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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of NASA Mission Controllers

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Films such as Apollo 13, Armageddon, and The Martian depict NASA’s Mission Control Center as a place of high stress and nail-biting suspense. But what’s it really like to work there? We got the inside scoop from several current or former flight controllers at the Johnson Space Center's (JSC) Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas—NASA’s primary Mission Control Center for human spaceflight. (You might know it by its radio call sign “Houston.”) There, flight controllers are responsible for ensuring the safety of astronauts and spacecraft, monitoring the International Space Station (ISS), and providing constant operational support from the ground.

1. “FLIGHT CONTROLLER” IS A GENERAL TERM.

There are a variety of roles that are essential to making Mission Control run smoothly, and “flight controller” is an umbrella term that encompasses many of them. For each mission, a group of engineers, scientists, managers, technicians, biomedical engineers, quality control inspectors, and designers all work together to ensure the safety of astronauts and spacecraft. According to Ben Honey, a NASA ADCO (Attitude Determination and Control Officer) flight controller, team sizes vary from a skeleton crew—the minimum is six people—to more than a dozen individuals.

“A busy day (say, a vehicle docking or spacewalk) could have a full team of at least a dozen people in the front room and many more in support rooms,” Honey tells mental_floss. A skeleton crew, meanwhile, consists of six roles: Flight Director, Ground Control, ETHOS (Environmental Control Systems), SPARTAN (Power Systems), ADCO (Navigation Systems), and CRONUS (Data and Communications Systems), Honey says. But no matter how many people work in Mission Control at any given time, the ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the flight director, who manages the team of flight controllers.

2. THEY’RE YOUNG.

According to NASA Vehicle Systems Engineer Holly Griffith, who worked as a flight controller for the Space Shuttle Electrical Power System at the Johnson Space Center from 2004 until 2012, people are often surprised to learn how young most flight controllers are. “I was 25 when I started, and the majority of my colleagues were similar ages,” she tells mental_floss. Even during Apollo 11—the 1969 NASA mission that landed the first two humans on the moon—the average age in the control room was just 28 years old.

That youth can be a big asset when it comes to working the long hours required of the job. As Griffith points out, young flight controllers who lack the added responsibilities of marriage and children are often more willing (and able) to work nights, weekends, and holidays. (It’s not so much that NASA specifically recruits young people for the job, interviewees say, as that young people are more likely to apply.)

3. GETTING THEIR JOB IS NO EASY FEAT.

Flight controllers at NASA come from a variety of educational backgrounds, but most earn degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics). Some flight controllers earn additional degrees in business or communications, which may help prepare them for the job’s high level of cooperation and demanding team management responsibilities. After completing their education, grads who want to work in Mission Control may apply to a NASA internship or work for a NASA contractor that provides personnel to NASA.

Once they get their foot in the door at NASA, aspiring flight controllers must complete up to a year of rigorous training. Depending on the team they want to join, most new hires take classes, get tested on what they’ve learned, and take part in simulations that help them practice how they would respond to surprises such as malfunctioning equipment, a debris strike, depressurization, or a fire. They’re also observed by supervisors while they learn to carry out tasks. The end result of the training process is certification, which is highly individualized depending on which role a flight controller is aiming toward. Once certified, the flight controller is responsible for carrying out their job duties without a supervisor watching over them.

4. COMMUNICATION SKILLS CAN MAKE OR BREAK THEM.

Forget the stereotype of a nerdy scientist who doesn’t speak or interact well with others. While flight controllers are first and foremost engineers, responsible for applying an enormous amount of technical knowledge, good communication skills are equally important.

“For a job in engineering, communication was just as much a part of the job as technical knowledge,” Griffith explains. “We were set up in the room by our systems, and if something in the power system fails that cuts power to a fan in the environmental system, I may need to be able to explain higher-up electrical concepts to the environmental person and they will need to tell me why it's important that we get the fan back ASAP.” The ability to communicate accurately and succinctly with colleagues, especially under pressure if a major failure occurs, is vital. “Much of our training is spent on good communication and our communication skills are a huge part of our feedback and could even fail you in the certification flow if not good enough,” Griffith says.

5. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME DOING PAPERWORK.

“Much of a flight controller’s job is paperwork and the integration and coordination that go along with that paperwork,” NASA flight controller Robert Frost writes on Quora. When Space Shuttle missions were still running (the Shuttle retired in 2011), that paperwork could start years before a mission. Even today, tiny changes in the technology or software used aboard the ISS can involve multiple international stakeholders, all of whom need to be kept informed via paperwork.

Once a mission begins, flight controllers are also "sitting console”—being perched at a large desk with multiple monitors receiving data from equipment in space. Their job is to continuously monitor that data, and make sure each piece of equipment is working as it should be. That way, Mission Control on the ground stays connected to what’s going on up above.

