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To Antarctica and beyond

運営事務局 JIMOPLE 92 October 20, 2019

In the cold desolation of Antarctic winter, a remote base is preparing humans for Mars.

Three kilometers above sea level at the bottom of the world is a near-unbearably cold desert. The icy landscape is featureless and flat; useful in the height of summer when the mercury climbs to -30 Celsius and small airplanes can land and take off in the light. But now it’s winter, it’s been dark for a month and temperatures are down to -80. No plane is coming and 13 people are all alone.

One of those 13 is Dr. Nadja Albertsen and her Skype connection is cutting out. She had been telling me how she ended up in Antarctica, now every other word is lost in the ether. It’s June 4 and a month to the day since the Danish medic last saw the sun. Reams of scientific papers and accounts of the Antarctic winter had prepared me for minds stewing in the darkness, but not Albertsen’s chipper response when I ask her to start over.

Albertsen, 36, is a biomedical researcher at Concordia Station, a base built by the Italian and French polar institutes on the vast East Antarctic Plateau. It’s one of the most solitary places on Earth; cut off for nine months and in the dark for nearly four months each year. With its closest neighbor, the Russian-operated Vostok Station, 600 kilometers away, Concordia is technically more remote than the International Space Station (ISS).

Like the ISS in low Earth orbit, it exists in a place where humans should not. Even bacterial life struggles to survive in the cold, dry climate of the polar desert. There’s a third less oxygen than at sea level, impairing brain function. Smells are largely snuffed out and there is an overwhelming abundance of silence. For these and many other reasons it has been dubbed “White Mars.”

For the same reasons, Concordia is an ideal place to study the effects of extreme isolation and extreme climate on the human body and mind. That’s why Albertsen is there. She’s helping humanity make it to Mars and beyond.

This is the story of her journey through the long winter’s night.

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Concordia pictured in late July. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Our Mars ambitions require engineering solutions, but also psychological and physiological probing. Just as the mechanics of rockets and modules and landing vehicles must be investigated, revised, tweaked and tested, so must humans. Why spend all that time and money sending a crew on a 34 million mile trip if they are unable to complete the job?

Jennifer Ngo-Anh is team leader at the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Human and Robotic Exploration. She also oversees Albertsen’s research program. When it comes to a Mars mission, it’s “the crew who is the weakest link,” she admits.

The most realistic cost-benefit scenario for a manned mission to Mars is currently around 30 months, says Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientist at NASA’s Human Research Program. That breaks down to a 6 to 9-month flight to Mars, a year on the surface, before returning in another 6-9 months.

“That’s an extreme amount of isolation, confinement and distance from Earth. You have to really pre-predict and anticipate the supplies, resources needed to address all of the issues that might come up, and do the risk management,” she explains. “People have a lot of ‘unknown unknowns’ to ferret out.”

An exercise in pre-empting our fallibilities is underway. Take, for example, space radiation. Ngo-Anh describes exposure to radiation in interplanetary space as “the major showstopper for long-duration exploration missions.” Fogarty says long-term cancer risks are elevated, however cancer is unlikely to manifest during the trip. “But in the mission,” she adds, “(radiation) could cause disruption to emotional responses, cognitive function, that might undercut how we really understand how someone would behave.” (A study published in August found sustained low-dose radiation exposure causes learning, memory and anxiety issues in mice.)

NASA has identified hundreds of knowledge gaps, and it and other agencies are plowing investment into studies to support astronaut performance and health for future moon and Mars missions. One focus area is on the effects of isolation and confinement – which brings us back to Antarctica and Concordia.

Antarctica, with its clusters of scientific communities spread across 14.2 million square kilometers, is a prime choice for space studies. Part of the appeal is the austral winter, where the sun doesn’t rise for four months toward the pole.

Those who stay in Antarctica during those dark months are said to be “overwintering.” They’re useful test subjects, says Fogarty. People who enter confinement simulations like the Human Exploration Research Analog at the Johnson Space Center in Houston can leave if the stress become too much. For Antarctic stations like Concordia that’s not possible. “If you want to leave, you’re going to die,” she says. “It adds a layer of complexity.”

