The Rewilded Farm

Season 2 • Episode 9

After 17 years of trying to prop up their failing farm outside of London, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree were stressed, exhausted, and $1.7 million in debt. They decided to stop farming—no more plowing, planting, irrigating, chemicals. They gave away the farm—to nature.

20 years later, their land has one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the UK. These 3500 acres teem with species, many of which are endangered or hadn’t been seen in the UK for centuries. And the twist: Their land now generates more money than it ever did as a farm.

Similar rewilding experiments are under way in 30 countries. They offer protection for nearby farms, corridors of safety for animals—and buffers against climate disasters for us.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

In West Sussex, about an hour outside of London, there’s a 3500-acre farm called the Knepp Estate. Well, I should say “former farm”; the owners tried everything to stay afloat.

TREE:             [00:06:10] when you’re in that sort of failing business, like we were,  and you were going through those / stressful, you know, sleepless nights, /  You’re not really standing back and thinking, “we could be doing this all wrong!” 

In the end, they surrendered. They turned over the land to nature—and the most incredible thing happened. 

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

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Season 2, Episode 9: The Rewilded Farm. The story begins in a castle in the English countryside. Knepp castle, spelled K-N-E-P-P. I mean, it’s a smallish castle, but it’s unmistakably a castle. It’s got a tower, and the roof line has those rectangular scalloped cutouts all the way around, where your archers can hide while they’re shooting at marauding neighbors.

BURRELL: It was built in 1806, and it was gutted by fire in 1902. I mean, you would have been standing here in 1902 and looking at the stars. And so then it got completely rebuilt. 

This is Charlie Burrell, the current owner. This castle has been in his family for over 220 years. 

 BURRELL: David. David, come in. Come in. It’s empty because we’re about to have a concert. We’ve got a wilding concert. 


We’re in the main gallery, where he’s giving me a tour of the oil portraits of the Burrells going way back.

BURRELL: So, that’s the guy that built …built the castle. And he married an heiress who brought to the family 30,000 a year. /[00:53:25] You know, that’s a lot of income. / it’s sort of Gates income. So he married really well. /

And look! Here’s the portrait of the heiress herself.

BURRELL: So, Sophie, look at her! I mean, she was an heiress and very beautiful. And there she was, marrying this boring academic with no money. Look!

POGUE: Yeah, I mean, he must have been really witty. 

Now, he’d asked us to call him Charlie. But I should point out that Charlie Burrell is technically Sir Charles Burrell. 

POGUE: And so if you’re Sir Charles, what—what nobility are you? 

BURRELL: Yeah, well, Baronet. The title is sir, but it’s called a baronet. / You haven’t been ennobled because of what you’ve done in your lifetime. You’ve just inherited the baronet-cy. 

POGUE: I see. 

BURRELL: I’m the 10th baronet. 

POGUE: Okay. And does that carry with it certain rights and responsibilities? 

BURRELL: Not really, no. / it’s not something that really — I don’t use it. 

For much of his career, in fact, Burrell was a farmer. He and his wife Isabella Tree spent 17 years raising crops and livestock on the castle’s 3500 acre estate. That’s right—the naturalist hero of this story is named Isabella Tree.

POGUE: And to be clear, that’s your actual born name. 

TREE: Actual born name. 

POGUE: Would you mind giving us the story of these 3,500 acres? What was it when you found it?

BURRELL: This was a conventional farm with what’s called mixed farming. So, you’ve got, you’ve got cattle and sheep and arable farming and dairy, and that’s what I inherited. 

POGUE: And how long did you succeed as a farmer? 

BURRELL: I took over when I was very young, so when I was 21. And so I farmed for about 17 years before it just became clear it wasn’t going to work. 

And the reason it wasn’t going to work, in the era of modern, high-volume commercial farmsis that the farm’s soil was mostly heavy clay. 

TREE: For six months of the year, in the wet and this kind of soil, you simply can’t get heavy machinery onto the land. So, you can’t do any of the maintenance, you can’t restore your ditches, you can’t sow spring crops. You’re, you’re at a massive disadvantage when it comes to competing in a global, global market with farms on much better soils.  

POGUE: What are some of the things you tried? 

BURRELL: We sort of modernized the whole thing and made it much more, much more sort of conforming to the then thinking, which was just production, production, production, without thinking really the costs of what that production meant. That whole intensification, the—the spraying, the new technologies, the new crops that were coming on. 

TREE: When you’re in that that sort of failing business, and you were going through those stressful, you know, sleepless nights, you’re thinking in a very blinkered tunnel of, “how can we survive to the next week, the next month, the next year?” 

BURRELL: It was a very difficult time. When you’re, when you’re making big decisions and big changes, you know, a lot of lives are affected. You know, you have a lot of employees that were tied up with the farming business, and so, you know, it was all pretty stressful, wasn’t it? 

TREE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We were £1.5 million in debt by then. So, it was really looking desperate. 

They bought themselves some time by selling off their dairy cows, and all the equipment they’d been using to milk them. But Charlie’s father had some practical advice.

BURRELL: He was saying, “If you’ll want to farm, don’t farm here. Go and get some good land and farm. If you want to keep hold of this land because it’s been in the family for 220 years, then do something else.”  

That something else was an idea from a Dutch guy they met. 

TREE: We met this amazing Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera.  

Vera had become famous for his radical plans for a 22-square-mile Dutch nature reserve called the Oostvaardensplassen. Instead of just conserving the land, leaving it as it was, Vera suggested in 1986 that the government introduce cattle, horse, and deer. He predicted that their trampling and tromping around would soon rewind time, restoring the reserve to a thriving, teeming, more biodidiverse era. 

TREE If you want to recover biodiversity, the keystone species to that are the, the large herbivores, the big animals that go around the landscape, rootling, trampling, driving, transporting seeds, moving their dung around, everything they do, the vegetation they eat, their preferences all has an impact. It creates niches for other life. So you can re reestablish biodiversity by allowing these animals to be the managers of late nature, letting them have the driving seat and sitting back and just allowing them to perform. 

BURRELL: We said, “Well, why don’t we do this at Knepp? Why don’t we look at this grazing ecology idea on our land?”

The core of Vera’s idea is something we now call rewilding, which was a radical new idea in land management. The basic idea is: stop with the land management. Stop farming. Stop plowing, planting, irrigating, spraying chemicals. Sit back and watch what happens. 

So in 2000, Burrell and Tree built a fence around their land, and then—quit farming. Today—well, you would not recognize the place. It looks like the Serengeti.

TREE: What has been absolutely astonishing, is how quickly nature has bounced back. So from being one of the most depleted sort of pieces of land you can imagine, we’ve gone from that to being one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the UK. The only animals we have introduced are the free-roaming animals that drive the system, but everything else has found us. 

So, we are now have some of the most, the rarest species in Britain: turtle doves, nightingales, purple emperor butterflies. We have peregrine falcons nesting in a tree, which is almost unheard of, lesser spotted woodpeckers, yellow hummers. 

But on top of that, it’s the sheer volume of–of species, it’s the biomass that exists here. So in the spring, you go out for a dawn walk, and the sound of birdsong is so overwhelming you can almost hear it, feel it, reverberate in your stomach. 

Charlie got into the driver’s seat of this ancient sort of Jeepy safari car thing; Isabella and I sat in the open-sided back.

TREE: These are our safari vehicles. Austrian troop carriers. Pinskauers they’re called. 

POGUE: Wow. They still make them, or this is a relic? 

TREE: These are all second-hand. I mean, these date back to the sixties.

I have to tell you—you never would have guessed that this place was once a farm. It’s clusters of trees, and then open sunny spots, and lots of brush, all sprouting up according to nature’s rules. 

POGUE: Do you still remember, “oh, this used to be corn, and this used to be sprouts…?”

TREE: Yeah, the —every field that we’re going through now would have been, um wheat, or barley, or maize as far as the eye can see. And this is all come up of its own accord. 

POGUE: So these trees and stuff, these bushes, you didn’t plant these? 

TREE: No. So this is all come up. This is sallow…

And where there’s flora, there’s fauna. There are a lot of critters at Knepp. 

BURRELL: What I wanted you to see was the first breeding storks to be back in Britain for 600 years. And there they are. And there they are, and there they are.

TREE: One just here, behind the tree. 

This thing was incredible. Just at the very tippy-top of a tree in front of us, standing astride her gigantic six-foot nest, was a stork—a tall, graceful, snowy white stork. 

POGUE: Oh, my gosh, that is amazing. So that stork would not have been here when you guys arrived? 

TREE: No. So the last time storks nested in the UK successfully was 1416. (laugh) A year after the Battle of Agincourt. 

Now, to be clear, it’s not like these storks were just flying along over England, spotted this idyllic sanctuary, and said, “Hey, let’s raise a family here!” Tree and Burrell brought the first storks to Knepp, in hopes that they would begin breeding. They came from Poland, where they’d been injured by collisions with cars and power lines. 

TREE: (cont’d)/because they wouldn’t have been able to colonize on their own. 

POGUE: And do you get a sense that the numbers are growing? 

BURRELL: We know they’re growing. We’ve got all our chicks being produced in these trees. They’ve built all this infrastructure, these storks, and they’re producing 20, 30 chicks a year as well. 

POGUE: I don’t mean to horrify you, but why should we care about a stork in Britain? 

TREE: Well, as you— as you’ve seen I mean, your exclamation of amazement, when you just saw it just now. It is the most extraordinary, charismatic bird. We’ve had an astonishing sort of relationship with this bird for thousands and thousands of years. The Egyptians talk about them, the ancient Greeks… In Eastern Europe, they still revere these birds as the harbingers of good luck, of good fortune. You know, we have the myth of them being bringing babies in their beaks, they’re a huge part of our cultural identity. 

POGUE: Usually when you hear about some creature going extinct in a region, you hear, “because we hunted them to extinction.” We didn’t hunt storks, so… 

TREE: Yeah, we did. We ate them. They’re almost on every ancient banqueting menu in medieval times. Yeah. 


TREE: So we ate them to extinction. 

Now, remember—a key to terraforming a place like this is those big roaming herbivores, that trample and stomp and spread seeds around. So the couple brought in some of those critters—the oldest breeds they could find, in hopes of simulating how this land was tens of thousands of years ago.

It didn’t take us long to find a magnificent family of Old English longhorn cattle. I mean, that word Longhorn isn’t messing around—the horns on some of these guys stuck out almost two feet on each side.

