By Danielle DeSimone

Did you know that the U.S. military has contributed to some of the most important exploration expeditions throughout world history?

Follow the compass needle north, south, east, west and beyond to learn about five groundbreaking military explorations that trailblazed their way into the record books:

Photo credit The National Interest

The USS Nautilus submarine

North: The USS Nautilus Submarine Exploration of the North Pole

In the summer of 1958, the crew of the USS Nautilus set a course to the North Pole – not to see Santa Claus, but to claim the title of ‘first undersea voyage to the North Pole’ ahead of the Soviet Union (fun fact: the Nautilus was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, making its journey to the North Pole even more momentous!).

The Nautilus and its crew began their journey off of the coast of Alaska on August 1, 1958 where they dove under the Arctic ice cap to approximately 500 feet before cruising north. Two days later, the USS Nautilus officially accomplished its mission, becoming the first vessel to cross the North Pole underwater. The commander of the submarine, William R. Anderson, was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Eisenhower and the entire crew received the Presidential Unit Citation.

The success of the mission brought further research to the North Pole, as well as the development of more submarine and nuclear-powered technology.

Photo credit U.S. Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation

A ship cuts through Antarctic ice during Operation Highjump.

South: Operation Highjump in Antarctica

On the surface, Operation Highjump seemed straightforward: launch the first U.S. naval expedition to Antarctica in 100 years and establish a research base on the continent. However, the reality of sailing through a dangerous sea of ice made the mission a lot more challenging than even the Navy could expect.

The mission, which began in August 1946 and ended in February 1947, is the largest naval expedition ever in Antarctica. The task force included 4,700 men, 13 vessels and 33 aircraft.

During the six-month expedition, extreme weather took its toll – three aviators died in a plane crash in the middle of a blizzard. However, the larger expedition group managed to accomplish a lot, including extensive photo-mapping of the area around Peter I Island and the first underwater dive by Americans in the Antarctic.

Additionally, Operation Highjump laid the groundwork for the Navy’s future cold-weather missions, including Operation Deep Freeze in 1955, Operation Deep Freeze II and others, which conducted groundbreaking research in hydrography, weather, glaciers and marine life. Fun fact: Walt Disney himself even designed the emblem of Task Force 43 for the Operation Deep Freeze missions!

Photo credit Indiana University Bloomington

A sketch from the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842.

East: United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842

The United States Exploring Expedition that sailed into the uncharted waters of the Pacific was one of the most important U.S. military expeditions for the development of science and oceanography. Originally requested by President John Quincy Adams, but authorized and launched by Congress and President Andrew Jackson, the expedition consisted of 350 men, seven ships and several scientists.

The crew set sail on August 1838 and ventured into open sea, moving along the coasts of Portugal and West Africa, around South America, and then into the Pacific. The expedition explored everywhere from Tahiti, to Hawaii, to New Zealand and beyond. Tensions among the crew, armed conflict with indigenous people of some of the Pacific islands and the strain of traveling for nearly four years took its toll on the expedition.

However, this particular excursion led to incredible progress in the field of biology. Additionally, thousands of animal and plant specimens were collected, many of which would make up the majority of collections at the then-brand new Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C. The expedition was also crucial in mapping ocean geography and exploring the culture and customs of several indigenous societies of the Pacific islands.

West: The Explorations of John C. Frémont

John C. Frémont | Photo credit California State Library

Although he was a major general of the Union Army during the Civil War, the governor of the Arizona Territory and a presidential candidate, John C. Frémont would become most famous for being “the Pathfinder” – one of the most legendary western explorers in U.S. history.

Following the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Frémont worked under the War Department to conduct several expeditions into the western United States, which had not yet been extensively explored. Beginning in 1842, he traveled through the Rocky Mountains, along the Oregon trail and into Wyoming. Frémont even planted the first U.S. flag in the Rocky Mountains, claiming them for his country.

Throughout his expeditions, Frémont also traveled through Utah, Oregon, California, Nevada and New Mexico. His work was crucial in mapping the mid-west and much of Frémont’s writing served as a guide for future immigrants who traveled along the Oregon Trail.

Photo credit Dottie White

Army Astronaut Lt. Col. Anne McClain of the NASA Detachment, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, receives the oath of office during an underwater promotion ceremony.

Beyond: Into Space

Since the 1960s, the U.S. military has even been involved with the ultimate, final frontier: outer space. Of NASA’s 375 astronauts, 216 of them have served in the military, including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn.

In addition to partnering with NASA and scientists on research projects, the Air Force even has its own Space Command dedicated to intelligence, space operations and missile systems. The Space Command division is also responsible for the concept and launch of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Next up: Space Force!