The European Space Agency (ESA) has run a research program at Concordia since 2005, rotating its medical sponsor every year. That makes Albertsen the 15th researcher to take on the role.

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A self-portrait of Albertsen, taken in the European Space Agency lab where she takes samples from the crew as part of four biomedical studies. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Albertsen graduated from medical school in Denmark in 2011. She wanted to become an oncologist, before ending up a general practitioner in Greenland. The plan was to be there for two months, but she stayed for three years, working between remote communities across emergency medicine, rescues, surgery and psychiatry.

“You see some things that have been allowed to develop to a certain degree that you wouldn’t see in European countries,” she explains, “tumors that people have just been walking around with, and certain infectious diseases like a lot of tuberculosis and STDs. And, of course, you see some crazy hunting accidents, hypothermia and stuff.”

It was an unusual gig. One day in Paamiut on the west coast, a polar bear was shot dead. With no veterinarian in the town, it was her job to examine tissues for parasites before the bear could be eaten. She was handed a chunk of its diaphragm in a crisp packet and set about googling images to compare under the microscope. The locals, perhaps unconvinced with her work, thoroughly boiled the meat anyway.

Albertsen’s experiences in Greenland, the ESA told her, were what secured her seat on the plane to Concordia in November 2018.

When she landed in the summer sun, the base’s population had swollen to around 80. More scientists arrive to conduct research in the 24-hour daylight, and overwinterers, whether at the beginning or end of their stay, go through a handover.

The 2019 overwintering crew consists of three women and 10 men: three chemists, an electro-engineer (also station leader), an IT and communications specialist, an astronomer, an electro-technician, a cook, a plumber, a mechanic, the head technician, the medical doctor and Albertsen.

Albertsen says some crew have told her that contributing to future space travel is part of the reason they applied. They’re prodded, poked, scanned and sampled. There are assessments, self-assessments, psychological questionnaires and the occasional flight on a Soyuz rocket simulator -- everyone’s favorite test.

Albertsen collects data on behalf of nine science programs in Europe who applied to the ESA. Some experiments are inherited, others new. Because the winter crew is so small, many experiments run for three years so there’s a big enough sample size. The ESA research projects for 2019 are as follows:

Assessing body-composition changes in prolonged periods of low sun exposure and reduced physical activity. Sleep, stress and diet are other factors. The working hypothesis is that muscles and bones might become weaker at Concordia.

Measuring how sleep affects skills and cognitive and motor functions. Research applied to understanding skill retention requirements and devising retention methods for astronauts undertaking long duration space flight.

Edema Formation in Antarctica

Investigating the effects of isolation and hypobaric hypoxia (low oxygen due to altitude and low pressure) on the blood-brain barrier, cardio-pulmonary system and distribution of fluids around the body. Extrapolated to assess how much oxygen is required for long duration space flight.

Immune and Microbiome Changes in Environments with Limited Antigen Diversity

Investigating changes to the immune system in isolation when not exposed to new bacteria or vira. Also, changes in the bacterial profile of the gut (and if the overwinter crew’s align) and links between isolation, gut microbiome and mood.

Testing began within days of Albertsen touching down, catching the acute reactions the body has to Concordia’s climate and altitude. A few new crew members, including Albertsen, suffered from edema, fluid retention in body tissue, and one suffered insomnia – possibly from prolonged sunlight, possibly from jetlag -- to a degree they considered going home. Everybody lost weight.

By February 12 the last of the summer crew had left Concordia and the overwintering were alone in the shrinking light. Those who remained were now noticeably more relaxed, Albertsen remembers, and people regained weight. On May 2 and 3 the crew watched from balconies or walked out on to the ice as the sun made its last fleeting cameos. A smear of warmest yellow stretched up and out across an unblemished sky, before retreating from sight. Then on May 4 the long night began.