BURRELL: This is Old English longhorn. And we have about 400 of them. 

We were standing close enough to touch these cows, but they just glanced over at us and went right back to their munching.

BURRELL: They’re big, hefty animals, and they’re moving through this landscape, smashing through stuff, browsing on the twigs of trees, eating the grasses… the disturbance and the movement of these animals through this landscape.  

TREE: I mean, a cow can carry hundreds of different seed species in its gut and its hooves and its fur. So it’s transporting plants around the landscape. And it’s also transporting nutrients. So it’s eating in one place, dunging in another. And then all the microbes and bacteria and the life that is in that dung is taken down very quickly by dung beetles. So restoring your soils as well, so they have a huge effect on the environment. 

POGUE: And you’re not just letting them live out their lives here. You will eventually turn them into — 

BURRELL: They all go to meat. 

POGUE: Those of us who know where our steak comes from are used to knowing that they are medicated and antibioticked and often fed corn, which is not something that cows naturally eat.

TREE: No ivermectins, no wormers, no antibiotics in them. 

BURRELL: We’re testing them, for TB, for disease. Otherwise, they’re left alone, they’re left to get on with it. So you will have maybe five or six generations now of, of animals within the herds. So the great, great, great, great grandmother will be there—

Cow: MOOOO! 

POGUE: Excuse me, we’re working here! (laughter) 

Burrell All the daughters and so on will be then part of that herd.  

TREE: And suddenly you see what domesticated cattle do if they’re given the chance to live a life like this, the way they rub against trees, they’ll plunge into water, they’ll eat aquatic plants, they’ll browse on trees, they’ll self-medicate. That whole herd structure that they’re missing, that multigenerational structure that they’re missing as social animals, is something that was completely new to us. 

POGUE: So do you feed them anything? 

BURRELL: No supplemental feeding. They’re just finding whatever they need from this landscape. 

TREE: The thing we forget is that cows don’t just eat grass. You know, they are browsers as well as grazers. So they eat plants and twigs and leaves. 

POGUE: I wonder if that makes a difference in how they taste… 

TREE: If we’re going to eat meat, we have to be very, very careful about the meat that we eat. They find it very difficult to metabolize the grains and the improved sort of protein concentrates that we give them in industrial systems, and live with permanent indigestion, essentially, and gives them all sorts of health problems. But once they’re eating what nature intended them to eat, they metabolize much, much better and they put down better fats that they can metabolize, that we can metabolize too. 

I wanted to love this operation, I really did. But I mean—they do slaughter and sell these cattle as beef.

And as a well-read citizen of the planet, I can tell you that Cattle. Are. The. WORST. Cows produce more greenhouse gases than any other food. If cattle were a country, they’d be the third biggest greenhouse-gas polluter on the planet, right behind China and the U.S. 

See, cows ferment their food in their stomachs. And that process generates enormous gross volumes of gases, which the animals release as burps and farts. A single cow belches up about five gallons of gas an hour. And half of that is methane, which is wayyyyy worse than CO2 at trapping heat. 

Cows are also a resource disaster—the amount of land, feed, water, and fertilizer they require—

OK, sorry. You didn’t come here for a lecture. But when I was researching my book, “How to Prepare for Climate Change,” I was so horrified by the climate effects of cattle raising that I stopped eating beef then and there. 

So I brought it up.

POGUE: The cattle thing, I have to say, is the one thing that gave me pause when I read about this operation. You know, the amount of methane they burp up. How do you reconcile that problem?

TREE: So when they’re eating things that they can’t digest, much more methane is produced. If they’re eating herbs and particularly —if they’re browsing twigs and eating bark and leaves, it actually suppresses the methane production. 

So basically what’s happened here is we’ve gone from being in a farmed landscape where we were massive carbon emitters, to being a really significant carbon sink. And these animals are playing part of that regenerative movement to get the soils back, to get the vegetation back. And so they are part of that bigger carbon cycle, which is —which is a sink overall. 

A little further on, we spotted a set of four red deer stags—that is, boy deer—in a shady clump of forest. Their antlers were unbelievable. Huge and branchy and heavy-looking.

TREE: Aren’t they amazing? Their antlers have just exploded. To us they look really outlandish on a red deer, but that is probably naturally what they would grow to if they were allowed to live in their most optimal kind of habitat. 

What they love here is hanging out in the rivers. We’re observing them doing things that we’re not used to seeing them doing the rest of the landscape. 

So it seems to us that they’re actually riverine species. Quite often we see them just submerged in water or eating water plants. 

POGUE: So if I read about a red deer in— a in a book, it might not note that they are river creatures. 

TREE: Exactly. Exactly. They…they’d say they’re creatures of the uplands and they like bare, denuded hillsides. Even scientists and ecologists have forgotten that they’re observing species mainly in a kind of very depleted landscape. And it’s only when you allow rewilding for habitats to naturally emerge and express themselves, that then you have species showing their innate natural behaviors. 

POGUE: So in some ways, what we’re seeing here is what we might have seen a thousand years ago. 

TREE: Absolutely. Maybe 10,000 years ago. You’d have seen creatures like this paddling about in our, in our river areas and our floodplains. 

And then we found the pigs. Brown and furry. 

BURRELL: We have to be a little bit cautious with them because they can get startled. They got terrible eyesight. 

POGUE: Oh, my gosh! …These are hairy pigs. 

BURRELL: Here’s a piglet coming out. 

POGUE: Oh, my gosh. They’re so cute!

BURRELL: So just where is the mom, is the question. No, that’s not Mom. 

They were just hanging out in the middle of a sunny meadow, rooting around and taking naps.

BURRELL: So who would have thought pigs graze like horses or cattle? Look at that. It’s just eating clover. So this time of year, when the ground’s too hard, the pigs have to just graze. They can’t get their snouts into the ground, and they can’t rootle. And they can’t dig up the worms and the roots and so on. 

We’d say the pigs are rooting around. But in England, you say “rootle.” I love that. 

POGUE: And do you have some sign that they’re now reproducing and breeding on their own? 

BURRELL: Oh, well, there’s the piglets!

Oh man…the furry piglets are SO cute!

But the reason the pigs are here isn’t just to overwhelm you with cuteness. It’s to start a chain reaction.

BURRELL: The pig is, by its rootling, and its opening up of the ground, has allowed things like Sallow, which is a food plant for purple emperor butterfly, to then flourish. It’s– it’s broken up the ground so that very rare species, like the turtle dove, can flourish. So, we’re one of the only populations of turtle dove increasing in this part of Europe. We think it’s to do with the pig. 

POGUE: So the pig, the pig allows a certain kind of brush to grow, which attracts the butterflies and the birds?

BURRELL: Yeah, it’s all connected. 

So far, all of this sounds like it’s a really good deal for the critters. For them, it’s a gorgeous undisturbed nature preserve, going on for miles—no roads, no development, no pollution. That’s why rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons, and purple emperor butterflies are breeding and thriving here, and the populations of more common species are skyrocketing.

Well, great. But what about the species we care most about—us? 

How are you supposed to make a living if you’ve given away the farm? How are you supposed to make a dent in the world’s eco-problems if you’re just one dinky farm in England? And above all—what would Sir Burrell’s ancestors think if they knew he’d let their beloved property go to seed?

All of that is coming right up—after the ads. See you in a sec.


So the former Knepp Farm is now the Knepp Wildland, and it’s really something to behold. But I couldn’t help wondering—how are they going to make a living if they’re no longer selling crops? I phrased the question like this:

POGUE: But how are you going to make a living if you’re no longer selling crops? 

BURRELL: The changes we’ve made have all been incredibly positive for the estate. 

TREE: Rewilding has actually brought in some really significant income streams for us. So, we have eco-tourism, so …very small scale light footprint on a kind of African model, so treehouses, and glamping and camping and African safaris. And that’s now a business that brings in about a million a year. 

Oh—somehow I failed to mention treehouses, shepherd’s huts, tents, and yurts you can rent for glamping. That’s short for “glamorous camping,” in case you didn’t know. The treehouses are especially cool—one of ‘em even has a wood-burning hot tub up among the branches. But don’t get your hopes up: the campsites sell out for the year within minutes of going on sale.

TREE: And then we’re selling meat from the animals that we cull here to keep the numbers the right level for biodiversity. We sell beyond-organic meat, so this wonderful sort of, we think the most ethical meat you can buy. And there’s a very big demand for that from food connoisseurs and from, you know, ethical consumers.

The rewilding project also serves its neighbors without their having to lift a finger.

TREE: We’re mitigating against floods, we’re restoring the soil, we’re sequestering carbon, we’re cleaning the air. We’re cleaning the water, so that’s a huge saving for water companies. The water coming onto our land is actually going through a filtration system, and it cleans itself of nitrates and other pollutants. So there are all these huge benefits to the public, including, of course, a place for, you know, enjoyment and recreation. 

POGUE: They just come and take hikes for free? 

TREE: Yeah. So we have about 18 miles of, of public footpaths. People are welcome to come any time they like to walk through. It’s actually where you can hear birdsong and feel like you’re surrounded with life. We are providers still, but of different things. 

And here’s the weird part. The wildlands are even serving the nearby farms that put the Knepp farm out of business in the first place.

TREE: So we know that if you have areas of nature with, you know, wildflowers and beetle banks around your, your agricultural fields, that actually increases your yield. It provides the— that crop with pollinating insects, it provides natural pest control, but it also helps restore your soils. 

So having rewilding as the kind of webbing running throughout your agricultural landscapes is going to help replenish the water tables, it’s going to provide clean water. It’s going to provide physical buffers against extreme weather events, if we can provide these kind of windbreaks, these storm breaks around your, your agricultural land. 

Well, it all sounded like a fantastic idea—an everybody-wins sort of idea. So I was surprised to hear that it was originally considered—a terrible idea. 

BURRELL: It has taken about 20 years to turn the whole country around to being positive. 

TREE: Rewilding in those days was a really dirty word. 

We used to get a lot of angry letters in the early days, “yours sincerely, Disgusted” letters. And one woman wrote to us saying, “You’ve turned a beautiful piece of English countryside into an abomination. You know, your grandparents would be rolling in their graves.” 

And a few years ago, she wrote a letter of apology and said, “I walk my dog through Knepp every week, and I now see that it is beautiful but in a completely different way. And I was totally wrong.” So, I think it takes a while, but I think we can change that,that perception. 