Even then, "we're always doing paperwork—we're constantly keeping a log," Griffith says. "We have a Word template that logs MET (Mission Elapsed Time) and GMT of every call/action from/to the crew, other flight controllers, the Flight Director, etc. We log everything and the other team reads this during handovers."

6. THEY DON’T GET MUCH VITAMIN D.

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Because the ISS is a 24/7/365 operation, Mission Controllers are used to working in a dark room, seeing only the artificial light emitted by their monitors. “Most of us have engineering degrees so are already used to working nights during college or in labs doing research, so this part [of the job] doesn’t really take much adjustment,” Honey says.

But while they might miss seeing sunlight stream through the windows, Mission Controllers do have ways to get some Vitamin D. “We don't have to sit inside Mission Control for our nine hour shift without leaving," explains Honey. "On most shifts (but not all), there are times we can take a break, and I will often go for a short walk outside to get some sun if it is a day shift.”

7. BAD WEATHER IS ONE OF THEIR BIGGEST CHALLENGES.

If a hurricane or other natural disaster strikes Houston and shuts down power to Mission Control, NASA has a backup control center at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. According to ISS flight controller Pat Patterson, who works at Marshall but is part of the Mission Control team in Houston, one of their greatest challenges is dealing with weather. “Since our control room operates around the clock, 365 days a year, and we are in Alabama, even snow and ice can result in issues getting to and from work,” she reveals in a Reddit AMA. “When hurricanes shut down Mission Control at JSC in Houston, key flight controllers came here to use a backup control room.” And if that backup center in Huntsville loses power or undergoes major maintenance, flight controllers have yet another backup location in Huntsville they can head to. “It’s small and only has enough space for a bare-bones team, but it works,” Mason Hall, another ISS flight controller, writes on Reddit.

8. COFFEE AND SNACKS KEEP THEM GOING.

With limited breaks and long shifts, people who work in Mission Control turn to caffeine and snacks to help them stay alert. “As with any 24/7 ops facility, food and coffee are a big part of what keeps us going,” Honey says. “People often bring in lots of goodies for big events. Sometimes we will have a special cake for a crew’s undocking day, for example. But we also just like to stock snacks at the consoles to get us through the night shifts.”

9. THEY’RE INTIMATELY ACQUAINTED WITH ACRONYMS.

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To work in MCC at NASA, you’ve got to be good with acronyms. Flight controllers speak (and think) in abbreviations, such as FDO (Flight Dynamics Officer), EECOM (Electrical, Environmental, and Consumables Manager), PDRS (Payload Deploy Retrieval System), and MMACS (Maintenance, Mechanical, Arm, and Crew Systems). Flight controllers even have acronyms on their consoles, which describe the function they’re associated with (and sometimes the call signs by which they're known).

Do all the acronyms ever confuse laypeople? As Hall says: “I have a friend who misreads my ‘ISS’ tweets as ‘ISIS’ every now and then, and it makes me laugh!”

10. GENDER IS LESS OF AN ISSUE THAN IT ONCE WAS.

All flight controllers at NASA were male until 1972, and all flight directors were male until 1991. But today NASA makes an effort to be diverse. According to Griffith, who has had four female managers, gender was fairly mixed during her time at mission control. “I feel like I’ve been so lucky at NASA—at one point our group was 50/50 men/women.”

“Could we be doing better?" she asks. "Yes, but that brings up another question—overall fewer women tend to go into things like mechanical engineering (in the U.S.). When I graduated women were 20% of engineering grads … that number isn’t much different now.”

11. THEY HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT THE MOVIES THAT DEPICT THEM.

Mission Controllers are divided about movies that depict them and their colleagues, arguing that some films are accurate in their portrayals while others are laughably inaccurate. “Honestly it depends. The Martian was fantastic and Andy Weir did an amazing job researching before he wrote the book. Apollo 13 was also great,” Griffith says.

Her take on Armageddon? “Nah. I mean I liked the film but if what you’re going for is realism I wouldn’t pick that one,” she says.

12. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN CREED.

Given the huge responsibilities they shoulder, flight controllers take their job seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they have their own creed, which is posted in Mission Control. Besides pledging to strive for discipline, teamwork, and toughness, the flight controller’s creed acknowledges the privilege (and burden) of holding people’s lives in their hands; they pledge “To always be aware that suddenly and unexpectedly we may find ourselves in a role where our performance has ultimate consequences.”

13. THEY MARVEL AT HOW INCREDIBLE THEIR JOB IS.

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Working for NASA is a normal job with coworkers, bosses, and a paycheck, but the surreal nature of supporting space missions does hit flight controllers from time to time. Besides helping to advance our understanding of science, technology, and space exploration, flight controllers have the privilege of communicating with humans who live and work approximately 250 miles above the surface of Earth.

