The club’s gala is an enthusiastic celebration of science at a time when science is distrusted by no less than the current occupant of the White House. It’s also an event built around a sometimes anachronistic elitism. And yet, this esoteric vibe only seems to enhance its allure.
This year, 1,700 people attended the dinner. Many arrived clad in tuxedos and formal dresses. Some men wore gloves and top hats or sported medals around their necks. Others looked as if they’d come for some League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cosplay. One guy was wearing what I’m pretty sure was a Canadian Mountie uniform. I spotted at least one kilt, an Austrian dirndl-style dress, and a crown of boar tusks.
The Explorers Club is not for poseurs, though. According to the group’s website, “Members are those individuals who have contributed in broad terms to the cause of exploration and who evidence a sustained interest in some field of scientific exploration”; the site also notes that activities such as traveling for fun and big-game hunting do not count. Members don’t necessarily have to go to far-flung locales: Curt Westergard, who belongs to the club’s Washington-area chapter, builds tethered surveillance balloon systems to capture large aerial images, mostly of cities. “I explore and document the space above buildings, but below where airplanes fly,” he explained.
Joining the club is not cheap: For most types of membership, there’s an initiation fee that ranges from $340 to $765, and annual dues that range from $65 (for students) to $1,365. The club provides members with a community of like-minded individuals, while also supporting education and research. Notable past members include Roy Chapman Andrews, thought to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer who crossed the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. (Women weren’t allowed as members until 1981.) The Apollo astronauts were given awards at this year’s dinner. Buzz Aldrin was in attendance; Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin (and, full disclosure, The Washington Post), and Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, were invited but didn’t make it, according to Lisa Kovitz, a publicist for the event.
I pushed through the crowd in search of what is arguably the dinner’s most famous appetizer: tarantula tempura on a stick. I happened upon a large centerpiece made up of small, palm-like plants on top of a grassy surface, ringed with what appeared to be recently dead reptiles. There were no tarantulas, though. “They’re the first to go,” said a young man, as he took a selfie with a meal worm cake pop. He went on to explain that the reception was first open to VIPs, and the tarantulas were really Instagrammable. Later, Tariq Malik, managing editor of Space.com, told me he tried one, and it was “like shoving an entire bloomin’ onion in my mouth, except this had eyes that could see into my soul.”
As the dinner chimes sounded, I picked up a bug on a skewer from amongst some dirty glasses and used napkins. I brandished it like a sword, and as I walked through the crowd, some folks pointed, while others shouted, “Eat it!” One of the chefs in a long white hat who was leaning against a nearby counter informed me it was a cockroach. He said that it would taste crunchy on the outside and mealy on the inside; he also recommended procuring “a shot or two of vodka” prior to consumption. I took the skewer with me into the ballroom, where I abandoned it without taking a bite.
On stage, the club’s president, Richard Wiese, commented on the size of the turnout, declaring that it might be “the largest gathering of world-class explorers ever,” as the crowd cheered. He continued, “This is the greatest club in the world!”
It is certainly a club that appreciates superlatives. Even the non-famous members were impressive. Besides the special awards bestowed upon the Apollo astronauts, one award went to anesthesiologist and diver Richard Harris for his role in rescuing the boys’ soccer team from a cave in Thailand. Another went to biology professor James McClintock for his ongoing work in Antarctica, where he is researching the impacts of ocean acidification and climate change.
The guy wearing the crown of boar tusks, which turned out to be a traditional Ethiopian tribal headdress, was video game entrepreneur Richard Garriott de Cayeux, a son of Owen Garriott, an astronaut who flew on space shuttle Columbia and Skylab, the first American space station. Richard and his wife, Laetitia, who is also a member, brought their two children, ages 6 and 4, to the gala. Richard and Laetitia are both space aficionados. The couple invests in SpaceX, as well as other space companies; in 2008, Richard spent $30 million to live in space for 12 days. Their latest expedition was closer to home, in Ethiopia, where they met members of a few Omo Valley tribes.
Honorary President Bertrand Piccard reminded the crowd that it was their job to address the serious issues facing the planet, including poverty and the environment. Award-winner Kenneth Lacovara — who is dean of the School of Earth & Environment at Rowan University in New Jersey and renowned for his dinosaur discoveries, including one of the heaviest land animals known ever to have lived, the Dreadnoughtus — spoke about humanity owing its existence to the asteroid that brought on the demise of the dinosaurs. He urged the people in the room to work to solve the problems facing the planet, warning that, now, “we’re the asteroid.”
On a lighter note, each of the Apollo astronauts was asked to share a memory from their Apollo days. One astronaut discussed the rather delicate matter of using the bathroom, explaining that urine vented into space turned into something that looked like a kind of snow. The audience roared with laughter.
Around 11 p.m., the crowd had thinned. Some attendees were already thinking about next year. Several people I spoke to talked about feeling that other members of the club really “got” them. Indeed, as with all subcultures, the appeal of the Explorers Club may ultimately lie in the sense of belonging it promotes. Earlier in the evening, Gaelin Rosenwaks — a marine scientist, photographer and self-described “ocean storyteller” who has done research around the world — told me how much she relishes the chance to connect with friends who are “amazing, like-minded people.” “When you tell people here what you’re doing,” she said, “they don’t think you’re crazy. Instead, they want to hear more.”
Lia Kvatum is a writer and producer in Maryland.