And it’s not just the public that’s come around. Early on, the Knepp estate won some grants from the British government to repurpose the land—a government that’s now very pleased indeed with the wisdom of its investment.

BURRELL: We now have government policy, where 300,000 hectares of this to be created in our countryside. 

That’s three-quarters of a million acres.

POGUE: Wait, the government is going to create more things like this? 


POGUE: Based on what you did? 


POGUE: But you replaced a plot of land that used to produce food. We have to feed people. So isn’t that in the back of your mind saying, “well, there’s a limit to how much this experiment can be recreated?” You can’t replace all the farms. 

TREE: We’re certainly not saying we should rewild, you know, the entire country. But these are life-support systems that all species, including our own, depend. So I think the way to look at it is that rewilding is, is farming’s greatest ally. It’s not a competitor. Farming depends on having these areas of nature around it in order to be sustainable for the future. 

So rewilding does wonders for the plants, the animals, the people, and the planet. But rewilding one farm outside of London is not going to save the earth. Burrell and Tree speak enthusiastically about corridors of nature, running among the regularly scheduled towns and farms. 

But how is that gonna happen? You’d need a whole organization to do that. You’d need some kind of nonprofit. And you’d need someone to run it who had deep connections in the government. 

DRIVER: I’m lucky because of my previous role as head of conservation for the Environment Agency nationally. I have lots of senior government contacts, politicians, senior civil servants, etc., who I can talk to about improving funding and policy for rewilding. 

Yep, that’s right. Alastair Driver is just the guy. I wish you could see the spot where we had this conversation. It was in a lush, sunny park that Alastair Driver himself created—a one-acre oasis in Sonning, England, near his home. We’re talking wildflowers, gently waving trees, and a pond with lily pads and dragonflies. 

DRIVER: So these are water lilies. White water lily. This little spiky thing that’s called Spike Rush with the little tiny flowers on the top of that stems here.

I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to talk about Rewilding Britain, the nonprofit for which Driver is the director.

DRIVER: I travel the country advising landowners via invitation on rewilding. When I first started, I was kind of knocking on doors a bit, saying, “Anyone know anyone who’s interested?” Now I’m pretty much swamped with opportunities.

POGUE: Why would they be interested? What’s in it for the landowner? 

DRIVER: You have to remember that a lot of them are really struggling to make it work financially. A lot of our farmland in this country is very, very marginally productive. 

They all talk about, “I’ve tried to farm this land. It’s really difficult. It’s marginal land. But also, I want to make it better for my children, for my grandchildren. I want to leave it in a better state.” You know, people are starting to understand sustainability. 

We know that 56% of our species are declining despite decades of conservation effort. We have a biodiversity crisis. We have a climate emergency. We’ve got to do something different. We cannot continue the way we are. And if you can do it on land that’s almost impossible to farm, then why not? 

POGUE: And so how would they survive once they had rewilded? 

DRIVER: Well, this is where diversification comes in. And that means looking at opportunities for nature, tourism, educational opportunities, health and wellbeing, producing,—for example…There’s one site that produces amazing gin and spirits from a rewilding landscape. And it is honestly the best gin ever. I drink it, I can tell you. 

POGUE: So at this stage, what is the government stance toward rewilding projects? Has any money been promised so far? 

DRIVER: At the moment, there’s 50 million over the next two or three years, it’s not a huge amount of money.

That’s about 59 million dollars.

DRIVER: But that’s for some pilots just to demonstrate that rewilding can deliver. So fingers crossed, you know, next couple of years, we will move towards this —this better funded program. 

POGUE: Well, if you were in charge, how much rewilding would you do to this country? 

DRIVER: Well, we’ve got an ambition in Rewilding Britain of 5% of the country by 2030. If we got to that point, I genuinely believe we would turn around the decline in biodiversity and we would be delivering massive public benefits through reducing flood risk, improving water quality, storing carbon, etc. etc.

POGUE: As a selfish person, why would I care about loss of biodiversity? 

DRIVER: It matters to us because the health of nature is inextricably linked to our own health as a species. So if you think, for example, about pollinating insects, the role that they play is enormous, enormous, unfathomable. And we have lost large numbers of insects, you know, potentially 40% decline in the last 30 or 40 years in an insect abundance in this country. 

We need pollinators for food, fruit and vegetables, etc… so there are so many ways in where nature is inextricably linked to our own human health. 

There’s no reason why people should not embrace rewilding. It really is an essential part of this future picture. 

The Knepp project is a big deal in the UK. Isabella Tree wrote a book about it, called “Wilding,” that became a bestseller, that will soon be a movie. Isabella told me that they’ve cast actors who look uncannily like her and Charlie. 

Meanwhile, rewilding is catching on. Rewilding projects are under way in 70 countries—including the U.S. There’s a huge rewilding project in Montana called the American Prairie Reserve, or APR, where a nonprofit has been steadily buying up land as it becomes available, in hopes of creating the biggest grassland ecosystem on the planet. A 3.2-million acre wildlife reserve—that’s 50% bigger than Yellowstone National Park! So far, they’ve bought 700 square miles—and reintroduced 800 bison. 

FOX: This is a project of national and global importance that we at American Prairie Reserve cannot do alone. And it’s a vital part of what our country will be for generations to come. 

As for the Knepp Wildland, the experiment in handing over land management to nature has been a huge success. 

BURRELL: It’s surpassed everything that either of us ever thought would happen. We literally would not have dared to anticipate the speed of recovery of nature. Just wouldn’t have crossed our minds. 

As we prepared to say our goodbyes back at the castle, we looked up one more time at the oil painting of Charlie Burrell’s ancestor in the gallery.

POGUE: What would he say if he knew that you’d taken the farm he labored to create and let it go to seed? 

BURRELL: Actually, we’re very pragmatic in this family. 

POGUE: So from the pragmatic standpoint, he might have said, “dude, you doubled the estate’s income.” 

BURRELL: I’m not he would— “dude” would come into his sort of 18th century brain, but—you know, I get your meaning. “Dude!” Sorry, David.

NASA Redirects an Asteroid

Season 2 • Episode 8

65 million years ago, an asteroid struck the earth; in the ensuing planetary darkness, the dinosaurs went extinct. But the dinosaurs didn’t have a space program.

We do, and we can now spot incoming asteroids with steadily improving confidence. 

If we see one on a collision course with the Earth, we know from the movies that the solution is to nuke it. Right? 

Actually, NASA has a better, cleverer idea. If you can just nudge an asteroid slightly off its current path, maybe 25 or 50 years before it hits us, it won’t hit the earth. It will sail harmlessly past us.

In 2022, NASA put that idea to the test. It sent a tiny spacecraft 7 million miles into space, for the express purpose of crashing into a known asteroid—to see if we could bump it into a different path. 

We quickly found out. This is the story of the DART mission.

Guests: Dr. Richard Binzel, MIT professor. Dr. Elena Adams, lead engineer for NASA’s DART mission. Dr. Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division. 

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

What would we do if we detected a deadly asteroid on a collision course with the Earth? Sorry, Hollywood—the best idea would not be blowing it up with nukes.

ADAMS: 09:42:28  / if you blow up an asteroid, you create a large number of chunks. And those chunks will still have the same velocity. They’ll still be going the same direction. 

No, NASA’s got a better plan. And in September 2022, they tried it.

ADAMS: 11:11:12  Oh, yeah. Little kamikaze spacecraft, yeah, for the good of humanity.

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

First Ad

Season 2, Episode ___: NASA Redirects an Asteroid.

There are so many movies about asteroids hitting the earth. “Armageddon.” “Deep Impact.” “Don’t Look Up.” “When Worlds Collide.” “Ice Age: Collision Course.” And a whoooollllle lot of even worse movies. 

NARR: It cannot think. It cannot reason. It cannot change its course. And it’s going to strike the earth…in six days. (chord!)

I mean, we can forgive Hollywood screenwriters, right? An asteroid plot supplies instant drama and high stakes for the characters. Here’s Billy Bob Thornton sinking his teeth into the “Armageddon” dialogue:

From 11:13 in “Armageddon:”

BILLY BOB: lt’s what we call a global killer. The end of mankind.

And here’s President Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact:”

MORGAN: 1:31:00  Within a week, the skies will be dark with dust from the impact, and they will stay dark for years. All plant life will be dead within… four weeks.

I mean, that’s pretty high stakes!

An asteroid strike also offers a brilliant audio-visual spectacle—not a bad feature in a movie.

NARR: Tremendous tidal waves smashing New York City. The molten fires from bowels of the earth, gushing out to consume our world. (chord!)

In all of the recent asteroid movies, our solution to the threat is always something like this:

“Armageddon” 19:30

GUY: Are you suggesting we blow this thing up from the inside?

SCIENCE: That’s exactly what I’m saying.

BINZEL: 14:21:29  I’ve never been able to sit still watching any of the asteroid movies (LAUGH) and not just want to get up and walk away. / 14:21:38  / the asteroid movies are all about entertainment and not about science.

Dr. Richard Binzel is a professor of planetary science at MIT. He is the asteroid guy. 

BINZEL: 13:50:14  I have been studying asteroids since I was 15 years old. And– I still find them fascinating to this day.

As it turns out, asteroids are crumbs left over from the formation of our solar system. 

BINZEL: 14:12:26  Most of the asteroids in our solar system are between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It’s called the asteroid belt. / And occasionally, they’ll find themselves kicked into an orbit that crosses that of the earth. 

Binzel has discovered plenty of asteroids himself—and even named them.

BINZEL: 14:34:40  / the first one, I named for my grandfather, who was very inspirational to me in becoming a scientist. / the second one, I named for my wife. (LAUGH)

POGUE: 14:34:53  That’s very nice. Does the size, makeup, and trajectory of the one you named for your wife live up to her awesomeness? (LAUGHTER)

BINZEL: 14:35:50  / My wife’s asteroid is safely orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, where the sun is always shining. (LAUGH)

POGUE: 14:36:01  You’ve rehearsed that.

BINZEL: 14:36:02  I did. (LAUGHTER)

Binzel also invented the Torino scale, which does for asteroids what the Richter scale does for earthquakes. It rates every asteroid from 0 to 10, based on its likelihood to hit us, and how damaging it would be.

POGUE: 13:59:14  So what’s a ten on your scale?