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The Milky Way and the aurora australis above Concordia in late August. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

“The first few weeks after the sun set were a little bit tense,” Albertsen recalls. There were a few small conflicts, she says, which were quickly resolved. “I think people were anxious about the darkness, and then I think that combined with the sleeping problems.”

Sleep is one of the perennial issues at Concordia. Problems can begin before winter -- although its more prevalent then -- and can also be a symptom of “Winter-over Syndrome” (more on which later). Studies have found the phases of sleep (light sleep, slightly deeper sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep) are reordered in Antarctica, affecting sleep quality. Crew members can struggle to sleep for a decent length of time, feel frequently dozy, or have outright insomnia. Countermeasures include exercise and therapy lamps.

Albertsen says she dreamed heavily when she first arrived at Concordia, but she’s been relatively unaffected by insomnia; she thinks her years in the Arctic has helped. Others aren’t so fortunate. Sleep (or lack thereof) can become a vicious cycle. When the inner clock is interrupted, it throws off the release cycle of hormones like melatonin, which induces sleepiness, and cortisol, which influences mood.

But for now, the crew has eased into the dark and their altered routine. Any tension from after the sun set has lifted and the group has come out stronger, says Albertsen. In the frozen waste at the bottom of the world, “everything is pretty much back to normal.”

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The last apple has disappeared. It was a sorry, shriveled thing, left in the kitchen with a makeshift sign. Now a mystery blooms over who took it. Its disappearance marks the end of the fresh fruit and vegetables at Concordia until the winter lifts.

Albertsen is talking through a cleaner line on July 4. There’s a lot to catch up on, especially because the biggest event in the Antarctic social calendar has been and gone.

Midwinter on June 21 is celebrated in fine style at Concordia. A five-day holiday includes a baking competition, treasure hunt, karaoke, gambling night, international fancy dress and the annual Miss Concordia drag competition. The station exchanges midwinter greetings with other Antarctic bases, attaching photographs and dinner invitations no one has a hope of making.

Day becomes night becomes day, with only the briefest sliver of burnt orange on the horizon at noon separating one from the next.

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A digger goes to work outside the base. Even at midwinter Concordia does not experience total darkness for 24 hours, with a thin strip of light appearing on the horizon momentarily around midday. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Despite the celebrations of midwinter, the alcohol supply is holding steady. Concordia’s store is kept under lock and key by the Italian expedition doctor, says Albertsen, and there’s a lot of it. “He told me about a month ago that we had 900 bottles of alcohol left – and that was not including the wine and the beer,” she says. “I think we could keep (the party) going all year.”

“Spirits are high,” she adds. “I think, at least for me, the midwinter activities were really good, because it was kind of putting the group back together.”

Some crew had been removing themselves from social situations, Albertsen explains. “There’s a few people who kind of only show up when they have to, and maybe only for one meal a day… They do their work – and they do their work well – but we don’t really see them that much,” she says.

“I think the sleeping problems are also becoming more pronounced, and that just makes people more fragile and … not as capable of coping with social situations as they would otherwise be,” the doctor adds.

This time of year can be a psychological crunch point for those overwintering. Their mission is over halfway, but far from over. It is also when stressors are at their peak. Monotony of physical environment, limited privacy and a lack of social variation are all in play; mood and morale can decline. Albertsen is interested to see if her and the crew’s experiences match previous accounts.

"The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has also descended upon the inner world of our souls."

Frederick A. Cook, 1900

Historically, numerous overlapping psychological phenomena have emerged from Antarctica. In 1900, American expedition doctor Frederick A. Cook described depression, irritability, headaches and insomnia among crew during the Antarctic winter of 1898 – the first endured by humans. These symptoms were later packaged into Winter-over Syndrome. Polar T3 Syndrome was outlined later still, linking depressive symptoms and disrupted cognition, including forgetfulness and difficulty focusing, to a drop in thyroid hormone T3 among Antarctic subjects. The “Antarctic stare,” described as a mild fugue state, a form of mental wandering and disassociation from physical surroundings, is frequently associated with both Winter-over Syndrome and Polar T3 Syndrome.

