“Fun” is not something that one immediately thinks of when thinking of Antarctica. “Cold,” “dry,” and “windy,” perhaps, but not “fun.” But with my first steps on the Ice an our first shuttle ride with Shuttle Bob, it was immediately clear that I was thinking about this all wrong: “fun” is one of the more important things on the Ice. In a place where conditions can be deadly, the routine can seem mind-numbing, and the scenery monochromatic, making fun out of nothing is a critical task for those on base. And, of course, nothing is quite as fun as defining the kinds of fun one can have:
For me and the Icefin team, this, being down here in the bleakest, driest, windiest, coldest, landmass on Earth, working on prototyping a Europa probe for under-ice oceanographic research under the Ross Ice Shelf, this is most certainly Type 1 Fun. And we plan on having plenty of it while we’re here.
As a first-year Ph.D. student in the Ocean Science and Engineering program at Georgia Tech, this has been a whirlwind few months. After graduating in May from the University of Maryland with a fresh B.S. in Electrical Enigineering, I spent the long summer days working on an toaster-oven-sized autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) with the Robotics At Maryland team for the 2017 RoboSub competition before moving down to Atlanta to work on the big fish: a 12-foot long, nine-inch diameter remote-operated vehicle (ROV), Icefin, capable of running for five or more hours under the ice at depths up to 1500m, taking multiple camera and oceanographic data streams at once through a fiber optic cable up to 3.5km long to our surface base station. Eventually, we’ll deploy Icefin below the Ross Ice Shelf through 300 to 350 meters of ice and a similar amount of water, in a region of the ocean no one has ever explored. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. The summer was spent assembling and testing the power systems of the vehicle, followed by integration during the beginning of the semester before our deployment. With my only midterm completed, our Lead Engineer Matt Meister gave a TedX talk before we packed up the robot and some of the support gear into 17 Pelican-style hard cases and jumped on a commercial Delta flight (all 17 of them checked underneath) to Christchurch, NZ, from where U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) participants deploy to the Ice.
It’s a long flight to New Zealand, but the approach into Christchurch was amazing, coming up over the snow-capped mountains, ranging over the sheep farms and the rural areas outside the city before flying over the low buildings into the sleepy city itself. We spent three days prepping for our final approach, with numerous team meetings to discuss logistics and plans, as well as a day at the CDC (the Christchurch Distribution Center), where we were briefed on all things USAP gear and prep, culminating in the reception of the Big Red parka. These amazingly comfortable jackets, made by Canada Goose, are seemingly world-famous, worn by USAP participants for the past 30+ years, with the full technological advancement of those 30 years packed into its down stuffing and dozens of pockets. When I pulled it on for the first time, I felt a major sense of pride, having put in the hard work to earn this opportunity to study on the same rarefied air as some of the great explorers and scientists of the past century, and I luxuriated in the sensation. That lasted but a few brief moments before the second though came: I’m going to Antarctica!
The morning of the flight was filled with a tense, anxious, and excited air. Contractors were swapping stories about their summers off the Ice while the eight of us were a little more nervous, with half the team having no idea what to expect and the other half wondering whether all of our gear would make it down with us. But by the time we all figured out what to wear (full ECW kit), how to pack our boomerang bags (lightly, with a few days of regular clothes), and which snacks to pack for the five hour flight down (trail mix, of course), we were being shepherded onto a bus for the two minute drive to the airport and the majestic C-17. It’s a massive plane, like a 747 but completely stripped on the inside, four serious jet engines, two or three tiny windows, and all our gear “palletized” in the middle. We piled in, making sure to get the side benches (which everyone swore were more comfortable), and took off. I fell asleep immediately, but woke up for the most important part: during the last hour or so, the pilots let people up to the cockpit to see it and the Ice for the first time. And boy, what a sight it was, majestic and dramatic beyond words, foreboding in the way that a sheet of ice can be, and exciting in the way that a new adventure is.
I made the mistake of using the “b-word” on the flight (boomerang), but thankfully it didn’t cost us; the landing was made on the first attempt and was smooth as glass. Stepping off onto Antarctica for the first time is akin to nothing else; stepping onto a completely alien environment that is, essentially, doing everything in its power to remove you, all while you and Big Red struggle to survive. So much about this place is foreign to most people, from the weather (cold and quick to change) and scenery (dramatic and awe-inspiring), to the machinery (gigantic and occasionally hacked together) and safety procedures (the trick is that this gear is not for luxury, it’s for survival). Quite frankly, it feels like a cobbled together mining or logging town at the end of the world, but world-class scientific research happens here in fields like ecology, biology, oceanography, glaciology, and astrophysics. It’s a remarkable place. What’s also really interesting is how familiar it is: the store sells many familiar items, the galley has very familiar foods, and the rooms are familiar from my undergraduate days living in the dorms. It’s the mix of familiar and foreign that makes this place so special.
There’s so much training and logistics to do in the first few days that we’ve barely had time to breath: core McMurdo (how to live here), outdoor safety (how to hike here), light vehicle (how to drive here), and field safety (how to survive here), among others. Today we got to do Pisten Bully training; these tracked vehicles are like Antarctic dune buggies, and we’ll be taking them out to the sea ice to do our first field tests. Most of our stuff made it, most importantly the vehicle, which we’ve started to reassemble. The field tests will hopefully start in about a week, once everything has been safely brought back up and all the necessary training has been completed. But right now, we’re trying to take it one day at a time, appreciating the stunning surroundings, and having as much type 1 fun as we possibly can.