BINZEL: 13:59:16  So on the Torino Scale, ten is effectively / dinosaur killer impact.

POGUE: 13:59:22  Okay. And then what are zeroes?

BINZEL: 13:59:24  / all the objects we know of today reside at zero or one on the Torino Scale, which simply means they’re so small that / they don’t matter, or that we know for sure there’s no impact possibility. /

And there are a lot of objects at zero or one on the Torino scale. Millions.

BINZEL: 14:40:39  /the earth is, a matter of fact, is being struck all the time. / the earth sweeps up about 15 tons of dust, meteor dust every day. 14:40:58  / And occasionally, several times a year, something is large enough that it can survive passage through the atmosphere and deliver rocks to the surface of the earth that you can pick up as samples. And those are what we call meteorites.

And most of those are very tiny. Let’s put it this way: Most asteroids entering our atmosphere couldn’t take out a sand castle, let alone humanity.

But on a much broader time horizon—hundreds, thousands, millions of years—big asteroids do hit us. 

BINZEL: 13:53:01  / Most famously, the– dinosaurs met their demise, we believe, 65 million years ago./

POGUE: 13:55:34  /Have there been any asteroids that did damage in more recent times?

BINZEL: 13:56:15  Well, probably most people are familiar with the impact over Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. That object was about 50 meters across, or a little over 100, 150 feet across– that broke up in the atmosphere. / But the shock wave / did hit the ground and– do– do great damage on the ground.  

13:56:53  And then more recently, in 2013 was an air blast over Chelyabinsk.

That would be Chelyabinsk, Russia We’ve got some truly spectacular videos of that one, thanks to Russian dashcams. See footnote 1.

Footnote 1: See, Russian citizens have a hit-and-run problem. You’re driving along, and some idiot crashes into your car. But they don’t want to deal with things like responsibility or consequences! So they just speed away. 

So you try to get reimbursed by your insurance company, and guess what? They say, “Oh, SURE it was hit and run. You just crashed own car, and don’t want to take blame. No money for you!”

Oh Suuuurrre it vas Chheet and rron. You just Crreshed OWN car. And ton’t vunt to tek bllllame (whole tongue). No mahhhney for you!

Slower, heaver.

Russians have their fair share of run-ins with corrupt highway cops, too.

And THAT is why millions of Russians now have dashboard cameras running all the time. So they can prove what happened if they get scammed. 

And THAT is why YouTube is full of amazing videos of the Chelyabinsk fireball making landfall in Russia. 

The sound of impact and alarmts:

End of footnote 1.

Anyway. In 2013, in Chelyabinsk, 1500 people were injured, and thousands of buildings were damaged. So, as Richard Binzel sums it up:

BINZEL: 14:02:19  The chances of your day being ruined by an asteroid impact are really very small. But if you think of our civilization over time scale of a century or more, then the chance of an impact is a few percent that something like another Chelyabinsk or Tunguska could be happening– again over the next century.

So. In 2016, Congress authorized the creation of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Yes, that’s a real place. As Jennifer Lawrence and Leo DiCaprio put it in the movie “Don’t Look Up”—

About 6:00 in “Don’t Look Up”

JLAW: /the Planetary Defense Coordination Office? Is that a real place?

LEO: I have no idea.

YES it’s a real place! It’s a department of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, whose director is Dr. Lori Glaze.

POGUE: 14:19:27  / I have to say, when I hear that NASA has a planetary defense wing, I think it’s more aliens. (LAUGH) I mean, it sounds like warfare, not bumping away rocks.

LORI: 14:19:39  Yeah. 14:20:31  But Planetary Defense Coordination Office has the job of identifying any potential asteroids that are out there. 14:20:16  /we wanna be prepared if there were one that were gonna be potentially dangerous./

14:22:27  / NASA actually funds several telescopes that are dedicated to searching for potentially hazardous asteroids or new– objects that are out there. / There are also other people around the world that are looking for these– potentially hazardous asteroids all the time./

POGUE: 14:23:16  So somebody somewhere has a big Excel spreadsheet with a list of everything we’ve seen? (LAUGH)

LORI: 14:23:21  Yes, we have what’s called the Minor Planet Center– that keeps track of all of the objects that we know of./

POGUE: 14:24:56  All right, so since I’ve heard I was going to meet you, this is what I’ve been wondering: Getting hit by an asteroid is a common layperson, deep-seated worry, along with all the other ways the world (LAUGH) could end. /

LORI: 14:25:16  It’s probably not at the top of the list to worry about, getting hit by an asteroid. /Right now, we don’t know of any that are of significant size that are– potentially gonna hit the Earth anytime over the next hundred years or so.

Well, that’s good. But if it’s nothing to worry about, why did NASA spend 325 million dollars on a special spacecraft, solely to discover if we can deflect an asteroid that’s on a trajectory to hit us?

LORI: 14:26:04  Well, here’s the– here’s the problem that we have. Even though it’s a low probability, it’s a pretty serious consequence. So right now we don’t feel like we have– an imminent threat from an asteroid. But we darn well wanna be ready if we find one that could be potentially dangerous.

POGUE: 14:32:19  Okay, great. So it seems like– / the best way not to get our planet demolished is not to blow up the asteroid, but to knock it to any other path, right? Like– like, speed it up a little, slow it down a little, change its angle a little. /

LORI: 14:32:41  All of those are good. / the most effective, we believe, will be to actually– try and slow it down a little bit. /

14:33:15  / if we could slow it down enough several years in advance– ten, 20, 30, 50 years in advance– just slow it down a tiny, tiny bit, then Earth will have already gone by when the asteroid crosses Earth’s path. So that’s what we’re doing with DART. 

NASA loves acronyms. DART stands for Double Asteroid Redirection Test. Because its target is, in fact, a double asteroid. It’s a huge rock called Didymos, which is Greek for “twin.” It’s a big mama—about half a mile across, weighing 11 billion pounds. 

But Didymos has a little moon of its own—a moonlet—called Dimorphos, which is Greek for “having two forms.” That moonlet is the target for the DART mission.

Now, am I the only person who’s gonna have trouble remembering which is which? Dimorphos. Didymos. I mean, come on, guys—they’re way too similar.

But I did get this tip: 

ADAMS: 09:38:42  / We’re going to hit Dimorphos, which is the moon of the larger asteroid. /

POGUE: 09:39:00  / which I understand NASA people sometimes call Didymoon.

ADAMS: 09:39:08  Yes. Didymoon is much, much cuter. (LAUGHTER) And bi– big fan of Didymoon.

That’s Dr. Elena Adams. She’s NASA’s lead engineer on the DART mission, and I’m going to interpret that exchange as her permission to refer to Dimorphos—that’s the moonlet—as Didymoon for the rest of this episode.

Anyway, the DART mission is a joint venture of NASA and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. DART is basically a six-foot cube, wrapped in gold foil, with a camera on the bottom and two 19-foot solar panels. It lifted off in November 2021 atop a SpaceX booster…

the liftoff:

NASA: 3..2..1…And …liftoff, of the Falcon 9 and DART, on NASA’s first planetary defense test to intentionally crash into an asteroid!

…and took ten months to travel 107 million/over 400 million miles, to rendezvous with the asteroid.

Clip from the 9/26 NASA TV broadcast

I hope you appreciate the difficulty of the DART mission. I mean, Didymos and Didymoon are hurtling through space at about 51,000 miles an hour. They orbit the sun, just as we do—and the closest they ever come to us is about 7 million miles away. 

And that little moon that we’re gonna try to hit? We’ve never even seen it! True! You can’t see it with any telescope ever built. It’s too small and too far away. There was no way to know its shape, color, mass, or what it’s made of—it could be solid rock, or metallic, or it could be a lumpy blob of gravel. 

ADAMS: 09:47:20  And that’s what makes this so challenging. Because / we also don’t know what it’s made out of. We don’t know its shape. And how do you hit something that– where you don’t even know its shape?

09:47:37  / as an engineer, I hope it’s a perfect sphere, because then you can hit directly in the center perfectly, like.

POGUE: 09:47:59  Yeah. Good luck with that.

ADAMS: 09:48:00  Yeah. (LAUGHTER) One can dream. (LAUGHTER)

Even Didymos, the bigger rock, is so far away that it shows up on our telescopes as just a couple of white pixels.

The only reason we even know that it has a moon is that when we point our telescopes at it, we see a brief dimming once every 12 hours or so. Which could only mean that something is passing in front of it.

ADAMS: 10:19:31  / as the / little moon is coming in front of the bigger asteroid, the brightness actually dips. Because– this creates a shadow on top of the asteroid.

POGUE: 10:19:50  I see. So I could– even though I can’t really see the moon…

ADAMS: 10:19:53  Yeah. You know that something happened, because all of a sudden it just got dimmer.

POGUE: 10:19:57  Okay./

ADAMS: 09:40:52  / And that dimming is at 11 hours and 55 minutes. Right? So after we impact, we plan to change the orbit. / it will be something 11 hours and 45 minutes.

That’s right. The goal of the DART mission was supposed to be bumping the moonlet into a closer orbit to Didymos, so that it completes an orbit 10 minutes faster.

When I visited NASA in September, they showed me models and animations of the six-foot DART spacecraft and the 560-foot moon it was designed to hit. I mean, the size differential was ridiculous. 

POGUE: 10:03:34  It– it doesn’t sound like your spacecraft could do very much to this gigantic thing.

ADAMS: 10:03:39  That’s right. /10:03:51  it’s basically like throwing a tennis ball at a 747. If it goes fast enough, you’re gonna move it. But it’s gonna be a very slight change. /10:04:13  It’s going to be just a few inches. / It’s– it’s really a super safe test. //

POGUE: 10:15:00  Okay. So we’re not talking about exploding or flying off. We’re just nudging it a little–

ADAMS: 10:15:05  No. Just a little nudge. Just a little nudge. A tap.

POGUE: 10:15:08  Okay.

ADAMS: 10:04:13  / It’s a first test of can we actually do it? And what do we learn from this?

10:05:07  /  How will the asteroid, you know, what kind of plume will you create? How much will that actually move an asteroid? 

10:04:50  And we measure all of that. / Because/ only recently has– have we been able to hit these really small things far away.

But wait—we haven’t even finished listing all the ways that make this mission HARD.

We’ll get to that…after a break for ads. Hey—someone’s gotta pay the bills.


