Letter from Antarctica

ESA’s research medical doctor Eoin Macdonald-Nethercott, a member of the winter crew at the Concordia station, writes about daily life in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth.

Concordia, 14 April 2011

I got up at 08:45 today. It's a bit of a struggle climbing out of bed, after five hours’ sleep.

There are usually only a couple of other guys, Angelo and Andrea B, when I go to get my breakfast, and today it is the same. I'm too groggy to chat and, besides, my spoken Italian isn't so great so I just read yesterday’s newspaper until I have slugged back enough coffee to overcome the sleepiness. Then I wander round and chat for a while.

The technical guys all start work at 08:00 so they have come and gone by the time I get there, and the astronomers get up at 18:00 and work through the hours of darkness. The others will come and go as they can fit around the demands of their experiments.

LTMS-3 goes out

Device to collect physiological data
Previous version of the LTMS

I have to be in the lab for 10:00am to rig Pascal, the seismologist, with the LTMS-3 gear as he is heading out for a hard day's work digging one of his shelters out from snow drifts.

It's the first outdoor test for the LTMS-3 gear (Long-Term Medical Survey System) and so I'm a little nervous. I don't want to break ESA's precious gear – there's only three of these little boxes in the world and two of them are here.

But today's a good day, the temperature is a relatively warm –60 degrees, and Pascal's going to be working physically hard, so he'll be generating a lot of heat, so it's a good day to test it.

Pascal is late. So, I look at what else I've got to do today, and decide to get on with repairing the EEG cap. On yesterday's tests a couple of the leads were playing up and running through all the usual troubleshooting steps didn't sort the problem so as a last resort I'm replacing the leads.

I'm not particularly keen to do it because I'll use two of the last three replacement leads I have and if I use the third no-one's going to be parachuting in any more. There aren’t any more supplies coming until the first raid or plane in November, so we all have to be very careful with the resources we have.

Walking outside at Concordia

Pascal arrives. I set him up with the vest that has electronic panels that can monitor heart rate, ECG, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, temperature, estimate calorie expenditure, and I stream an ECG trace to the laptop to ensure it's working. Looks good!

One problem though: there's a jacket to go over the top with pockets to hold the datalogger and other extension bits, and the pockets sit over the abdomen. Neither he nor I are happy about this because he'll be digging, and they'll get in the way. We give it some thought and try a radio harness, which has chest pockets instead and that works much better. appy, Pascal heads off for a hard day outside.

And I head back to bed for an hour. I was up until 04:00 this morning.

Something to swallow

Each week I put three guys though a four-day sequence of tests – different tests each day – and each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday one of the guys starts the protocol. This week it's Angelo, the meteorologist, Paolo, the IT/communications guy, and Andrea C, the station doctor and our station leader going through the protocol.

On the first day they do two hours of computer and questionnaire tests. Last night the guy who started is bit of a night owl and evening for him is a bit later than for most people.

So my 'evening' tests got done from 01:30 to 03:00. The tests themselves could have been done a bit quicker but I always find the guys have questions about the project, and always too I have to do a bit of cajoling to persuade them to do the more demanding computer tasks. So it takes quite a bit longer than it could.

Paolo wanders past my door on the way to the radio room. Looks like he had a late night too. He's due to be swallowing a temperature sensor as early as possible today, and doing the 'big day' later.

Shall I go and ask him to swallow it now? Hmmm…not yet. I need these guys to go along with my experiments for a year and they do it all voluntarily, so I'm careful to keep everyone on-side. Let's leave it an hour or so.

It’s lunchtime

Lunch is quite quiet, both the astronomers are still in bed, and Angelo is often late as some measurement he has to do seem to be coinciding recently. There are only eight of us there. It's a very good meal as usual.

Afterwards I check everything is set up for the afternoon testing session with Paolo and then I spend an hour wrestling with a new program that refuses to function like we expected it to. I've been running into compatibility problems since day one, and I've been on a steep learning curve on how to troubleshoot.

This time I can't solve the problem, and I will have to email the designers in Europe for advice. Because of the upload/download arrangements, plus the time difference, it tends to be 36 hours before I have the answer.

So, put that problem aside for a while. Frustrating, but there's nothing more I can do this end. And I get on with coding and backing up the data generated in the last day or so.

