn
Cortes – Mexico/Central America
Peary – First to the North Pole
Post – First to fly around the world
Challenger Expeditions – First dedicated naval expeditions to explore the oceans
John Wesley Powell
Prince Henry the Navigator