Last week’s blog about Neil Armstrong brought back many childhood memories of the early days of space travel, amateur and model rocketry, and space related science fiction movies. So what does this have to do with Antarctica? I suspect my early interest in space exploration started me on a path which decades later would have me spending almost a year of my life in the most mysterious, “other world” environment to be found on this planet.
It was a cool October day in 1957. I was sitting in the back seat of my parent’s Ford listening to a breaking news story about the Soviet’s successful launching of Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite. I am not sure why it made such an impression, but it did. I started reading every book in could find on rockets or space travel in the local library. I remember back in the early 1960’s eagerly awaiting mail delivery of the latest Estes model rocket catalog or a precious package of recently ordered rocketry supplies. Our house in Southern California had a nice, tall leafy tree in the front yard. In the upper branches I attached the wooden end-piece of an orange crate, making an idea seat upon which to perch while memorizing each page of the rocketry catalog. Visions of my rockets soaring upward into blue skies filled with white billowy clouds seemed more real while I was aloft in the tree.
Another vivid memory was being called home from school one day in early May 1961. Knowing my interest in science and space travel, my dear mother wisely decided I needed to witness on live television the launch of Commander Alan Shepard, the first American in space. I still recall her anxiety when the rocket engine ignited. American rockets had a habit of exploding back in those days, so I suspect her apprehension was justified.
For those of us living at the dawn of the Space Age, the original seven Project Mercury astronauts were as heroic to the public as polar explorers had been half a century earlier. In the public’s mind, reaching the North or South Pole in 1900 was equivalent in difficulty and daring as a lunar landing would be sixty years later. Successful polar explorers were showered with accolades and celebrated in similar fashion to our early astronauts. I suspect many children in the early 20thcentury had pictures of polar explorers on their walls much as I displayed a picture of the Mercury Astronauts upon mine. Much later in life I had the good fortune to meet John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, two of the original Mercury Astronauts.
Similar to other planets, Antarctica has always been a bit mysterious. Little was known about “the last place on earth” until Commander (later Captain) Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition of 1902. Later, this mystery would only be enhanced by the many science fiction films whose plots center on this cold, forbidding continent. One such film that has seen many remakes is “The Thing From Another World”, which was adapted from John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” Originally set in the Arctic, subsequent producers felt Antarctica was even more mysterious and used that location for their movies. Polar tradition dictates a community viewing shortly after the station closes for the winter.
Antarctica has often been described as similar to or an analog for prolonged space travel or a permanent colony on another planet. Since I will never have the opportunity to “winter” on Mars, the South Pole seemed to be the next best option. So what makes this similar to an “off planet Earth” experience?
The thin atmosphere and low oxygen make it difficult to breathe, the extreme cold instantly freezes exhaled breath and will freeze exposed flesh within seconds, low humidity causes problems with static electricity and dries mucus membranes, six months of unrelenting light followed by six months of profound darkness, confinement to an area within a couple of kilometers of the elevated station, isolation from friends and family, challenging communications where sometimes we are completely cut off from the rest of the world, and an inability to conduct medical evacuations for many months. It is actually easier and faster to evacuate a patient from the dark side of the Moon than from the South Pole in winter. When venturing outside we have to don extreme cold weather clothing covering every part of our bodies, much like putting on a spacesuit.
Perhaps the thing that makes this feel most like a space colony is the brilliant celestial display available for viewing 24 hours a day during the winter darkness, assuming clear weather. Similar to space travel, wintering at the South Pole is a once in a lifetime experience not to be missed.