In the afternoon Paolo comes up to the lab for 'the big day', as we have taken to calling it. It's four concentrated hours of testing involving cognitive tasks with EEG monitoring, mood questionnaires, blood and saliva sampling, an exhaustive exercise test in the gym and then returning to the lab to repeat some of the tests.

I had replaced an electrode on the cap because yesterday with Angelo's test it was playing up. It all looks good when I start up the recording, but I turn on another computer, Paolo turns his head in the same moment and all the leads go off on an interference pattern. It takes 20 minutes of detailed checking of every piece of equipment before I figure out that the 'ground' lead on the cap's cable is being pulled tight, and freeing it stops the interference pattern.

Phew, I was getting worried there. But I have found that every problem I encounter does seem to work out OK reasonably quickly.

I and Paolo finish at 19:30. The samples are frozen, the EEG and data files all backed up, questionnaires coded and I've still got half an hour to rest before dinner. Not bad, especially with that cable problem to sort. Andrea, who's been keeping radio watch, wants to get away. We have to keep a radio watch whenever anyone is outside the base, and when Paolo is busy everyone has a responsibility to help take a turn. So I relieve him, and sit and do some admin in the radio room.

Who’s on duty tonite?

Milky way seen from Concordia

Dinner is at eight, and everyone is back at the base. As I climb the stairs I check the rota by the washing-up room because I can't remember when I'm next down on cleaning duty or on washing up duty. We take turns in rotation and so every 14 days you do a day of each. It's a while yet before my next turn, happy days. Mental note; it's David for washing up, and he always helps me out when it's my turn, I'll make sure I repay the favour.

As usual everybody is up for dinner and as usual, it's a good laugh. Everybody in this crew gets on very well. Language at the table is a mix of French, Italian and English. There are only three crewmembers who can speak all three languages but it is never a problem, and I never see anyone feeling left out.

I'm very lucky, speaking English as my native language as all but two of the crew can speak English well and the other two are picking it up very fast. It also means that English is usually spoken when French guys speak to Italians. I do tend to spend half of my Saturday afternoons helping everyone correct their weekly reports, which are all submitted in English. But it's an easy way to help everyone out, I'm very happy to do it.

Greetings from Mars!

Concordia station and aurora australis

After dinner I help with the clearing and cleaning but I'm not really needed as so many of the crew help, so after I've shown my face for long enough I head back to the lab to set up. I have two evening experiments to set up.

First, some computer-based cognitive testing with some basic EEG and ECG monitoring, and some questionnaires on mood and generally coping with the winterover for Andrea C, the station leader who is starting day one. Then, later I will be setting up sleep monitoring EEG on Angelo, who is on day three.

Finally I'm done by 01:00. I check my email before I go and I find that the Mars500 crew have sent me an email to say hello, with some photos. I forward it to all the crew and within five minutes Domenico bursts into my lab, full of excitement and plans for how we should reply to them. The Mars500 guys are doing a remarkable thing and they definitely deserve that we make a big effort.

An hour later I'm heading to bed again when Domenico is back again, having seen an aurora outside. Unfortunately, it's faded by the time we look.

So, I stagger off to bed finally at 02:00, thinking I really should phone my family as it's a good opportunity, being up so late (in the winter months here we are 7 hours ahead, and finding times to call is difficult), but I need to be up at 08:00 for Angelo, to take down the polysomnography. Another night, then.

Tomorrow I'm going to be sleeping on the hoof again, as I have guys on day two, three and four of the protocol. Still, it's only two intense days in the middle of the week as the three protocols overlap.

On Friday and Saturday my workload is much less and I catch up on my sleep then. This Friday in the afternoon I'm helping Andrea C, the station doctor, teach initial prehospital trauma care to the crew. Somewhere before then I'll have to go and figure out how the stretcher gets put together!

Seriously, every day is different. I'm having a great time. But I can assure you, I'm not going to go soft here!


ESA is involved with the hard and difficult projects like participating in the over-winter crews at Concordia Antarctic Research Station and missions like Mars500 - an outstanding interplanetary human mission simulation of 520 days in a special facility in Moscow - because they are extremely interesting when thinking of future long-duration space missions to Moon, Mars and other destinations in the Solar System. The lessons learnt include technology, human physiology, psychology and operational issues.

If you would like to follow Eoin to Concordia, the post in the next winter crew is now open: ESA is calling for candidates with a medical background with an announcement published today. More details can be found in the document that can be downloaded from the link on the right.

Copyright 2000 - 2018 © European Space Agency. All rights reserved.