Star Trek: Antarctica

The icy continent is a perfect place to imitate space

As Rob Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul navigated their way from the plane to their quarters at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Neumayer Station research base in Antarctica last January, they couldn’t help but imagine they were on Star Trek.

“It’s more like the Starship Enterprise than a building,” Rob Ferl says. “In fact, we called the lounge at the front of the facility Ten Forward, after the crew lounge on the Enterprise.”

Space references in Antarctica are fitting because the continent is the closest thing to space on Earth, a perfect place for horticultural scientists Ferl and Paul to test whether the agricultural systems they have been developing for space travel work.

Ferl and Paul have been working with NASA and other space agencies for years to understand how plants behave in zero gravity and how humans would cultivate plants during long space journeys or on the moon or other planets. The Antarctic adventure is the result of NASA participation in a large international collaboration led by DLR, the German Aerospace Center, and enabled by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany.
Ferl and Paul have been working with NASA and other space agencies for years to understand how plants behave in zero gravity and how humans would cultivate plants during long space journeys or on the moon or other planets. The Antarctic adventure is the result of NASA participation in a large international collaboration led by DLR, the German Aerospace Center, and enabled by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Germany.
It’s not quite blasting off in a rocket, but getting to the base was still a challenge. Ferl and Paul first made their way from Florida to Cape Town, South Africa. From there it was a seven-hour journey over the Southern Ocean to the Russian Novolazarevskaya Station, which Paul calls “the Atlanta hub of Antarctica.” From there it was another three-hour flight on a smaller plane to Neumayer Station.
It’s not quite blasting off in a rocket, but getting to the base was still a challenge. Ferl and Paul first made their way from Florida to Cape Town, South Africa. From there it was a seven-hour journey over the Southern Ocean to the Russian Novolazarevskaya Station, which Paul calls “the Atlanta hub of Antarctica.” From there it was another three-hour flight on a smaller plane to Neumayer Station.
“It is a hostile environment that can kill you if you walk out the door unprepared. You quickly realize that you can’t run down the road to Home Depot when you need something. You have to learn in situ resource utilization.” — Anna-Lisa Paul
“It is a hostile environment that can kill you if you walk out the door unprepared,” says Anna-Lisa Paul. “You quickly realize that you can’t run down the road to Home Depot when you need something. You have to learn in situ resource utilization.”
As you get closer, they lower the temperature in the plane and you put on your overalls so you don’t walk out of the plane and die instantly,” Ferl jokes. In reality, he says, the temperature during the Antarctic summer was usually in the 20s and that the bigger threat was sunburn and snow blindness.
As you get closer, they lower the temperature in the plane and you put on your overalls so you don’t walk out of the plane and die instantly,” Ferl jokes. In reality, he says, the temperature during the Antarctic summer was usually in the 20s and that the bigger threat was sunburn and snow blindness.
“Every morning, we leave the Starship Enterprise and walk out to the Future Exploration Greenhouse. It’s a small demonstration in a containerized unit in a very extreme environment here on Earth to give us some real operational clues as to how to do that on the moon or on Mars.” — Rob Ferl
“Every morning, we leave the Starship Enterprise and walk out to the Future Exploration Greenhouse,” Ferl says. “It’s a small demonstration in a containerized unit in a very extreme environment here on Earth to give us some real operational clues as to how to do that on the moon or on Mars.”
On most days, Ferl and Paul would don their heavy red overalls and venture the several hundred yards across the ice and snow to their lab, where they cultivated a variety of salad crops for study and for consumption. The researchers also have a long-term experiment on the International Space Station, so Paul says that one day, “We tied up the entire bandwidth of the station for an hour to communicate with the ISS to conduct our experiment.” On another day, they conducted a class for students back in Gainesville from the Future Exploration Greenhouse.
On most days, Ferl and Paul would don their heavy red overalls and venture the several hundred yards across the ice and snow to their lab, where they cultivated a variety of salad crops for study and for consumption.
The researchers also have a long-term experiment on the International Space Station, so Paul says that one day, “We tied up the entire bandwidth of the station for an hour to communicate with the ISS to conduct our experiment.” On another day, they conducted a class for students back in Gainesville from the Future Exploration Greenhouse.
The researchers also have a long-term experiment on the International Space Station, so Paul says that one day, “We tied up the entire bandwidth of the station for an hour to communicate with the ISS to conduct our experiment.” On another day, they conducted a class for students back in Gainesville from the Future Exploration Greenhouse.
“The feeling of Antarctica was one of vastness — fresh, clear, beautiful, dangerous. It was a novel environment where humans were clearly guests; it was not our place, and it inspired awe and respect. It was not unlike what you might feel standing on the surface of another planet, and these emotions brought the realization that the value of conducting planetary analog experiments in Antarctica is about more than just setting up shop in a remote and challenging place, it is also about appreciating what it is like to be a guest in an environment outside your evolutionary experience.”
“The feeling of Antarctica was one of vastness — fresh, clear, beautiful, dangerous. It was a novel environment where humans were clearly guests; it was not our place, and it inspired awe and respect,” Paul says. “It was not unlike what you might feel standing on the surface of another planet, and these emotions brought the realization that the value of conducting planetary analog experiments in Antarctica is about more than just setting up shop in a remote and challenging place, it is also about appreciating what it is like to be a guest in an environment outside your evolutionary experience.”
The arrival of a resupply ship is cause for celebration. There are no docks, so the ship just pulls up close to the ice shelf and holds its position with thrusters while transferring people and cargo back and forth. Paul says it wasn’t until she actually stood on the ice shelf and stared hundreds of feet down to the ocean that she fully appreciated how abruptly it ended. “It really is a shelf. Huge pieces can break off and become icebergs.”
The arrival of a resupply ship is cause for celebration. There are no docks, so the ship just pulls up close to the ice shelf and holds its position with thrusters while transferring people and cargo back and forth. Paul says it wasn’t until she actually stood on the ice shelf and stared hundreds of feet down to the ocean that she fully appreciated how abruptly it ended. “It really is a shelf. Huge pieces can break off and become icebergs.”
“For me personally, one of the most impressive things about the trip was the vast horizons. To paraphrase Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian: ‘Every day, I go outside and look at the vast horizons. Just because I can.’ That is what we did, every day, to try to appreciate the place.” — Rob Ferl
“For me personally, one of the most impressive things about the trip was the vast horizons,” Rob Ferl says. To paraphrase Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian: ‘Every day, I go outside and look at the vast horizons. Just because I can.’ That is what we did, every day, to try to appreciate the place.”

This article was originally featured in the Spring 2018 issue of Explore Magazine.