Welcome back!

I was about to help you go slack-jawed in amazement at the difficulty of the DART mission to hit an asteroid.

For example, at the moment of impact, DART’s speed is 14,000 miles an hour. And it takes 38 seconds for a signal from earth to travel that far. So NASA can’t possibly pilot the DART spacecraft from the ground in real time. Instead—DART will have to be self-driving.

ADAMS: 09:55:49  / the last four hours of this mission are completely autonomous. / the spacecraft has to make its own decisions. /

09:56:11  / SMART Nav, which is our autonavigation system on the spacecraft, does everything by itself.

09:56:32  / It points– our camera to the asteroid.

09:56:48  / And then it tells the spacecraft go there, or, you know, move to the left. Move to the right. 09:57: / And– we on the ground will be sweating a lot. (LAUGH) /

POGUE: 09:58:55  / So in theory, if e– everything goes well on your / video, you’ll be seeing, you know, this rock getting bigger, bigger, bigger. And then the feed goes dead?

ADAMS: 09:59:08  Yes. Yes. / 09:59:43  / You will hear people cheering, because it– you can’t stop people cheering at that point, because that means that, okay, we’ve lost the signal. 

Oh, and there’s one more problem. We don’t know exactly where the moonlet will be in its orbit at the time of impact.

POGUE: 10:01:19  So / it won’t happen that Didymoon is on the– behind the big rock?

ADAMS: 10:01:26  You just described my nightmare. (LAUGHTER) Behind or in front. Because the asteroid itself is actually– really bright. The bigger asteroid is gonna be brighter than the smaller asteroid. So the– as the small asteroid passes in front of– in front of it, we won’t be able to see it.

10:01:45  Or if it passes in the back, we won’t be able to hit it. Because there’s another rock in the way. So, yes. / people have been observing this asteroid/ since 1996. / So they think they understand the phase, which is where that asteroid is. / And they know it within about 10%, we think. /

Now, the DART spacecraft has a big ol’ camera on the bottom. That’s how it sees its way to Didymoon. But everyone was well aware that that camera would never broadcast the impact itself or the aftermath, because—well, you know—if we’re lucky, it’ll have smashed itself to smithereens.

But on this particular mission, there was going to be a witness: a separate camera off to the side. 

ADAMS: 09:52:41  / So we have– a little friend. It’s called a LICIACube cubesat. And– it was provided to us by the Italian Space Agency. 

POGUE: 09:54:36  What’s the internal NASA nickname?

ADAMS: 09:54:39  Oh, SelfieSat.

POGUE: 09:54:40  SelfieSat?

ADAMS: 09:54:40  Yeah. (LAUGH)

/09:54:07  / So we’re very hopeful that they’ll be able to capture the moment of– us impact– impacting the asteroid, but also creating the giant plume of stuff that’s gonna come out after we impact.

The SelfieSat rode into space on board the DART craft. And then, two weeks before the asteroid impact, it popped out of a slot on DART like a piece of toast, and parked itself in position to take some pix.

Actually, that selfie sat is only the beginning of DART’s surprises. Its primary mission, of course, was supposed to be deflecting an asteroid for the first time in human history. But it would also carry a veritable science fair of technology demos that could be useful in future space missions. 

ADAMS: 10:08:06  / One might say we’re a bit of a Christmas tree of technology demonstrations. We are demonstrating– the large– NEXT-C, next generation ion thruster. 

Yes, she said ion thruster. That’s actually a thing. It uses electricity to accelerate ions for propulsion. Ion drives don’t supply a ton of power, but they’re super fuel-efficient—so for long space journeys, they can fire continuously for a long time. 

POGUE: 10:08:53  And is that the thruster we’re using to get to the asteroid?

ADAMS: 10:08:56  Oh, no. Not at all.

POGUE: 10:08:57  No? (LAUGH) It’s just an experiment?

ADAMS: 10:08:59  It– it is just an experiment. / it could be used for future missions.

The technology demos also include a super-powered dish antenna, a new improved core computer, and those two solar panels.

ADAMS: 10:10:30  / so usually solar arrays are very rigid. / But– these arrays are actually blankets that are rolled on tubes.

/10:49:08  / When they’re first installed in the spacecraft, it looks like a tube– two tubes on the sides of the spacecraft. And after the spacecraft separation from the launch vehicle, from the rocket– we roll them out and– one at a time. (LAUGH)

10:10:49  And you deploy them like snap bracelets. They– they roll out and then they snap. / They’re super lightweight. So for future missions to– the outer solar system, you know, NASA is very interested in going to the Uranus system next.

10:11:07  / For those missions, these solar arrays are really enablers, because they’re so lightweight. 

And here’s the weird part. When you see a picture of the DART spacecraft, those two big snap-bracelet solar panels look like its wings, like a dragonfly’s wings. But it turns out that 90% of their area is completely unnecessary for the mission of crashing into an asteroid. All that power is used exclusively for the ion drive experiment! If we weren’t testing the ion thrusters on this trip, DART would need only tiny stubby solar panels for its own use.

OK—and now… the moment I’ve all been waiting for—

Brass fanfare, please

…a flash back to September 26, 2022, when DART was supposed to crash into Didymoon. You’re about to find out whether the Double Asteroid Redirection Test hit the spot—or missed, and sailed off stupidly into space. See footnote 2.

Footnote 2: yes, NASA did have a plan if that happened. It would wait a couple years until Didymos came back around the sun again—and give it another shot. End Footnote 2.

So let’s recap. The goal was to send a 1200-pound, six-foot cube, 7 million miles from earth, traveling at 4 miles per second, to crash into a rock that’s 560 feet in diameter, flying at 14 miles a second. A spacecraft whose body and software were made during the pandemic lockdown. And a rock, by the way, that we’ve never seen. Shape unknown, material unknown. 

OK…so now let me take you to the Mission Operations Center at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore, on that night. Elena Adams is standing beside her workstation, overseeing the engineers in their blue NASA shirts.

EMCEE: Now if you’re just joining us, we’re under an hour away from the DART spacecraft’s head-on collision with the asteroid Dimorphos. / And you’re watching a live stream of its approach to Dimorphos. 

At this point, the NASA livestream is showing the live video from DART’s camera. Maybe the word “video” is generous—the frame rate is 1 image per second, and all you’re seeing so far is a single white pixel in the middle of the black screen. But I mean, come on. It’s an asteroid 7 million miles away. Don’t be a snob. 

EMCEE: DART’s mission is a test of a planetary defense technique that could one day save humanity. Rest assured, the test poses no threat to Earth.

30 minutes to impact. That one white dot is now a white pea on a black background. You still can’t see Didymoon—only the main asteroid. 

SAMSON: We have 30 minutes to go until impact, and /so far, so good. /

25 minutes to impact. NASA cuts to Elena Adams in the operations center.

ELENA: / We’ve locked on Dimorphos, we are maneuvering towards it, and yeah, everything’s looking really good. / We’ve executed two burns, and everything’s looking on track.

18 minutes to impact. Now you can see, for the first time, a second dot—one faint gray pixel—above and to the right of the asteroid. SmartNAV sees it and locks on.

Agent: Go ahead, MS5.

MS5: We have precision lock, and still tracking Dimorphos. (Applause, cheering)

Eight minutes to impact. Our friend Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science, describes what the engineers are doing.

LORI: / And they’re also thinking about reassessing continuously what’s the probabilitly of miss? Right? As you get closer and closer, that probability should look smaller and smaller, and it is. /It looks really, really good right now.

Five minutes to impact. Here’s Elena Adams again.

ELENA: 5 min to impact, 5 min to impact. We are at 1100 miles away! (applause) Also our window for sending any commands to the spacecraft is done! Contingencies are done!

Some music from here to the end would not be amiss…

At this point, there’s no mistaking what we see from DART’s camera: Didymos has a moon. The big asteroid looked like a gray avocado—but up and to the right is a mini-avocado, about one-twentieth the size. That’s Didymoon. 

LORI: But you’ve been watching it over the last 30-45 minutes go from just a collection of individual pixels, and now you can actually see the shape and the shading and texture/.

Two minutes to impact. SmartNAV takes its little software hands off the wheel and folds them in its little software lap. The time for aiming is over. There’s nothing more it, or anyone, can do, but wait for impact. 

LORI: This’ll be / humanity’s first ever, ever attempt at trying to move another celestial body.

One minute to impact. Oh man. We are now so close, the main asteroid isn’t even in the picture anymore. It’s all Didymoon, filling the screen. And the detail—incredible. The thing is clearly egg-shaped, titled 45 degrees, bright at the top right, shaded at lower left. But it’s not smooth like an egg—this thing is studded with craggy boulders. 

ADAMS: It’s amazing, guys! Oh my goodness, look at that. Unbelievable. Yeah. 

LORI: Looks to me like we’re headed straight in. / Oh, wow.

And now the little moon is enormous, filling the screen. Absolutely coated in rocks and crags—it looks maybe like a dough ball rolled in coconut.  

ADAMS: 5, 4, 3, 2…1!… 

And yet we’re still getting closer! Now we’re seeing individual pebbles! Actual dusty pavement-looking stuff. And closer, and closer, and sharper and sharper!

ADAMS: Oh my gosh! WOOOO!!! (cheers) 

The final frame of video starts to appear—but all we get is a strip of it at the top of the frame—the rest of the screen goes solid red. 

Amid the cheering, you can hear Elena Adams, arms up in the air, yelling…


TEAM: Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!

Fade out, end the music.

The next day, the first pictures from the Italian selfie bot arrived, taken a couple of minutes after impact. They were a little blurry, but they unmistakably showed a big bright Didymos—with a very splatty-looking ashy plume from the point of impact on Diddymoon. Those shots will keep NASA scientists busy for months or years.

It took NASA a few more weeks of collecting data measurements before we knew just how much that dead-on, head-on collision shifted the moonlet’s orbit. It turns out—ten minutes, exactly as they’d hoped. Didymoon now takes 11 hours and 45 minutes to go around Didymos, instead of 11:55. We puny humans changed the orbit of a celestial body!

Now, there are other ways to shift an asteroid’s trajectory besides crashing into it. NASA is also studying something called the gravity tractor technique, where you fly a heavy spacecraft alongside, and let your slight gravitational pull drag the asteroid slightly off course over a long period.