More recently, a paper published in 2018 using Concordia data describes a state of “psychological hibernation” in the third quarter of the year-long mission. Some subjects overwintering sought less stimulation and exhibited “emotional flatness,” consistent with the Antarctic stare. The study suggested the state of psychological hibernation “may be beneficial” and could be viewed as an adaptive coping mechanism in the face of chronic stressors.

The “third quarter phenomenon,” when mood and moral dips, is not exclusive to Concordia or Antarctica. It is said to occur around the same phase of an arduous experience, irrespective of length. As noted in the 2018 paper, the crew of the Mars500 confinement simulation (co-run by the ESA in 2010-11) exhibited some of the same changes in behavior as a Concordia crew in the third quarter of their own 520-day mission.

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The Milky Way viewed above Concordia, with moonlight flooding the ground. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Through extrapolation, could psychological hibernation be useful to a Mars mission? Fogarty isn’t so sure.

“The question is how long can it last?” she says. “It may work for different timeframes without a lot of negative consequences, but if you go longer and longer, you’re just kind of postponing the inevitable. Do you get to more of a cliff?

The chief scientist thinks, despite the challenges that come with keeping an astronaut psychologically engaged and in tune with their emotions during the long journey, it may be preferable. Astronauts would be “more on a slope rather than a cliff,” she says; “we would have time to address the issue.”

NASA believes symptoms of mood disorders in space may be more prevalent than case numbers reported. Astronauts could be reluctant to report symptoms to avoid the scrutiny of flight surgeons, or report symptoms of depression for fear of compromising their future flight status, the agency said in a 2016 report.

“It is still a very sensitive area,” says Fogarty, adding NASA has “done a lot to try to shift the culture.” Questionnaires and surveys are taken during missions, but often that data isn’t released due to privacy issues, she explains -- with so few people still to have travelled to space, the data is hard to sufficiently anonymize.

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Crew members with headlamps leave the confines of the base during the night. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Back at Concordia, Albertsen has the crew fill out questionnaires as part of the ICELAND project. She’s wondering if subjects find it easier to discuss mental health using questionnaires rather than verbally.

The assessor is also being assessed herself. A PhD student is analyzing her weekly reports to the ESA, along with her predecessors’, to evaluate mental status through the written word. The hope is the findings can be applied to astronaut mission logs.

“We had a tricky situation in the summer,” she explains. “This Monday I was sending him (the PhD student) the weekly reports from that period and it’s obvious from what I’m writing that something is going on. So, it will be really interesting to see the results of that study.”

Albertsen doesn’t go into specifics but says the “tricky situation” involved a crew member being sent home and replaced. “It’s complicated,” she adds, apologetically. We leave it there.

Most days at Concordia are drama-free however, and Albertsen doesn’t spend time dwelling on the negatives. She reads and goes to the gym. She sits in the living room “talking about nothing,” or playing cards and games. For a short window, before her goggles freeze over, she goes outside and photographs the stars and the Milky Way arching overheard. If the doctor is very lucky the aurora australis, the southern lights, will be out.

The crew astronomer thinks the sun will come back on August 15, but Albertsen has also heard August 4 from someone else. Rumors abound.

“I think everybody is looking out of the window at noon time and wondering if the day is getting any longer, is the sun coming any closer,” she says. “It feels a little bit like it’s also the beginning of the end – and I think that does something to people mentally, both good and bad.

“I’m kind of curious to see what will happen during the next month.”

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Champagne is flowing. Some of the crew are determined to polish off all the bubbles before winter ends and have started adding it to their risotto.

The date is August 5 and the sun is not yet up, but it’s working its magic from below the horizon. Twilight swells day by day, teasing pinks and purples and pale blues out of the sky, casting the snow in alien hues.

