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Goddard Space Flight Center

Astrophysics Science Division | Sciences and Exploration

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TIGER in Antarctica

November 9, 2001

This is going to be long, a lot has happened.

Suiting up for flight to McMurdo First Journal entry and it's been a very long day. The trip actually started on Monday, November 5 with an afternoon flight from Washington DC to Los Angeles. In LA, I start running into other people heading to Antarctica (the National Science Foundation books our trip and tries to put us on the same flight). One of my TIGER team members from Washington University in St. Louis (Garry Simburger) is there, as is someone I know from the National Scientific Balloon Facility (they're the ones who will actually launch the balloon). There are other new faces as well, usually recognizable by the blue plastic luggage tags we've been given by the NSF.

Photo on right: Garry Simburger (left) and me (right) getting geared up for the flight to McMurdo Station Antarctica

Then a long flight to Auckland, New Zealand, crossing both the equator and the International Date Line. We arrive on the morning of Wednesday, November 7 (although it's still Tuesday back home). We all go through customs in Auckland. New Zealand is very strict about environmental issues. They check to make sure I have no foreign dirt in the tread of my hiking boots, and I have to declare the package of Girl Scout cookies I've taken along.

Inside C-141 onroute to McMurdo In the customs line, I find a friend of mine (Dr. Katherine Rawlins) who was on the same plane, but I missed her in LA. She's just going to be passing through McMurdo Station on her way to the South Pole. She's going to spend the next 13 months there, working on the AMANDA (Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array) project. She's been to the pole several times already, but this will be her first time wintering over. If I don't make it down to the pole myself, I'll try and get a report from her.

Photo on left: Eric Christian in USAF C-141 enroute to Antarctica

Then a quick flight down to Christchurch, NZ. We're met at the airport by members of the US Antarctic Program (USAP), assigned hotel rooms in town, and told that we have to report for clothing distribution the next day.

After a nap, I wander through town for a bit, and then meet up with some people for dinner. Fresh seafood and vegetables, both in short supply down in Antarctica. We're all pretty tired, so we decide not to do the club scene after dinner.

Inside C-141 onroute to McMurdo Thursday, November 8: Wake up early and walk through the large botanical gardens in Christchurch. Then out to the USAP complex for outfitting. When things get slow here, I'll go into more detail on clothing, but suffice to say, it is extremely important to have the right clothing and to have it fit correctly. I spend an hour and a half trying on everything from long winter underwear to hats. We have to report back at 2:45 AM (Yuchh!) tomorrow morning for the flight to Antarctica. After an early dinner, I pack for the trip and go to sleep.

Photo on right: Inside of USAF C-141 enroute to Antarctica

2:30 AM and it's dark and drizzling, but it's the start of one of the most exciting days of my life. After reporting to the airport, the first thing is to get on our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) gear. Then they weigh us and our luggage (strict limits on luggage, luckily not on my personal weight). We go through full security, metal detectors, x-ray of luggage, and a drug-sniffing dog. Then they load us up on a US Air Force C-141 transport plane and we finally get to take off about 6 AM. I'm told that this is the fastest and most comfortable of the planes I could take down to the Ice. It's been configured with two aisles, with web-and-frame benchs facing the aisles. There are 80 or 90 people heading down to McMurdo and the entire back half of the plane has pallets of cargo and our luggage.

Looking down on pack ice from C-141 With all of our gear on, it is very crowded, and it is really hot in the plane. There is a bag lunch sitting on each seat. We laugh, but it really hit the spot later on in the flight. After we get above 10,000 feet, we can take off some of our gear, like the parkas and clunky boots. We're still wearing multiple layers, so it's still pretty warm. Many people try and sleep, but someone near me sets up a DVD movie on their laptop (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and that proves to be a great way to waste a few hours. We have to use sub-titles because the airplane is extremely noisy, to the point where we might damage our ears if we weren't all wearing earplugs.

Photo on left: Looking down on pack ice (breaking up because spring is coming) through window of plane

When we take off, it's pretty overcast and dark, so I don't see anything of New Zealand from the air. The C-141 gives us a smoother flight than the 747 I took across the Pacific. About 10 AM, I look out one of the small windows (there are only six for the entire cargo/passenger area) and there's a beautiful view of the pack ice far below. Since it's spring, the pack ice is melting and breaking up into chunks, and there are large areas of dark (cold) ocean in between the icebergs.

Looking down on Transantarctic Mountains from C-141 Forty five minutes later and we can see the Transantarctic Mountains, completely covered with snow and sticking up above a nearly featureless snow field. Shortly thereafter, we are told to put our ECW gear back on and fasten our seatbelts. We couldn't recline the seats and there are no tray tables, but getting the ECW back on in close confines is a little difficult.

Photo on right: Transantarctic Mountains from window of C-141

Suiting up for flight to McMurdo A couple of easy banked turns and then we're down, 11:30 AM after a pretty easy trip. It's an ice runway on the Ross Ice Shelf and it seems like we travel for a long time before the plane finally stops (I guess brakes don't do you much good on an ice runway). We unload quickly and it's hard to believe that I'm standing on 800 meters of ice just off the coast of Antarctica! We're specifically told to go straight to the bus and not stop and take pictures, but I take one of the C-141 through the very dirty bus window after I'm clear. It's clear and cold, but not any different than some winter days in New England, for example. It is extremely bright, however, and sunglasses are definitely required.

Photo on left: C-141 on McMurdo Ice Runway

Suiting up for flight to McMurdo The large 4-wheel-drive bus takes us towards McMurdo Station, which is on Ross Island at the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, off the coast of Antarctica. I'll cover more local and continental geography later in the trip. McMurdo looks like a group of warehouses nestled at the base of a snowy, rocky hill (actually a peninsula of Ross Island). Although the day isn't over yet, I'll continue the narrative tomorrow.

Photo on right: My first look at the town of McMurdo, Antarctica!

Photo of Dr. Christian

Dr. Eric R. Christian
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This page was last modified on December 19, 2002