Or maybe we could attach an ion thruster to the asteroid, just like the one that DART itself tested. Or we could paint the asteroid white, and let the infinitesimal pressure of the sun’s rays shift its course over many years. And, yes, there are even certain situations where we could consider… the Hollywood technique.

“Armageddon” at 19:30 

ACTOR: Why don’t we just send up 150 nuclear warheads and blast that rock apart? 

In the meantime, it’s kind of a relief to know that we have a planetary defense organization. And you know what? According to NASA’s Lori Glaze, so do other countries.

LORI: 14:46:43  There are– there is– a whole organization of– / countries from all over that have joined the International Asteroid Warning Network. And they all work together. /

POGUE: 14:47:03  Really? Does that include our enemies?

LORI: 14:47:06  It includes the whole world.

I should also reiterate that at this point, we’ve already spotted the big asteroids that could kill us all; now the work is finding the smaller ones that could take out a city. 

LORI: 14:37:17  /the ones that really are kind of civilization-ending size asteroids, we know– we’ve already found 99% of those. // The smaller ones that could have regional damage, re– regional– you know, impacts, / there are some out there that we don’t know about. 

14:35:17  / So we’re actually right now already building the next telescope, a space telescope / called the Near Earth Object Surveyor. 14:35:39  / to search the sky 24 hours a day. 

14:35:39  / We should be able to get– to find up to 90% of those objects within a period of about ten years, once we get flying.

And, speaking of next steps—in 2024, the European Space Agency plans to return to the Didymos asteroid with a robotic spacecraft called Hera, which will fly along for a closer look at the damage the DART did. It’ll check out the crater we made, and see if we can figure out Didymoon’s exact mass.

But for mission director Elena Adams, it’s time for a new phase: studying the data, putting science to work, and maybe getting some sleep.

ADAMS: 10:55:03  But I do have to say, I do love my job for smashing such– you know, you build up this spacecraft and it’s– it’s like a Ferrari, right? It’s– (LAUGH) it’s just a beautiful piece of equipment. And then the– the whole point of it is to go smash into a rock. (LAUGH)

POGUE: 10:55:17  That’s sad. (LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: 10:55:19  But also kinda glorious. (LAUGHTER)

How They Found the Shipwreck Endurance

Season 2 • Episode 7

In 1914, British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s historic expeditiontoAntarctica stalled when floating ice trapped, crushed, and finally sank his ship, Endurance. Shackleton’s men survived 21 months on the ice, alone and freezing,became one of the most incredible adventure stories ever recorded.

But the ship itself, Endurance, was not seen again for 107 years. Every attempt to find it wound up thwarted by exactly the same enemy: crushing sheets of pack ice. 

Finally, in 2022, an international team of explorers and scientists found the wreck—and it’s in absolutely pristine condition. 

This is the story of how they found it.

Episode transcript


Theme begins.

Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition to Antarctica is one of the most astonishing adventure stories of all time. A ship crushed and sunk by surging walls of ice. A crew stranded on floating ice for almost 2 years. An 800-mile journey by lifeboat. A heroic rescue. And then a century of trying to find the shipwreck.

Nico: [00:04:29] It has been said that this is the most unreachable wreck to find. And I must admit that is absolutely true, because, in fact, the real issue it is, is the ice. 

In 2022, an international team of explorers found Ernest Shackleton’s ship—the Endurance. And today, they’ll tell us how they did it. 

I’m David Pogue, and this is “Unsung Science.”

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Season 2, Episode 7: How They Found the Shipwreck Endurance.

Could someone PLEASE tell me how the story of Ernest Shackleton has never become a movie? I mean, how is this not the greatest adventure ever told?

Heroic theme music begins!

1914: British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton planned to become the first man to cross the Antarctic continent. As he later wrote in his memoir:

SHACK: The first crossing of the Antarctic continent, from sea to sea via the Pole, will be a journey of great scientific importance. The distance will be roughly 1800 miles. Every step will be an advance in geographical science. 

According to legend, he put this ad in the Times of London: 

SHACK: Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.

Shackleton was famously charismatic and persuasive. He got his 28 men, all right; they called him “the Boss.”

But he still needed a ship. And he heard about an amazing, brand-newBarquentine ship, painted white and gold, sitting in a Norwegian shipyard. She was a beauty: Built from oak and Norwegian fir, with a hull 52 inches thick, made to withstand polar conditions. She’s got three masts plus a 350-horepower coal-fired steam engine. And her name…was Polaris.

Bet you didn’t see that coming!

Two Norwegian explorers had commissioned Polaris’s construction—but before they could make the final payments, they got into a spat, and the band broke up. So Ernest Shackleton swooped in and bought the ship for a song. 

He retrofitted the middle deck for cargo. He repainted the ship black. He equipped her with three rowboats, each around 22 feet long. 

Finally, he renamed her. Inspired by his family motto, Fortitudine vincimus (“By endurance we conquer”), he dubbed her Endurance… with no idea how prophetic that name would turn out to be.

Only one sign of the ship’s original decoration remained: A metal five-pointed star on the stern.

On October 26, 1914,Endurance set sail from Buenos Aires. It carried 28 men and 69 sled dogs. 

In December, the Endurance entered the Weddell Sea, between the tip of South America and the Antarctic continent. The Weddell is one cold, nasty body of water. It’s famous for thick, long-lasting packs of sea ice held in place by a massive circulating current. 

Lasse: [00:09:31] The Weddell Sea is the only region in Antarctica where the ice survives the summer melt.

Meet polar researcher Lasse Rabenstein.

Pogue: [00:00:49] / should I pronounce it the the German way? Should I say Rabenstein? 

Lasse: / I think most native English native speakers say Rabenstein. / The translation would be Ravenstone, actually. /

Pogue: [00:01:19] Oh, that’s wild. Well, Pogue is Gaelic for kiss, so that used to help me out with blind dates. /

I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone who knows more about sea ice than Lasse.

Lasse: [00:11:35] /ice is very dynamic. Ice is pushed around by the wind. /And at some point, ice can be ripped apart. It can push together again. And then ice ridges pile up. / you cannot imagine it like a frozen lake at home in winter, which is nice and smooth/.  it’s an impassable terrain, almost. It’s full of ice ridges. 

That effect spelled doom for Endurance. Here’s how Shackleton described the morning of January 19th, 1915.

 SHACK: The ice had closed around the ship during the night, packed heavily and firmly all round the Endurance in every direction as far as the eye could reach from the masthead. There was nothing to be done till the conditions changed, and we waited through the succeeding days with increasing anxiety.

They were agonizingly close to their goal.

SHACK: Land was in sight to the east and south, about sixteen miles distant.

The men tried ramming their way out, sawing their way out, chiseling their way out. In the end, all they could do was wait it out. Hope for a thaw or another gale to move the ice away.

The men and the dogs lived on their pinned ship for ten months. Shackleton was not only a charismatic personality—he also turned out to be something of a mental-health genius. He knew that it would be essential to prevent his men from falling into despair, giving up hope, turning on him and each other. 

So he structured the days. He established routines, assignments, events. There were soccer games on the ice, and hockey games. They went cross-country skiing. They kept up with their scientific sampling. They put on shows in the evenings, with bits of costumes and music from the record player. They gave each other haircuts and held sled-dog races.

SHACK: …and on the 15th of the month a great race, the “Antarctic Derby,” took place. It was a notable event. The betting had been heavy, involving stores of chocolate and cigarettes.

They posed for photos and videos taken by crew photographer Frank Hurley. Go to YouTube and look at some of Hurley’s stuff—it’s incredible footage. I mean, it’s from 1915—it’s all in black-and-white—but the footage is super sharp, and you really get a sense of those months of waiting.

By October, the ice was crushing the ship. The Boss realized that the smart thing to do was to unload all the food and supplies and set up a camp on the ice.

SHACK: The floes, with the force of millions of tons of moving ice behind them, were simply annihilating the ship. After long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, the end of the Endurance has come. Butwe are alive and well, and we have stores and equipment for the task that lies before us. The task is to reach land with all the members of the Expedition.

LASSE: / the forces on the ship got thicker and got larger. And at some point, it just reached the limit of what the ship could withstand. / the ship just sinks down to the bottom of the ocean. /

On November 21, 1915, the ship went down. Shackleton ordered the ship’s flag hoisted up the mast so that she’d go down “with colors flying.”

SHACK: No ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain.She went down bows first, her stern raised in the air, and the ice closed over her forever. Without her, our destitution seems more emphasized, our desolation more complete. 

They set up five flimsy tents on an ice flow.By April 1916—a year and 3 months since getting stuck—the weather was getting warmer, and the ice flows were beginning to thaw.You might think that’d be good news! But then—

SHACK: At 11 a.m., our floe suddenly split right across under the boats. The crack had cut through the site of my tent. I stood on the edge of the new fracture, and, looking across the widening channel of water, could see the spot where for many months my head and shoulders had rested when I was in my sleeping-bag. How fragile and precarious had been our resting-place! Our home was being shattered under our feet, and we had a sense of loss and incompleteness hard to describe.

How is this story not a movie?

They needed to find solid ground. Shackleton loaded up the Endurance’s three lifeboats with supplies, crammed all 28 men onto them, and set out for a little uncharted, rock of land called Elephant Island, about 100 miles away. It took them a week, through stormy seas and dangerous icebergs. 

SHACK: The temperature was 20° below freezing-point. We had now had one hundred and eight hours of toil, tumbling, freezing, and soaking, with little or no sleep. 

On April 15, they became the first humans ever to set foot on Elephant Island—their first solid ground in 497 days. They were ecstatic.

SHACK: The men were reeling about the beach as if they had found an unlimited supply of alcoholic liquor on the desolate shore. They were laughing uproariously, picking up stones and letting handfuls of pebbles trickle between their fingers like misers gloating over hoarded gold. The smiles and laughter, which caused cracked lips to bleed afresh, made me think of that glittering hour of childhood when the door is open at last and the Christmas-tree in all its wonder bursts upon the vision. 

Elephant Island had fresh water and plenty of seals and penguins to eat. But they still had no ship, no shelter besides their upside-down lifeboats, and no way to communicate with the rest of the world. 

SHACK: Privation and exposure had left their mark on the party, and the health and mental condition of several men were causing me serious anxiety. Then the food-supply was a vital consideration. 

A boat journey in search of relief was necessary and must not be delayed; that conclusion was forced upon me. 

