From 20,000 feet, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station looks more like a science-fiction lunar colony than an Antarctic science platform. A different picture emerges on the ground. A close inspection of the outpost reveals a long list of documented health and safety hazards. Call it the Mir Space Station of the polar plateau, it is, as one expert says, "a tired old station." But not for long.
As more than 1,000 workers, scientists, and military personnel began their annual migration south to Antarctica last week, their journey marked not just the beginning of the southern hemisphere's summer but also tripped the countdown timer for a blaze of new construction at one of the planet's most extreme destinations: the South Pole.
Building on the bottom of the planet - and especially at the South Pole - has no earthly comparisons. Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest continent on earth. With 8,000 miles of ocean and ice between the South Pole and the closest South American city, the work is more like an interplanetary journey than an intercontinental project.
Distance has never curbed man's interest in the Pole. Ever since Roald Amundsen set foot at the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, beating British explorer Robert Falcon Scott by 21 days, humankind's fixation with it has endured. Long regarded as the crown jewel of the southern-most continent, control of the geographic South Pole is seen as both a science smorgasbord and a geopolitical stabilizer.
"Just our presence on the continent helps," says Karl Erb, director of the Office of Polar Programs and head of the United States Antarctic Program (USAP). "We are a broker for international cooperation. We have a logistic ability to mount big projects. We provide a leadership role on the continent."
To fulfill this obligation, the National Science Foundation initiated an eight-year, $128 million reconstruction plan, now in its third season. Known as the South Pole Redevelopment Project (SPRP), it is the largest building effort ever undertaken in the Antarctic. In 1999 alone, USAP (managed by the National Science Foundation) secured $90 million in funding for science-related construction projects in the Antarctic, nearly $40 million of which was appropriated for the reconstruction of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Completed in 1975, and designed to house just 18 people in winter and 33 in summer, the South Pole Station has long surpassed its 20 year design life. "We are reaching a critical time in the life of existing facilities. It is either replace or close," says Frank Brier, facilities engineering projects manager of the Office of Polar Programs. "The US has decided to retain the South Pole for science. It is the cost of doing business in Antarctica."
And in Antarctica, doing business means doing science. Over the last quarter century, the South Pole has become one of the most prized scientific platforms on the planet. Along with that popularity has come a surge in demand for space.
"The interest of the science community has grown tremendously," says John Rand, project engineer for the SPRP. "More infrastructure is needed, specifically in astronomy."
Driving the South Pole's popularity are its unmatched conditions to collect earth's cleanest air, to observe the ozone hole, and to carry out astronomical observations.
"There is an absolutely forefront astronomy program [at the South Pole] that 15 years ago we didn't know existed," says Dr. Erb. "The South Pole is probably the best place on the planet for infrared astronomy - [looking at] the birth of stars. We need this infrastructure."
Engineers have thought long and hard about building at the pole. Managing the supply chain alone, which includes four flights a day and the disassembling and assembling of all structures carried on board, is a Herculean task.
And it is very cold.
Even Hercules would get chilly working at minus 18 degree F., the average summer temperature. It's so cold that planes can only land in summer, otherwise their hydraulic fluid freezes almost instantly.
This limits construction to a brief 110-day schedule from Nov. 1 to Feb. 15. To gain maximum advantage during this tight operating window, construction crews work in three shifts, 24 hours a day under a sun that never sets.
"The greatest challenge is obviously the environment that we are working in," Mr. Rand explains. "The warmest day is minus 20 in the summertime. We're at an elevation equal to about 10,000 feet and we're building this on an ice sheet that moves 10 meters [33 feet] per year."
Fortunately, all the ice is moving in the same direction, headed for the tip of South America. But the ice isn't the only thing that slows down at the South Pole - everything follows suit, including people.
"It is extremely difficult in terms of work environment," says Jerry Marty, operations and maintenance manager of USAP Facilities Construction. "Many people have said it is similar to working on a submarine. It's a confined area, and then you add to that cold and altitude. It wears on productivity".
If work is as confined as a submarine, it's also as hard to reach as space. Just as the new space station depends on the space shuttle, getting material to the South Pole depends entirely on USAP's workhorse, the LC-130 ski-equipped Hercules.
"The space shuttles have a limited amount of space that they must design around," Mr. Marty says. "We treat our transportation vehicle [the LC-130] no differently than the space shuttle."
The size constraints of the aircraft have many implications. "Everything has to be 'Hercable,' " Marty says. Ultimately, engineers can't build for absolute efficiency of design, instead they must build with the plane in mind. "You end up with a lot more pieces than you'd like to have."
The new station may have more parts, but the design is a radical departure from the old. From the sky, the current station is defined by a huge silver dome, resting upturned like a space-age salad bowl over the main buildings. The new station is a modular, elevated structure, constructed to house 110 people, with the potential to expand and hold 150.
Designed to face into prevailing winds, the new facility will allow wind-blown snow, which has covered most of the old station, to pass harmlessly underneath. The entire structure can be elevated 10 feet at a time, adding decades to the station's usability.
With five years of construction to go, Antarctic workers heading south can look forward to a lot of hard work and cold days. Even so, the demand for these jobs far outstrips the need.
"There is a waiting list for construction crews to work at the Pole. It is a coveted position," says Marty. "[This job] is so difficult, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society