“Sometimes, it’s really crazy to think about what we actually do for a living,” Hall writes. “Sometimes we go outside and watch the ISS fly over at dusk. We see it soar across the evening sky like a really bright star, and then we can go inside our control center and watch live video from inside that bright point of light and see the astronauts floating around and performing science experiments. It really blows your mind!”

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17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors
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Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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9 Secrets of Antarctic Scientists
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A scientist monitors one of the world's largest Adélie penguin colonies near Cape Crozier, Antarctica.
Peter Rejcek, National Science Foundation

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and sometimes the darkest place on Earth. And yet hundreds of people go there each year to conduct scientific research and work as support staff at dozens of stations scattered across the continent. In summer, the high season for polar activity, the sun never sets, offering scientists and support teams an opportunity to play soccer on the ice or sunbathe in blinding, cloud-free rays. Winter envelops the land in frigid darkness—and inspires the few "winter-overs" to indulge in naked footraces around the station. Mental Floss spoke to a few Antarctic scientists about what it's really like to carry out research there, including the hacks that help them survive the elements.

1. THEY LEARN ON THE FLY.

Scientists participating in the United States Antarctic Program (USAP), which runs all of the American research and operations on the continent, go through an introductory briefing about living and working at the three American stations: McMurdo, the largest, which is located on Ross Island; Palmer, on Anvers Island off the Antarctica Peninsula; and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

But with so many complex protocols needed for daily life, new arrivals often find themselves on a steep learning curve. "There's no manual for a lot of things," Michelle LaRue, an ecologist who studies Adélie and emperor penguins and seals in the Southern Ocean and is often based at McMurdo, tells Mental Floss. "There are appointments for everything—food, field supplies, et cetera—and you need a certain amount of lead time before you get into the field. I quickly learned that even though you think you're ready, there's something else you're missing. Thankfully the support crew there is amazing. I don't know what we would have done without them."

2. THEY HAVE TO PACK CAREFULLY.

Gathering everything for an extended mission can be tricky if you can't depend on regular resupply shipments. "Packing for 18 months away is a total nightmare. Ever tried to work out how many tampons you might need for that long? Or conditioner?" ecologist Jess Walkup tells Mental Floss. Walkup began her career with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) studying albatrosses on South Georgia and is now the base commander at the BAS's Rothera station leading the 2018 wintering team.

"I ran out of anti-perspirant on one trip, and that was awful," she says. "Thankfully I was on an island with just three men and thousands of stinky seals, so no one seemed to notice."

3. THEY HACK THEIR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS.

Scientists and support staff who serve in the Antarctic summer, from October through March, often contend with round-the-clock daylight. Many bring eye masks and blackout curtains so they can retain their regular sleep-wake schedule—but it's tempting to want to stay up. "After working all day, all I want to do is catch up with friends or go hiking. Time gets away from you pretty quickly, and before you know it, you're going to bed way later than you should," LaRue says.

The Antarctic winter, however, is another matter. The sun doesn't rise for several months, leaving the entire continent in extreme darkness (except for the twinkling of stars and the aurora australis). "I found that I was shattered all day and then slept badly at night," Walkup says. "In the early afternoon I would have a massive slump and feel like it was 3 a.m. and I had been awake for a week." She adjusted by using a SAD lamp on her desk and getting into a routine of winding down and going to bed at the same time each night. On the base, she says, "Your bed is one of the only places you can get some time alone."

4. THEY HAVE STRANGE TASTES IN MOVIES.

The Milky Way and aurora australis over the South Pole
The Milky Way and aurora australis illuminate the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in winter.
Patrick Cullis, National Science Foundation

It's not all work and no play for Antarctic scientists and staff. The isolation and rough conditions create a sense of camaraderie that is celebrated at certain times of the year. To mark Midwinter's Day in the middle of June (the point when the sun begins its return back south), the BAS bases, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, and many others watch The Thing ("the original, obviously!" Walkup says). In John Carpenter's 1982 horror film, a parasitic alien invades an Antarctic base and steadily takes over the minds of the researchers stationed there, with much gore, violence, and paranoia. Winter-overs also watch the 1980 classic The Shining, a similarly chilly flick featuring an unhealthy dose of insanity.

In August, many of the Antarctic stations compete in the 48-Hour Winter Film Festival, in which teams submit short films that contain five key elements and are made in less than 48 hours. "We then watch all the submissions and vote on the winners under various categories, like at the Oscars. It’s a great way to learn about the international Antarctic community and see the inside of other stations," Walkup says. (Watch a selection from the 2016 festival on Vimeo).

