Bethe Healey spent a year at the ESA's Concordia base in Antarctica, also known as "White Mars".
You’re at a research station in Antarctica, yet via Skype l can see you’re wearing a T-shirt. I’ll bet it’s another story outside?
The lowest temperature was -81 °C. If you add in wind chill, it can drop below -100 °C. It’s pretty chilly. It was a shock to the system when I arrived.
Sounds like a long way from civilisation…
I’m at Concordia, a French-Italian base high on the ice plateau, about 1000 kilometres from the coast. It was built 10 years ago because it’s an ideal spot to drill for ice cores to examine past climate. Our closest neighbour is the Russian station Vostok, 600 kilometres away.
I’ve heard Concordia is sometimes called White Mars. Is that because it’s a bit like being cooped up on a long space flight?
Yes. The European Space Agency, who I work for, also carries out experiments here. The isolation is one of the big reasons that the agency is interested in Concordia. In winter, you can go outside, but not for long.
So your compulsory confinement in winter mimics an extended trip to space?
There was a simulated space mission in Russia called Mars 500, which tested the effects of long-term isolation, but the participants could walk out of the door if anything happened. Psychologically, this is very different from somewhere like Concordia, where you know that even if you want to go, it’s impossible.
How many people are at Concordia – and how long have you been cut off?
There are 13 of us. Apart from me, they are French, Italian or Swiss. We haven’t seen any new people since February. For all nine of those months we were totally isolated because of the temperatures. Even in an emergency, we couldn’t have been rescued because it was too cold for planes to fly in because the engines don’t work below -50 °C . We’ve just got a few weeks left. The first plane is due any day now, depending on the weather.
So how was it being cooped up?
Better than I expected. When you arrive during the summer, you hear stories about things that have happened during the winter, that everyone’s gone crazy and things like that. It hasn’t been like that at all. Obviously, it is a linguistic challenge having the international component – the rest of the crew are mostly Italian or French. When people are tired in the middle of winter, the last thing they want to do is start talking somebody else’s language.
You’re one of the doctors on the base, but can you really do much in a medical emergency, in space or in the Antarctic?
On the International Space Station, if something happens, they only need to deal with acute problems and general life support before evacuating. On a long journey in space, where you don’t have that option, space medicine will have to change. The model will be more similar to Concordia, where we have to deal with problems ourselves. Telemedicine will play a big part.
How will space medicine work?
It’s a bit like Skype, only more sophisticated. On the operating table, HD cameras zoom in so doctors can see what you’re doing remotely and in real time. You can have a direct line to different doctors, too.
What else are you working on?
We’re all slightly hypoxic on the station – there is a third less oxygen than at sea level because it’s about as high as Mont Blanc. This lower-level hypoxia is what you might expect on a spaceship. One of my projects is to study acclimatisation to the lower oxygen levels.
Are you running cognitive tests to see what the experience is doing to you all?
Yes, we’re doing a big experiment with the University of Pennsylvania. The ISS is also taking part, with astronaut Scott Kelly, who is spending a year there. Every week, we do tests, looking at things such as general cognition, motor skills and short-term memory. Personally, my memory has been slightly affected. My sleep pattern has been all over the place. I was fine in 24-hour daylight, but when we lost the sun I was wide awake at 4 am and ready to fall asleep at lunchtime.
Did you have your brain scanned too?
Yes. We had functional MRI brain scans before we left for Concordia, and we’re going to have them as soon as we get back, and then six months after the mission. The scans will look for structural changes.
You’ve got a very fancy high-tech wristband. What’s that for?
It’s an activity watch – everyone in the crew is wearing these. They measure your general activity levels, and other things such as sleep patterns. The watch can tell who I’m in a room with and how close I am to them. It’s looking at the relationships within the crew and how that changes, whether we are spending more time alone in our bedrooms or being more sociable in the sitting room. It also looks at how my habits are changing over time – at how regularly I go to the gym and how long I spend working in my lab. I am also taking blood samples from us all to look at chemical markers for stress.
How do people cope away from normal life?
Some are much happier here than back in the “real” world, while others want to get home. It’s interesting to look at the characteristics of different people and try to predict who would make a good crew for a long mission.
You have been recording video diaries. Why?
This is an experiment which has been running for a number of years here. We record a weekly video diary talking about our past week. The idea is to develop sophisticated techniques to interpret how an astronaut is coping and feeling during a space mission, beyond what they’re actually saying. It looks at the frequency with which we’re using certain word types – “team” words as opposed to “individual” words – and the tone and intonation of our voice.
So a bit Big Brother-ish then…
Yes. There are a few Big Brother things. The psychological experience here is probably one of the most interesting aspects. Before we came, the European Astronaut Centre’s human performance team trained us about living and working together as a crew, which is the same as they do with their astronauts.
If there were a trip to Mars next year, would you sign up?
It depends if it’s a one-way mission or not. I’d love to go to space, I’d love to go to the ISS, but I like Earth too much to give it up for good.
What are you most looking forward to when you get home?
We recycle all of our water and supplement it by melting snow here. It works really well, but you are not allowed to use normal shampoo or soap. So to be able to use normal shampoo, a good haircut, the little things… And of course getting back to see friends and family. That’s definitely been the hardest part, being away from people.
Beth Healey is a UK-trained doctor who has recently returned from Antarctica where she worked as research MD for the European Space Agency at space flight analogue Concordia, “White Mars”.
A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and patron of Expedition Medicine with an interest in polar environments she has worked as part of logistical and medical support teams for ski mountaineering expeditions and endurance races in Svalbard, Greenland, Siberia and at the North Pole.