Concordia is wrestling with the bitter taste of defeat. Each year the French stations on the continent and subantarctic islands take part in a display of sporting prowess dubbed the Antarctic Games. This year’s edition included an 8-kilometer cycle, 5-kilometer run, CrossFit and planking in the station gym. Times and scores are emailed in for adjudication.

“Of course, everybody thinks that everybody else is cheating -- especially because we were last,” says Albertsen. Oxygen deprivation is Concordia’s (perfectly valid) excuse. Still, they excelled at darts.

After observing others, Albertsen has endured her own bout of insomnia. It began with a crewmember’s 2 a.m. alarm to watch a FIFA Women’s World Cup game and spiraled into two weeks of “really, really bad sleep problems.” “I had a pretty good Antarctic stare,” she adds, laughing.

Only one crew member is keeping themselves to themselves and Albertsen thinks it will probably stay that way. “He’s comfortable,” she says, “it might not necessarily be a bad thing.”

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In mid-July Concordia witnessed a partial lunar eclipse in the lead up to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

In July the internet went down for two days, reducing communication channels to a satellite phone and old-fashioned VHF (very high frequency) radio. It forced the crew to abandon WhatsApp and put down their phones. “It was actually quite nice,” Albertsen says.

The outage highlights the role that external communications play at Concordia. These channels can also become a crutch. Albertsen had previously described incidents where dissatisfied crew members emailed polar institutes in Europe with their grievances rather than share them with other crew members.

Conflict avoidance tactics via external communications were also apparent during the 2010-2011 Mars500 simulation. A study analyzing messages to Mission Control concluded crew members “tended to ‘drain’ their negative emotions outside … preventing disunion in the crew.” A 2016 NASA study also showed evidence that venting frustrations into a personal journal was beneficial for astronauts aboard the ISS (although “not a substitute” for psychological and medical support from NASA).

Could these channels become vital pressure valves in long, exploratory space flight? On Mars there will be a transmission delay of up to 20 minutes one-way (something Mars500 factored in, often to the crew’s chagrin). The crew “have to be self-reliant; they have to be autonomous,” Ngo-Anh says.

Onboard technology might help. Ngo-Anh points to the ISS’s trials with CIMON (Crew Interactive MObile companioN), an AI-powered support robot, a potential precursor for future virtual assistants that could travel with exploratory crews and have a role in psychological support and conflict mitigation.

“Not all potential hazards for missions in deep space come from the dangers of the cosmos -- some risks are caused by humans, as well,” Ngo-Anh adds. “When groups of people are confined in a small space for a long time, behavioral issues are unavoidable.”

To date, there has never been a behavioral emergency – a behavioral or psychiatric condition leading to incapacitation or severe mission impact, as NASA defines it -- in the history of US space flight. But as a 2016 NASA report notes, “as the length of space missions increases, the probability … increases.”

Antarctica has a more eventful record. There have been reported incidences of crew-on-crew violence, and psychological stressors including isolation and confinement are often mentioned. In October 2018, one researcher was accused of stabbing another at Bellingshausen Station, a Russian outpost on King George Island. Russian news agency Interfax reported the perpetrator surrendered to the station leader, was sent back to Russia and charged with attempted murder committed in the heat of passion. (Remarkably, in February state news reported the case was dropped at the request of the man who was stabbed, the two men having reconciled.)

That’s not to suggest psychological stresses will manifest in such a dramatic way on a Mars mission. But what would happen if an astronaut had a behavioral emergency mid-mission throws up difficult questions without easy answers.

“We do not yet have a standard procedure or protocol to work off from,” says Ngo-Anh, “we are testing a lot of different strategies, both on ISS but also in ground-based analogues such as Concordia, but we have unfortunately not yet identified the ultimate most promising solution.”

(In the event of a serious breakdown or psychological issue at Concordia, Albertsen, after checking with the mission doctor, says sedation medication and a call to a psychologist back in Italy or France is the extent of the protocol in place.)