5. THEY MAKE TIME TO PARTY.

Sure, scientists spend many hours tracking neutrinos, conducting wildlife surveys, collecting ice cores, and fulfilling other objectives. But when they're off the clock, they like to kick back. "Depending on the time of year, there's all kinds of iconic parties and events to attend: Halloween, Thanksgiving dinner, the marathon, talent shows, the film festival, IceStock—that's an outdoor concert on New Year's Eve. If you're in McMurdo over New Year's Eve, you have to go to IceStock," LaRue says.

However, some of the games and competitions might seem fatalistic to those with a greater array of entertainment options. For example, when the temperature drops to -50°C (-58°F), scientists and staff strip naked and run around their stations' perimeters, Walkup reports.

Even that's not as crazy as vying for membership in the 300 Club. When the temperature drops to -100°F at the South Pole station, daredevils first warm up in a 200°F sauna, then dash outside (naked, of course) to the spot marking the Geographic South Pole several yards away, then run shrieking back into the sauna—having experienced a 300-degree range in temperature in just a few minutes.

The activities don't just keep boredom at bay; they actually ward off the lethargic, depressive state one gets from living in extreme isolation, which the winter-overs call "toast." As Sven Lidström, a Swedish engineer who helped build the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory, wrote in a 2012 blog post, "the cure for winter-over toastiness is fun and entertainment."

6. THEY START CRAVING SALAD …

McMurdo Station in Antarctica
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
Elaine Hood, National Science Foundation

According to Jason C. Anthony, author of Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, much of the culinary history of the southern continent consists of "isolated, insulated people eating either prepackaged expedition food or butchered sea life." Now, 21st-century scientists chow down on three freshly prepared meals a day at McMurdo and other stations. "Of the five seasons I spent in, or worked out of, McMurdo, I only really remember one where freshies"—local slang for any kind of fresh produce—"were in noticeably short supply," LaRue says.

But scientists and staff still have to cope with the lack of some favorite foods—and those whose fitness for eating is debatable.

"We only really get two deliveries of fresh food a year, one around December and then again around March. All our milk is powdered, and I got used to that very quickly. Some people hate it, but in a cup of tea or a bowl of cereal, I don’t really notice. I wouldn’t drink a glass of it, though," Walkup says.

Walkup devised ways to test if months-old foods were still edible. "We were eating eggs nine months after they had been laid," she says. "Some eggs that look moldy on the outside, and even on the inside, are fine to eat. The trick is to break each egg into a cup to check that it is OK—i.e., doesn’t smell—before adding it to whatever you're making. If the eggs are starting to go, then this is vital—you don’t want to ruin your mixture with a bad egg."

They also get some surprising cravings. "The thing I missed was salad, as that doesn’t travel well," Walkup adds. "I was never a huge fan of salad before I went south, but now I love it."

7. … AND BOOZE.

No planes can fly supplies into the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for up to nine months of the year, because at temperatures below -50°C, the jet fuel freezes. That leaves the small group of winter-overs to their own devices. The company operating the station supplies the scientists and support teams with huge pallets of wine, beer, and spirits that give rise to a makeshift bar at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station dubbed Club 90 South. Phil Broughton, a health physicist who spent one long, dark winter there in the mid-aughts, was its de facto bartender.

He developed a protocol for distributing alcohol: serve enough to help the patrons get through the darkest weeks of winter, and then make sure that those who were completely plastered didn't go home. "The most dire danger in Antarctica is always failure to respect the absolutely lethal environment of Antarctica itself. I was far happier to serve until I could guide [the drinker] over to a couch to pass out than to see him stagger out into the -85°F night," Broughton wrote in a blog post.

Plenty of scientists carry in their favorite spirits, just in case their base runs out halfway through the season. Says LaRue, "Bringing scotch with you is a must."

8. SOMETIMES THEY ACTUALLY FEEL TOO WARM.

Scientists in the field have to wear layers upon layers of insulating clothing, bring more hand and foot warmers than they think they'll need, and stay active to avoid hypothermia. "I distinctly remember one snow machine trip back to town, where the wind was just whipping across our faces, my fingers were numb. It was really cold," LaRue says. "As soon as I parked the snow machine I got off and just ran as fast and as far as I could to warm up."

In the summer season, though, being bundled in Gore-Tex can make them too hot. The extremely dry climate prevents the chilly damp feeling of more temperate regions—and if the sun is shining, its rays bounce off the reflective ice and fry the researchers. "Sometimes you can get really warm and even work in shorts and a t-shirt," Walkup says. "At 79 degrees south it can be -10°C [14°F] in the height of summer, and the sun is really strong, so on a day with no wind it is warm enough to sunbathe—just don’t lay down in the snow."

9. THEY DON'T SEE POLAR BEARS.

Antarctica teems with wildlife: six species of penguins, six species of seal, countless seabirds, and majestic whales are the southern ocean's most charismatic fauna. Scientists won't see any mammals from that other pole, however. Says Walkup, "people always ask me if I have seen polar bears. I haven’t—they only live in the Arctic."

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