Shackleton chose four of his healthiest men to accompany him on a trip to South Georgia Island, over 800 miles away. There was actually a closer outpost—but reaching it meant sailing 540 miles into the raging winds. He had the ship’s carpenter rig up the biggest rowboat with makeshift sails, to take advantage of the winds blowing toward South Georgia Island. 

The Boss appointed ship’s captain Frank Wild in charge of the 22 men who would remain on Elephant Island. Then he loaded up the boat with supplies and 36 gallons of water, and set sail to get help. 

SHACK: The perils of the proposed journey were extreme. The ocean south of Cape Horn in the middle of May is known to be the most tempestuous storm-swept area of water in the world. The weather then is unsettled, and the gales are almost unceasing. We had to face these conditions in a small and weather-beaten boat.

We’re talking hurricane-force winds, subzero temperatures, and the 60-foot waves known as the Cape Horn Rollers.

SHACK: Real rest we had none. We were cold, sore, and anxious.We fought the seas and the winds and at the same time had a daily struggle to keep ourselves alive. 

How is this not a movie?

Finally, after 17 days at sea and then 36 hours crossing the rugged island on foot, they reached the whaling station on May 20, 1916—frostbitten, stringy-haired, gaunt, and haggard.

SHACK: The thought that there might be women at the station made us painfully conscious of our uncivilized appearance. Our beards were long and our hair was matted. We were unwashed and the garments that we had worn for nearly a year without a change were tattered and stained. 

Close to the station, we met two small boys ten or twelve years of age. I asked these lads where the manager’s house was situated. They ran from us as fast as their legs would carry them. 

Only two hours later, though, the men were warmed, fed, cleaned up, and dressed in new clothes—a radical transformation. It was only the next day that they learned that a World War was raging.

SHACK: We were like men arisen from the dead to a world gone mad. Our minds accustomed themselves gradually to the tales of nations in arms, of deathless courage and unimagined slaughter, of vast red battlefields. The reader may not realize quite how difficult it was for us to envisage nearly two years of the most stupendous war of history. 

But now, Shackleton had only one fixation: The 22 men he’d left behind.

SHACK: My mind was bent upon the rescue of the party on Elephant Island, for whom by this time I entertained very grave fears.

Over the next three months, Shackleton made three attempts to return to Elephant Island in three different ships; each voyage failed. 

SHACK: Our ancient enemy the pack was lying in wait, and within twenty miles of the island, the trawler was stopped by an impenetrable barrier of ice.

Finally, on August 30, 1916, he reached Elephant Island on his fourth attempt—a year and a half since the Endurance had gotten stuck.

SHACK: At 11.40 a.m., we saw tiny black figures hurry to the beach and wave signals to us. I recognized Wild. As I came nearer, I called out, “Are you all well?” and he answered, “We are all well, Boss,” and then I heard three cheers. Wild had husbanded the scanty stock of food as far as possible and had fought off the devils of despondency and despair on that little sand-spit. 

Not a single man perished on the Endurance expedition. They arrived in Chile to a hero’s welcome, with 30,000 fans cheering them in the streets.

Once they’d recovered their health back in the U.K., virtually the entire crew joined the British military to fight in the war. 

But Shackleton didn’t go home immediately. His first mission was to join the rescue party for the Ross Sea Party. 

If  whole story weren’t incredible enough, get this: there was a second part of the Shackleton expedition whose crew also wound up stranded on the ice. And nobody knows this part!

Shackleton’s master plan involved a second ship, arriving on the other side of Antarctica. Its crew was supposed to leave stashes of food and fuel along the final quarter of Shackleton’s planned journey, so Shackleton’s gang wouldn’t have to carry so much. Incredibly, this team also wound up stranded for about two years. They also finally got rescued, although three of the ten men died. Read up on the Ross Sea Party some time.

After the war, Shackleton made plans to return to the Antarctic on yet another voyage—but he never got any closer than South Georgia Island. There, he suffered a heart attack and died—January 5, 1922. He was 47.

For the next 107 years, Ernest Shackleton’s doomed voyage—and the crew’s incredible survival—became the stuff of legend. There were books…TV shows… documentaries…although for some reason, no movie!

And nobody ever saw the ship itself again. For a lot of explorers, Endurance is the Holy Grail of shipwrecks. And it shouldn’t be that hard to find—we know where it went down.

Pogue: [00:36:53] / supposedly Captain Worsley, at the time, marked the position of the ship when it went down. And we have those notes. So why is it so difficult, why has it taken until now to find the Endurance? 

Lasse: [00:37:21] There are several reasons. So first, it is a big effort to go to this region because of the ice. So you need a good ship. You need a lot of money. / 

The second—/the ice drifts all the time. / they might have traveled a couple of nautical miles just with the ice, but the Frank Worsley didn’t notice this, because you don’t feel the drift off the ice. 

I guess there’s not a ton of suspense about whether or not Shackleton’s ship was ever found—you’ve probably noticed the title of this episode. But after the break, you’ll find out how, at last, the Endurance was found.

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Welcome back!

Over the decades, people have made various attempts to find the wreck of the Endurance in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. Most of them ran out of money, the economy tanked, whatever. It’s an expensive proposition to find the Endurance—because it’s really hard to find.

Nico: [00:04:29] It has been said that this is the most unreachable wreck to find. And I must admit that is absolutely true, because, in fact, the real issue it is, is the ice. / 

Nico Vincente is a veteran undersea explorer. He’s spent 20 years finding various famous sunken ships, submarines, and planes. So when a well-equipped, well-funded expedition finally set off in 2019, Nico was paying close attention.

A History Channel film crew the was on board, hoping hoped to document the discovery. 

NARR: Somewhere in these frozen seas lies the Holy Grail of shipwrecks: the Endurance. / But it’s so hard to get to that no one’s ever been able to hunt for the wreck—until now.

Here, the sea floor plunges down 40 times the height of Niagara Falls, to a depth of 10,000 feet. / And the crew believes that this plain is the final resting round of Shackleton’s ship.

This expedition chartered the Agulhas II: a sleek, red, state-of-the-art, 440-foot-long South African icebreaker. She’s got accommodations for 100, onboard laboratories, a gym, a sauna, an auditorium, a library, and a helicopter landing pad. And in 2019, it carried a very special search tool.

Nico: [00:06:15] / they came in 2019 with the state of the art of underwater, autonomous underwater vehicle, which is absolutely the best vehicle which is used now in open water. / 

That word he’s saying is “vehicle.” I’m not making fun of his pronunciation—trust me; his English is much better than my French.

Anyway, the vehicle in question looks like a bright orange, 20-foot torpedo. 

NARR: The propellers bite, and the AUV dives.

But Nico Vincente points out that this AUV is an autonomous vehicle. You pre-program it and then set it loose. And if anything goes wrong…

Nico: (Con’t) Unfortunately, /this kind of vehicle, once you have any issue, / the basic solution for them is to do an emergency ascent. /

Pogue: [00:07:28] Aha. But when there’s ice…

Nico: [00:07:31] Then when you are on ice, it’s quite more complicated, because if you lose contact with the vehicle and do an emergency ascent, then you’re losing the vehicle/. 

That is precisely what happened.

NARR: 30 hours into the dive, the AUV that scans the sea floor has gone missing. / If they can’t reconnect, they’ll never find out what’s below.  / As conditions worsen, the team makes a difficult call. / The team halts their mission and reluctantly returns home.

The 2019 crew never saw the AUV again. It’s lost forever it under all that ice.The History Channel documentary about that expedition wound up being very short.

For Nico, though, the 20109 expedition’s failure to find Endurance has its useful aspects. He was able to hire a member of its team for a new attempt, called Endurance22.

Nico: [00:05:29] / she produced a, a lesson learned report on this. And this lesson learned report has been my Bible for over two years to build a new solution for Endurance22. And without this, without this report, I think that we will never find the Endurance. /

The first big lesson: No more untethered underwater vehicles, which don’t give their data until they come back to your ship.

Nico: [00:07:31]So the first decision /  immediately came in my mind that we need to tether the vehicle and to have a real time feedback about what’s going on. /And it has been really is a game changer between 2019 and 2022. 

For the 2022 mission, the Agulhas II was once again the support ship. But this time, the star of the show was an underwater vehicle made by Saab called the Sabretooth. It’s a yellow rectangular slab, like a big metal sled: 12 feet long, 5 feet wide, 2 feet thick. It’s ordinarily sold to, for example, oil companies to inspect their deep-sea oil rigs.

Not only is the Sabretooth tethered to the support ship with a cable, but it’s also a hybrid. It converts between an autonomous underwater vehicle that executes a prewritten program, and a robotic one, that you drive by remote control.

NICO: [00:09:04]You push a switch and / you take control, on remote control on it. / So it’s / quite practical if you are have an emergency situation with the vehicle./

Pogue: [00:11:59] / So did you wind up using both modes of the Sabertooth? Did you—

Nico: [00:12:08] Oh yes. We, we used both. / over Endurance22 expedition, we made 32 dives. Over these 32 dives, we got eight emergency ascents. 

Pogue: Wow. 

Nico: So we have been obliged to face unexpectation eight times./

Pogue: [00:13:37] What sorts of things would go wrong that would need an emergency ascent?

Nico: [00:13:43] Oh, my God. You have a day? / for example, / You are too far, or not on the good direction. / you are too far where the level of battery is too low. / and we got a few times that work on recovery just by towing the vehicle back to the vessel because the vehicle was almost empty of power. 

Pogue: [00:15:07] Oh, man. So the tether is strong enough to pull the thing back onboard? 

Nico: [00:15:12] / it’s just a fiberoptic of 3.5 millimeters with some Kevlar around. /So you may pull on it, but you have to be careful to not pull / too strong to not break the tether, because the breaking strength is quite low. 

The expedition departed from Cape Town, South Africa, on February 5, 2022, led by John Shears and Mensun Bound. Nico Vincent was aboard as the head of the underwater operations, and the chief scientist was our friend Lasse Rabenstein.

The ten-day journey to the Weddell Sea was wild. 

Lasse: [00:24:43] / We had to cross the Roaring Forties and the Wild Fifties. I don’t know if you’d know that term for the southern latitudes. / although we had summer conditions. / I think the highest wave you had is six meters./

Pogue: [00:25:17] Six meters is still very tall for waves. 

