Testing Spacesuits in Antarctica, part 3

March 11, 2011

The storm at our arrival in Marambio. Credit: M. Marinova

Our wake-up call came at 8am (later than expected): the winds in Marambio were an incredibly strong 80-100 km/h (50-60 mph), and we were on hold, waiting for a break in the weather. Aside from the usual difficulties of landing in Antarctica – having little instrumental help and landing on an unpaved surface (ice in McMurdo and gravel at Marambio), our destination also has the distinction of having an incredibly short runway for a C-130 to land on. The combination of a short runway and the gravel surface which is hard to break on, the C-130 can only carry half of its maximum capacity if it is to stop before falling off the cliff at the end of the runway. One of the main mottos of field work is “hurry up and wait”. After a quick jump out of bed, and a breakfast, we were on a constant 10 minute stand-up just in case the weather looked like it was clearing up and we had to rush over to the C-130 for the flight to Marambio. Around noon we got the go ahead, and within 30 minutes, we were in the C-130 and airborne. Marambio, here we come!

Marambio Island is a relatively small island, about 10 km (6 miles) across, off the eastern side of the tip of the Palmer Peninsula. The northern half of the island is a mesa – a very flat area 200 m (670 ft) above sea level. This type of geological feature forms when in the layering of the rock there is a hard layer that is resistant to the erosion by the wind and rain and snow; everything above gets eroded, leaving the flat surface of that hard layer. The Marambio base and runway are on this layer. The geology and weather of the island further complicate landing at Marambio: instead of doing a normal approach from altitude, planes actually descend to about the height of the mesa and go straight in.

Two more initiations: an unidentified victim on the left and Horacio Larossa on the right. Credit: M. Marinova

Combining the short runway and the bad weather – it was an exciting landing done absolutely perfectly by the amazing pilots! But little did we know what was awaiting us. Having heard the reports of temperatures around freezing, I had just worn my jeans and the big yellow jacket. My snow pants, goggles, scarf, and hat neatly packed away in my luggage. With the first step out of the plane, Antarctica reminded me never to underestimate the continent. The incredibly strong wind made it hard even to stand, and the blowing snow and snow pellets hitting your face at up to 100 km/h (60 mph) was an added bonus. We were also quickly motioned to walk through the large snow banks – because the walkway had a thick layer of ice from the storm. And this was just the 100 m (300 ft) walk to the terminal. Yes, we were now in Antarctica.

As we entered the heated terminal building I started to relax a little. Little did I know that we had another over 500 m (0.3 miles) to walk! By the time we got to the main set of buildings (which are connected by walkways), we all looked like snowballs! But together with the harshness of Antarctica, comes the incredibly heartfelt welcoming of the people who work and live here. We were quickly ushered to the dining room, where hot chocolate, coffee, and freshly baked cookies awaited us. Yes, we were now really in Antarctica!

After settling into our dorm rooms, and regrouping, we went to try and find the spacesuit cases. In the storm. Little did we know that another surprise awaited us – our guide, Enrique, decided it was also time to give us our Marambio initiation, which involves basically being stuck head first into a snow bank, studding snow under your hat.  

March 12, 2011

Snow-covered, but happy, after a walk in the storm and our Marambio initiation. From left to right: Margarita Marinova, Pablo de Leon, Jon Rask, Enrique Oscar Videla, Ruben Perez

If there is one thing that is certain about Antarctica, it’s that you really have no idea what you’re going to find. Getting there might take a few hours or many days, the weather that greets you might be gorgeous blue skies or a howling wind, and your equipment might arrive or not, and then it might work or not work. But whatever the case, it will be the adventure of a lifetime!

When the storm rages on, all you can do is wait. And in the meantime explore your indoor surroundings and get to know all the incredible people who collect in a place like this. The first order of business was to get our spacesuit boxes inside, but because of the bad weather no one was allowed outside, and that included the forklift which was needed to bring our boxes over. So we got to know the commander of the station and its other inhabitants, and had more of the cook’s amazing cookies, and tries to make plans for when the storm would allow us to venture outside.

By late afternoon we managed to get the spacesuit cases from the warehouse to the main buildings. The next step was to open them up and let them warm up: bending the chilled plastic tubes and cables could mean breaking them. But with our boxes in, we did have some equipment we could go and test outside. In a little break in the wind, with only 30-40 km/h (19-25 mph) winds, we ventured outside to test the drill we would be using, and looking at the geology around the base.

Cookies and bread, and one of our most incredible cooks! Credit: M. Marinova

As we were milling around, it became clear that some major preparations were underway. Today is Saturday, and the last week of frequent flights between Argentina and Antarctica. In the next few weeks, the population of Marambio will go from about 130 people to the 50 people who will spend the whole winter there. Tonight there will be a feast and a celebration. The chefs were super busy all day preparing the multitude of dishes, with such passion and love. The chefs are really such a vital part of any field campaign, and especially so in Antarctica, where the range of food supplies is usually small, and the storms can keep people holed up inside for days or even weeks at a time.

After a feast like no other, it was time for the station commander to acknowledge the amazing hard work everyone had done during the summer season, and for some friendly jabs between the airplane and helicopter pilots. And now, of course, it’s time for dancing!


This project was made possible with support from the NASA Astrobiology Science and Technology for Exploring Planets (ASTEP) program and the University of North Dakota. Travel from Buenos Aires to Marambio and accommodation in Marambio was provided by the Argentinian Air Force and Argentinian Antarctic Program.

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