Scientists, by definition, investigate the unknown. And where there's the unknown, there's danger. (There's also a lot of immense tedium and fiddling around with trivial details.) Sometimes, an apparently run-of-the-mill scientific expedition can turn deadly, without any warning.
Here are 10 stories of real-life scientific endeavors that became action adventures.
This is cheating just a little bit, because Voskhod 2 was an early space expedition — which means in many ways it already was an action adventure. It was the first mission to space that included a spacewalk, and thus showed that it was possible to survive in space in nothing more than really well-designed fabric. Alexei Leonov walked in space for twelve minutes before the craft returned to the ground. And yes, the craft did return to the ground — just not to the part of the ground where it was actually supposed to go. A few miscalculations brought Voskhod 2 down in the Ural Mountains in Siberia, in the midst of mating season for the local wolves and bears. The area was too heavily forested for helicopters, and too thickly snowed in for fast rescue teams. The spacecraft was blown open, so it offered only limited shelter and protection. The crew spent the night in the woods, surrounded by wolves and battling hypothermia until rescue crews — battling their own way through the woods — reached them the next day.
Who would have thought that putting a bunch of extraordinarily committed people into a sealed environment for years at a time could end badly? The biosphere experiments of the early nineties were meant to test a number of different things. One of its goals was to test on Earth whether people could be successful in space colonies.
The answer? Not with either that technology, or those people. A group of people were sealed inside the dome for two years — and although they made it, they faced oxygen shortages, food shortages, and fights that escalated so much that the entire community split into two groups which refused to have anything to do with each other. Considering they were both in a structure the size of a large shopping mall, that wasn't easy. Most vertebrate species died out and insects, both those that had been intentionally introduced and those that had crept in, multiplied until they took over the structure.
Although the whole incident couldn't be called a failure, it was a sobering look at the difficulties that artificial habitats present. When the management brought in a new group of people in for a ten month sequel, the situation got crazier, faster — with federal marshals being sent in by the owners to drag away the on-site management, and the on-site crew trashing the place and staging a break-out. No fetishistic pig heads on sticks, though. Just a resolution that, if we settle Mars, it has to be with the most chill people available.
In 1860 Robert O'Hara Burke was chosen by a club of scientists to wander into the interior of Australia and catalog the flora and fauna of the area. Burke was a dedicated scientist, and by all accounts a great guy. He had absolutely no experience with the Australian wilderness — which might be why he included an entire bathtub among his necessaries as he trod off into the desert.
Burke's time in the bush saw him slowly and haphazardly disposing of both his equipment (which he discarded in bits and pieces at random) and his good humor (which he got rid of entirely.) With his amicability gone, he fired people whenever they had major disputes, even though these were people he would need later. Eventually, he left most of the expedition at a camp, and went on with just seven men. The people at camp were pretty fed up with him by this time, so when he didn't return on time, they tramped off. His party came back only hours after the camp had been abandoned. In the end, only one person from that smaller expedition was ever seen alive again. For a story of nature's massive power and indifference unhinging a deeply repressed man, the tale of Burke can't be beaten.
It's an old story. Scientists go into the Arctic. Scientist's ship gets trapped in the ice. Scientists and crew desperately try to get the ship clear of the ice — while also fending off local polar bears, which have surrounded the ship.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Open Water is a survival movie about a couple on a scuba-diving expedition who get left behind by their boat. Its sequel is about a group of teens who jump off a boat in the ocean without taking the ladder down, and so can't climb back up the slippery hull. The rest of both movies is just about the brutal, practical business of trying to stay alive.
How did this happen in a fully stocked and staffed scientific expedition? The Karluk took an interdisciplinary team of scientists to the Arctic island of Herschel, planning to make studies of the local wildlife and geography. First they went off course, then they had to avoid ice, and finally they reached Alaska. Low on food, many of the people went on shore to hunt caribou. When they came back, they found the barely-crewed ship had come loose from its anchored position and just drifted away. The people were marooned, and struggled to survive. The men on the ship, meanwhile, couldn't maintain the old vessel and it sank, leaving them in lifeboats. At last they were picked up by another ship, which rescued the last of the survivors on land.
Basic is another obscure action movie, in which the action of a military operation is interspersed with its participants being questioned, later, by someone trying to figure out what happened. The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition lead to a similar series of questions, both from the officials and from the public.
Adophus Greeley was a war hero, who volunteered to command a surveying mission near the Arctic in Lady Franklin Bay. Things went wrong. Relief supplies were too long in coming. Now we know that some people were eaten, some people died, and some people were killed — but we don't know exactly which or why. Some reports have the dead men dying by accident, or being executed for stealing food (a common and legal practice in life-or-death expeditions where sneaking food could result in the entire group being short of supplies). Others say that the men were killed and eaten as food, and the official story was set out to cover up the murder. All that's really known is that only a few people came back alive, and none of them liked each other.
Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were two paleontologists, during a glorious age for paleontology. Rich fields full of fossils were being discovered everywhere. The science was in its infancy. There was enough information and glory for everyone. Both men were aware of this. Neither one cared. They'd had a minor dispute over scientific opinions once — and soon all they wanted was to pound their opponent into the dust. They dynamited each other's sites. They dynamited their own sites too, so that their rival couldn't discover anything they might have missed. They sabotaged expeditions, stole bones, recruited spies, and attacked each other every way they could. Eventually, they were both ruined. It had to have been entertaining, though.
It was 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt was feeling blue. He'd just lost a presidential election, and felt that people were laughing at him. So he did what always made him feel better; wandered off into the wilderness to kill animals. While doing that, he would explore and chart a river near the Amazon, that had just been discovered by Western explorers, and wasn't the least bit known. For two months, the ex-President, his son, and the rest of the party sailed the river, which was mostly rapids and progressively destroyed their supplies. They all got sick, and at one point TR actually contemplated killing himself because he believed he was slowing the rest of the expedition down. The entire course remains, somewhat, an alternate history — because when he got back, no one believed it could have been done. People outright said that Roosevelt was lying.
Two horticulturists went into the Panamanian rainforest, looking for orchids. They encountered a band of guerrillas. Things went downhill from there. They battled flesh-eating parasites, had to figure out how exactly they were going to convince the group that they weren't CIA spies, and had to go through a whole process of being held for ransom. They also found themselves entertaining their captors, by singing Monty Python's "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." That must have been a fun moment.
Or possibly some sweeping epic war story, only without the war. Jean Godin married young Isabel, trained her to be his scientific assistant, and then set off across South America in order to catalog the animals, plants, and geography of the region. He was French. Much of the Amazon was occupied by the Spanish. They let him get to one side of the continent, but did not let them go back. After twenty years of waiting, of many attempts by both of the couple to navigate — legally or illegally — the space and bureaucracy, Isabel finally said screw it, and set off to find him. Her ship got wrecked, her crew all died, and she just kept going. There's nothing like a spice of romance to make an action adventure complete. I mean, how many times does Indiana Jones not have a love interest? This story has everything. Action, adventure, danger, science, romance, and an epic quality. It's certainly not worth being separated from the one you love for twenty years, but it's a nice little token.