Lasse: Yeah, that’s true. But /we wanted to be fast, because/  the charter was limited. So we didn’t want to lose a day.  

Oh, yeah—about the time limit. An anonymous donor contributed $10 million to this journey, which was organized by a nonprofit called the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust. 

The team had chartered the Agulhas II for five weeks, with an optional ten-day extension; after that, the ship had to go to its next job. So time was of the essence.

Pogue: [00:24:02] Now, I have a very small question for you. How did you find it? 

Nico: [00:24:39] Okay. So that’s helping to have a small, small box. /

The search box is the rectangle of sea floor that they hoped to search. It measured 8 by 15 miles, and it was based on the Endurance’s final position as recorded by navigator Frank Worsley.

Nico: [00:25:08] / And believe me, believe me, Worsley made a sextant position absolutely, absolutely accurate. So we are extremely close from, from its last known position. 

The difficulties came by the fact that usually when you cover a search box, you go from point A to point B and you have a task plan. /Here in the Weddell Sea, it has been quite more complicated because due to ice, you cannot go from point A to point B. So we have been obliged to, to make the sub-boxes for each dive and dive where the ice allows us/. 

In other words, ideally, they’d search the box sequentially, from left to right, in long parallel lines. But because of those doggone ice sheets, they had to search random mini-boxes within the search box, getting in around the moving ice sheets as best they could.

That wasn’t the only tricky part. The Sabertooth can carry either payload it needs for long-range searches, or the payload it needs for close-up inspection—but not both at the same time.

Nico: [00:42:03] / So we got one setting for long range search, / where the, the primary sensor was a side scan sonar, / And then for inspection we remove the sonar, / and install in place the LIDAR, the 4K cameras, the 4K broadcast cameras, and all devices for the inspection. 

Side-scan sonar is a machine that blasts out audio pings, and then measures the echoes, stitches the data together, to produce images of big objects under water. I happen to know this… because my great-uncle was one of the inventors back in the 50s.

Pogue: [00:43:07] / I don’t know if you know the name Professor Harold Edgerton./

Nico: Yeah, of course. 

Pogue: My grandmother’s brother. 

Nico: Oh, my God! 

Pogue: Yeah, Uncle Harold. 

Nico: I’m very impressed. 

Pogue: [00:43:41] / when I was growing up, he was—he and Jacques Cousteau took, took a prototype to Loch Ness to look for the monster. 

Nico: Indeed. 

Pogue: That was—everyone was talking about that in my family. They didn’t find it. But yeah. 

Nico: Nessie is very shy. 

Anyway. On the Endurance22 mission, a lot of things went right. The ice was forgiving.

Lasse: [00:08:22] / we were super lucky. We needed to go / only ten nautical miles through heavy ice, and all the—in almost all the years before, we had to travel 100, 250 nautical miles through heavy ice. 

Also, the storms held off.Also, the Sabretooth sub worked really well. And, for Lasse Rabenstein, the BIG lucky break—was the crew’s health.

Lasse: [00:41:33] /It’s not self granted that you have 110 people on board and there was no large COVID outbreak or so on board. / that was the biggest threat to the expedition maybe in the end, not the ice. 

Pogue: Wow. 

Lasse: Oh, but it went well. We were lucky. 

There was really only one little thing that didn’t go especially well: they could not find the dang shipwreck!

The five weeks had gone by—30 Sabretooth dives—with no sign of Endurance. The expedition managers invoked their 10-day extension on the Agulhas charter so they could keep looking. 

And now they were eight days into the ten-day extension period, and they still had not found Endurance.

Lasse: (cont’d) / the search box, / where we thought the wreck would be in, was 80% already scanned. And we had only two days left before the captain and the owner of the ship ordered us back to Cape Town in South Africa. /

But then, on March 5, 2022…the sonar picked up something.

Nico: [00:39:10] / the guys /  called me, so I joined them/. So I saw the high resolution images immediately with them, which has been a dream. /

Nico asked if they could drive the Sabretooth around to get a quick video on the Sabretooth’s built-in camera, to confirm that the bulky object was in fact a ship and not, you know, a big rock.

Nico: (Con’t) the AUV pilot was claiming that we are already too low on batteries and asking to end the dive. But I pushed, I pushed, I pushed to have the visual inspection, just a few seconds to be sure that we are talking about wood/. 

Not only was the object made of wood—it was, in fact, the Endurance. 

Pogue: [00:21:59] / Do you remember the first time you heard that they had spotted it? 

Lasse: [00:22:07] Yeah. /as a chief scientist, I had a radio, and I could listen to some of the other communications on board. And then I heard that the head of exploration—the chief—the head of the expedition, John Shears, they were ordered on the bridge to meet with Nico/. And I was already like, something is happening. 

[00:23:57] And then /  at dinner, a lot of people had already a smile on their face. And I think most people knew it already, although it was only official after dinner that day that they found it. 

Once they’d equipped Sabretooth with its high-resolution cameras and sent it back to the spot, they found even better news: The shipwreck was pristine. It looked incredible. It wasn’t rotted, or rusty, or eaten, or degraded; some parts of the hull looked almost fresh from the shipyard.

Lasse: [00:18:21] / we were all really surprised. Also, the head of exploration, who has seen hundreds of shipwrecks in his life—/ He never has seen a shipwreck like this before, he told us, in that good condition. 

Pogue: [00:14:51] / I mean, it looks like it’s in a museum, that the wood looks brand new. 

Lasse: [00:15:29] Yeah. / because there’s no light, there’s no or no organic—lot of organic activity down there. It’s not a lot of sedimentation. So in the last hundred years, it was maybe, I don’t know, a centimeter of sediment / was falling down on the ship. It’s almost nothing. And yeah, it’s, it’s just a very good environment down there to conserve a shipwreck. 

In most oceans, sea organisms would ordinarily much away at sunken wood, decomposing it. But not here.

Lasse: [00:16:50] / there is one certain worm which is, which is, is the cause for for like organic erosion or so which eats wood, for example. So in lower latitudes, many shipwrecks suffering from this worm, I heard. /And this animal does not exist in Antarctica. 

Pogue: [00:46:18] Well, what happened on board? Was there champagne and yelling? 

Nico: [00:46:24] It’s a dry vessel, so no champagne. Uh—. 

Pogue: [00:46:27] Awww. 

Nico: [00:46:31] / But, no, it was—I think that it was a huge relief for everybody, because / we got exactly 22 days on site to cover—to toto find the Endurance, and, and we discovered her on day 20. 

Pogue: [00:47:07] So you really might have missed it. 

Nico: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Pogue: [00:44:06] / was it emotional or less emotional, because you pretty much knew you’d find it? 

Nico: / you can never be sure that you will find it. Never, okay? So the certainty to find your target is nil. You will always, always have some unknown. 

But so finding the Endurance, the most unreachable wreck of the world, its, it’s really, really an achievement. I think it’s a climax in my life /. 

In their last two days at sea, the crew sent the Sabertooth back to the shipwreck to capture a high-resolution 3-D scan. 

Nico: [00:19:50] we got a 4K still camera linked with a laser, a Lidar laser. And these sensors will allow us to make a facsimile in 3D of the wreck. / and we expect soon to have a result so accurate and so clean that anybody in the world can walk on the deck of the Endurance with VR glasses. So we expect this data very soon and it will be absolutely amazing. 

Pogue: [00:49:13] /So what happens now? Now that we know where it is, do people talk about artifacts, bringing back? Do they talk about putting people inside a submersible? 

Nico: [00:49:29] Well, putting people inside submersible—I do not recommend it, except if you want some bad news on the, on the TV. I mean, I don’t say it’s impossible, but it will be quite complicated and will require a very expensive expedition./

[00:50:57] About the wreckage.  / The wreck is protected by the Antarctic Treaty. / recovering artifact / is forbidden by the Antarctic Treaty. / And it’s one of the reasons why we produced this data, / to build this facsimile of the wreck, to be able to show everything at a higher resolution that we can—we expect to one millimeter resolution. 

[00:50:57]/(moved from earlier) So there is a lot to study and learn of Endurance, to make. I mean, it’s far, far to be, to be over. / 

The discovery of the Endurance made headlines all over the world. The photos blew people’s minds—because until they were published, no human being had ever seen a color photo of Endurance.

MONTAGE of news reports!

Lasse: [00:47:50] / Sometimes I can’t believe it, actually, that I when I read the story now, that I’m kind of—somehow I’m part of this story now, 100 years later, that feels weird. /

[00:42:48] / when I returned home, I mean, / people told me, like, “I’ve seen you in The New York Times, and I saw a photo in another German newspaper,” and so on. /

Pogue: [00:43:43] Yeah!

Lasse: [00:43:44] It was a little bit overwhelming for me as well, I have to say. I didn’t expect that it got this much attention. /

Pogue: [00:43:56] /did anyone recognize you on the street? “Hey, you’re that guy!”

Lasse: [00:44:01] No, not yet. / Fortunately, I can still go to the supermarket without being asked for it. /

I still remember the day I first saw that stunning photo of the Enduranceon the New York Times home page. It shows the stern, with the word ENDURANCE arced across the transom—and that original Polaris five-pointed star shining in the sub’s reflected headlamps. I swear to you, my breath stopped. It was like some mythological object, suddenly made real.Like if somebody found the actual Excalibur sword at a garage sale in Cincinnati.

The Holy Grail of shipwrecks has been found—and it’s a beauty. Sir Shackleton took good care of her for as long as he could—and, according to Nico Vincente,maybe even longer.

Nico: [00:47:09] I have a very, very great story to share with you. 

We found, we found the wreck, uh, on 5th of March 2022. Which is precisely 100 years after the burial of Ernest Shackleton in South Georgia. 

That’s right. They found the Endurance on on March 5, 1922—100 years to the day after Sir Shackleton had that fatal heart attack in South Georgia.

But not just 100 years to the day.

Nico: But it’s more than that. We found the wreck at, like, few minutes after 4 p.m, okay? And we are doing some research about the burial of, of Sir Ernest Shackleton, and we are aware that the ceremony started at 3 p.m. /  that may be precisely day per day or at the hour we found the wreck, precisely when Sir Ernest Shackleton had been buried in, in South Georgia. 

Pogue: [00:48:43] It’s—that’s, that’s nuts. That’s crazy. Nico: [00:48:45] /so we are pretty sure that the Boss was just looking at us, over the shoulder, to just give his permission to find her.