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Two of the Concordia winter crew outside the base. Temperatures can reach as low as -80 degrees Celsius in the depths of winter. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Last month, Albertsen mentioned the incident at Bellingshausen. For her, it highlighted the importance of screening candidates for the right stuff.

Concordia recruits go through rigorous psychological tests conducted by the PNRA, the Italian polar institute, and the IPEV, the French polar institute, before undergoing extensive physical tests. IPEV crew (including Albertsen) meet months before flying out for training, while the PNRA crew camp on Mont Blanc as a team-building exercise with a psychologist in tow.

“I put a lot of trust in the selection of the people who go here and the psychological tests; that they know what they’re doing and that the risk for something like (what happened at Bellingshausen) would be very small,” she said.

Albersen thinks that the crew have become better at letting things go as the winter progresses. Many are already thinking about what comes next. Future jobs and placements; research funding applications. Albertsen hasn’t settled on anything or anywhere, however she says the pull of her native Denmark is strong.

The ESA researcher has also had news about her replacement, a Dutch doctor with a master’s degree in space medicine. “He’s going to be perfect,” she says. Among the new studies he will be conducting at Concordia for the next overwinter include one related to mindfulness, stress and psychological adaptation.

Before the new arrivals land there there’s a lengthy housekeeping list ahead. A deep clean is in order. Outbuildings need to be reheated. The Turbosider, an underground storage hall containing the base’s vehicles, which the crew seal in with snow before summer’s end, will need to be dug out.

Dawn isn’t upon Concordia, but it’s waking up.

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Concordia pictured in the growing light in late July. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

In the harsh light of day, the champagne situation is looking insurmountable. “It’s mission impossible,” Albertsen concedes. Plan B is for the winter crew to each have a bottle to bring back on the plane. The cow’s milk, on the other hand, is all gone, which means it’s soy for now and the dreaded powdered thereafter.

We’re speaking on August 19 and Concordia is preparing for an “invasion.” That’s how Albertsen describes the arrival of the summer crew. Now the daylight has returned, another milestone has been reached and thoughts turn to the first of the Twin Otter airplanes landing with new and returning faces. Bedrooms will become shared spaces; new scientists will take over labs. Scant personal space will shrink further. “I think it's going to feel like strangers invading your home,” she says.

Throughout our interviews, Albertsen has referenced how “rough” the last summer was, when around 10 women and up to 80 men had shared the base. There had been conflicts and, she said in July, “incidences where people definitely have overstepped boundaries.”

“I think if I had been 10 years younger it would have been more difficult -- and also more difficult psychologically -- to have been here during the summer, because I would probably have been more affected by it,” she said. Albertsen caveated that she did not categorize anything that happened to her as serious and had not reported any incident.

“Some women in the previous years have had some very difficult times,” she added, referring to stories she’d heard from people with knowledge of Concordia.

IPEV director Jerome Chappellaz told CNN via email that in Concordia’s history the Institute had received “one serious case of oral reporting of inappropriate behavior during a winter-over.” He said the Institute addressed the case with an exchange between the female victim and Institute director, a follow-up with a psychologist, and by giving the victim the option of making an official complaint to the prosecutor at Reunion Island (a French department in the Indian Ocean, which administers the French Southern and Antarctic Territories).

“All expeditioners are warned before the winter-over that Concordia is not different from the mainland in France. That is, the whole legal system applies, it's not a no-man's land in terms of regulations,” Chappellaz explained. “They are especially warned about misconduct in terms of discrimination and harassment… And they are informed that in (the) case of misconduct, they must report to the station leader and, if they wish, to the prosecutor at Reunion Island.”

Chappellaz added that the IPEV is working to reach gender balance in polar stations.

Women scientists have long faced an uphill battle in Antarctica. There were decades of exclusion from research bases and, when eventually posted, accounts of sexism, bullying and sexual harassment.

Morgan Seag is a PhD candidate at the Scott Polar Research Institute researching in the nascent field of gender equality in Antarctica. “I suspect a ‘what happens on the ice, stays on the ice’ culture is present on many Antarctic stations,” she says.

