My Year At ‘White Mars’ Made Me Long To Become An Astronaut

It’s strange how not seeing the sun for 105 days can affect you.

I spent over a year “overwintering” on the Concordia base in Antarctica.

It is ultra-remote, which is why the base is used to simulate space travel. It has the similar combination of isolation, inaccessibility, low light levels and a skeleton crew that you would find in space – which is why it’s nicknamed ‘White Mars’.

It’s also at an altitude of 3,200 metres (12,000ft), so the air is thinner in the same way you might find on a space mission.

The polar night itself was pretty brutal. It means 105 days of darkness. I didn’t sleep for four days after the sun first disappeared. It can make you become forgetful and your thyroid is affected by low light levels, so you have to write things down.

There were a total of 13 crew members at the base, half of them in an operational team (including a cook), the other half scientists. It’s a joint French/Italian base, so while the official language is English, people ended up speaking “Concordian,” which is a mish-mash of different tongues.

I was the first female research doctor to overwinter there on behalf of the European Space Agency. My job was to study the effects long term space flight might have on a crew – both psychologically and physiologically – and the biochemical markers that could be caused by stress and confinement over winter. Some of the scientific results will be published later this year.

The location is in one of the coldest places on Earth – temperatures hardly rise above −25 °C in summer and sometimes fall below −80 °C. Because there’s almost no possibility of being evacuated in an emergency, it creates the extra psychological stresses you might find in space.

Before we went, all the crew had the same Human Behaviour Performance Training that astronauts have. It’s designed to help you learn to live and work together closely and to air problems early. As it turned out there were some arguments, but not as many as I thought, perhaps because people are a lot more cautious as a result of the environment they are in.

Still, there are things you notice. People being isolated from certain groups, or occasional, subtle mind games. For example, one person hid food in the roof. We had no money and unlimited food, so there was never a concern that our food would run out, but we were limited in our luxury items, nice chocolate and nice tea. So, someone took it upon themselves to hide the Lindt chocolate in the roof, not for selfish reasons, but for the group, which was an interesting example of controlling behaviour.

To be honest, I thought I would be bored at Concordia and packed a lot of things to do before I left the UK. But in the end it wasn’t like that at all. In my spare time I did a lot of photography, and I learned a lot of different languages because we were such an international crew. Of course, some changes do get to you after a while. You’re not allowed normal shampoo or conditioner, which can be quite hard, and some people develop skin problems after a little. But it was generally a great experience.

Being on Concordia made me focus more strongly on the importance of getting treatment and health care to difficult places, which has long been a passion of mine. After I left Antarctica I went travelling with a friend Alice Jefferson, who works for a disaster response agency called ShelterBox. We had some ideas and put together a project called Space Earth Disaster Response, which was designed to bring some of the technologies used in space to disaster response.

A lot of people seem to feel space travel and space research is quite exclusive and not really relevant, but the absolute opposite is true. Many of the technologies being developed through space agencies could be utilised for disaster response or to promote health care.

Until I went to Antarctica, space travel wasn’t something that held any interest for me, although my love of skiing meant I had previously gaining a lot of experience in the field of expedition medicine. I’d worked as medical support for ski mountaineering expeditions and endurance races in Svalbard, Greenland, Siberia and even at the North Pole. At one point I even lived in Greenland as a doctor with the Inuit!

But this new involvement in space really inspired me. It’s the next big adventure for mankind – it’s the next place to truly explore. Applications to become an astronaut are only held every few years, but my experiences in Antarctica have meant I’m certainly going to apply!

Dr Beth Healey was a guest speaker at the Takeda ‘Blueprint for Success’ summit in Geneva – bringing together experts from government, industry (healthcare and pharmaceutical), NGOs, foundations, academia, finance and the wider business world to explore how new partnerships and innovation can improve access to medicine for patients around the world.

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