Seag says today, women’s experiences in Antarctica are as varied as the stations they’re posted to, but comparative data is scant. However, there are indicators of “widespread challenges.” She points to a 2019 study of Australian women conducting fieldwork in Antarctica, in which close to two thirds surveyed reported incidents of sexual harassment; also an influential 2014 US study, this time not exclusive to Antarctica, which found 70% of women surveyed has experienced harassment during scientific fieldwork.

That’s not to say there haven’t been significant reforms since the first women scientists – Russians – were posted to Antarctica in the 1950s. “Things have undoubtedly changed for the better,” Seag says, citing institutional policies, grassroots networks and movements like #MeTooSTEM in recent years. Although there is still work to be done. “Unfortunately, many instances (of harassment and assault) go unreported today due to ongoing lack of support and transparency,” she says.

Half a century after the first all-women scientific group landed in Antarctica, women are now coming for the moon. And they may beat man to those first Martian steps too.

In an interview earlier this year, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the first person on Mars would “likely be a woman.” Fogarty says Bridenstine has been “very intentional” about including women in future moon and Mars mission crews, and that the policy now needs to be met.

“The data we have from spaceflight and ground analogs supports that women are equally capable as men to endure the physiological and psychological challenges of spaceflight,” she adds, in case there was any uncertainty.

Seag, who has written on the comparative trajectory of female participation in space and Antarctica, sees opportunities. “Those inaugural missions will set the tone for mission cultures to come,” she says. “With long-term space missions, we have an exciting chance to establish policies, practices and cultures that facilitate diverse and equitable participation in new spaces.”

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A 360-degree panorama of Concordia in late winter. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

Albertsen doesn’t occupy much of her time wondering whether her experiences correlate with those of a female astronaut on her way to Mars. Nor is the prospect of the summer invasion all bad. “There’s also a lot of great people coming,” she says.

Negative interactions have not defined her time at Concordia. The crystal-clear night sky, the extreme environment and sharing it with this winter crew, on the other hand, will. “That an international group, with all (its) differences, can work together and have a good experience together during so many months – I think that has been really, really positive,” she says.

Of course there’s things she won’t miss: the super dry air that gives you super dry skin and desiccates the inside of your nose to the point that it bleeds. The rush to find a free toilet in the morning when Concordia is at full capacity. Other things she will. The utter silence when she walks out beyond the base compound will live long in the memory.

The prospect of hearing birdsong again excites Albertsen, however. When she will is undetermined. Her handover with the next ESA biomedical researcher could end in November or stretch into early December, before she can return home.

When she does leave, she won’t be traveling light. There are samples of all kinds -- urine, stool, blood and saliva -- coming with her. They’ll join others from previous years, frozen and stowed back in Europe awaiting inspection. A tiny portion of our Martian odyssey lies within those mundane little tubes.

“I’m definitely going to be very proud when we get to Mars,” Albertsen says, “and I know that’s the same for the rest of the group – they’re really proud of being part of these experiments.”

Before signing off, she says Concordia has a Skype call coming up with the ISS. In low Earth orbit, ISS Expedition 60 is focusing on biomedical research, using 3D printers to produce organ-like tissue in microgravity and investigating biomining, among other experiments. As above, so below.

From one tin can in a hostile void to another, they’ll have much to discuss.

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The first visible sunrise after nearly four months, captured on August 11. - Credit: Nadja Albertsen/ESA/IPEV/PRNA

On August 10, the sun returned and no one saw. After months of anticipation, the sky was veiled in clouds, forestalling the break of winter. The next day, however, nature acquiesced, and the sun came roaring above the horizon with reckless abandon. Even in that moment some weren’t sure of their eyes, thinking it could be refraction; another false prophet. But Albertsen went out to meet it, camera in hand.

She couldn’t help but stare. It was spectacular and beautiful and tinged with mixed emotions. And a relief.