New Zealand Prime Minister Visits Icebreaker Drill

One of the most frustratingly valuable aspects of testingand working in extreme environments is that nature is unpredictable, out ofhuman control, and hence likely to create unexpected problems and opportunities.  Today, that led to postponed tests buta chance to brief the Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, who with hiswife Bronagh Key had themselves planned to go today to the South Pole. 

However, this morning featured 25F/-4C temperatures, 20ktwinds with powdery snow (we now have about 8 in on the ground) and lowvisibility, so both air travel and our tests outside camp were scratched. Thisled the PM and his entourage to visit the science (Crary) lab facility thismorning. 

Team members (Glass, Marinova) brief the Rt. Hon. John Key and his wife Bronagh during their tour of Crary Lab today.

We struggled to get our morning E/PO done, given the weatherconditions and an unexpected software problem.  We recovered in time for a Santa Rosa, CA charter school andits students (mostly homeschooled) to operate the Icebreaker drillremotely.  An article is in theSanta Rosa Press-Democrat ( Since we had gotten the drill running for the students, it was easy toremove the tarps and do a show-and-tell 90 minutes later for the Rt. Hon. Mr.Key.  It helped that we were thelast stop on his laboratory tour, as there was some time left forquestions. 

In challenging working conditions, Bolek Mellerowicz configures the Icebreaker drill control software for an educational outreach session this morning, prior to removing the tarp protecting the drill. 

Hence weather frustrated our original plans… but also createda unique opportunity, as long as we could be flexible and adapt to changingcircumstances (in the best NASA traditions).  

Icebreaker Remotely Operated by Schools

One of NASA’s goals, in addition to furthering humanity’sreach in aeronautics and space, is to educate and foster interest in science,mathematics and engineering by the next generation.  A small percentage of every funded research proposal istypically targeted at “Education and Public Outreach”, or E/PO. 

One of the ways that the Icebreaker team is reaching out tothe next generation is through live video sessions with school classrooms.These include audience-tailored briefs by team members, given live fromAntarctica, with classroom questions and answers.  And… we let the students remotely operate the Icebreakerdrill, here in McMurdo, from their classroom.  This often gets a lot of enthusiastic responses fromschoolkids. 

While half of the Icebreaker team is already in UniversityValley doing science, here in McMurdo we are finishing drill checkouts, minormaintenance and doing E/PO back to the US.  Three days ago we did our first hour-long session with an Arizonahigh school (Verde Valley HS, near Flagstaff).  We managed this despite repairing a broken wire on the drillthat had us working behind the scenes, while live, and outdoors in high 30ktwinds and blowing snow.  Two daysago we did three sessions:  with amiddle school in New York City; another group of mostly-Native American (Yavapai-Apache) 6thgraders at an Arizona school; and with a group of mostly Vietnamese and Hispanic kids at an elementary school in south San Jose,CA.  

Classroom view from Meadows Elementary, San Jose, CA (Glass, Marinova). [courtesy L. Haven]

Yesterday  wedid four sessions, with the first two in Pasadena, CA:  Jackson Elementary and Eliot MiddleSchool.  The first session includedlocal Los Angeles media coverage (see NBC!/on-air/as-seen-on/Pasadena-Students-Help-Operate-NASA-Drill/187231281as well as Followed by a school in Pleasanton, CA and then a link to a company who hadexpressed interest (SpaceX, in Los Angeles). 

We have one more E/PO session scheduled this week (tomorrowat 11am PT, 8am Saturday for us) with a charter school in northern California(Santa Rosa).  Then we will finishdrill and robotics testing near McMurdo this weekend before we join the rest ofour colleagues in University Valley. Two team members (Marinova and Goordial) will leave for there tomorrow,after the E/PO session. 

Explaining drill hammer actuation to a Pasadena middle school (Mellerowicz, Marinova).

We are tentatively planning a few E/PO sessions afterreturning in early February from University Valley, most likely on 4 February(PT).  Contact if you’reinterested, as he’s handling the schedule coordination back at NASA Ames.

Happy Camper for Icebreaker members

Not everyone who arrives in Antarctica has had cold-weathercamp experience, or training in risk assessment and safety when workingoutdoors in extreme weather conditions. And the US Antarctic Program has its own procedures (and harsherconditions) for outdoor safety.  Soanyone doing field work is required to take “Snowcraft I” training,colloquially called “Happy Camper,” before being cleared for fielddeployments. 

While the Icebreaker team all reached McMurdo Station byJanuary 7, our instruments and equipment were still in Christchurch, due to thesame flight backlog that delayed our deployment south.  So we hurried to take the January 8-9class while waiting for our project gear to arrive (it showed up onSaturday). 

We started with two hours of classroom instruction…  risk assessment, clothing choices,weather hazards, and recognizing hypothermia and frostbite symptoms.  Then we packed our sleep kits, food, tents,and stoves and headed out on to the Ross Ice Shelf.  Wearing our parkas, sunglasses (to avoid snow blindness) andsnow boots.  We had lunch at the“I-Hut” and hands-on instruction in camp stove lighting and maintenance.  Then grabbed our bags and trudged abouta kilometer away from the I-Hut to a bare expanse of snow.

View looking back at our campsite, with Mt. Erebus in the background.

There we set up camp… initially shown by our instructorshow to set up Scott expedition tents and mountaineering tents, and how to makedeadfalls in the snow to anchor guy lines.  And snowcraft… cutting half-meter cubes of snow usingsaws, sledges to pull these to make a meter-high wind wall protecting ourtents.  We dug out a kitchen/diningarea, complete with snow benches (foam laid on top, for comfortableseating).  And how to dig grave-likesnow trenches, 1.5m deep and wide enough for a person’s sleeping bag.  Then… the instructors departed to theI-Hut, and our group of 14 was on its own overnight.  It was great! Mt. Erebus in the distance, snow sawing, warm cocoa…  half of our group slept in snowstructures they built, including two women who built an igloo and two men whoexcavated an underground snow cavern complete with a small kitchen. 

Our camp, including the snow wall (behind tents), kitchen, and dug out snow trenches (below surface). Flags mark trenches and hazards. 

The next morning, we took down our camp and were ready forthe 8:30am return of our instructors. We went back to the I-Hut and studied VHF and HF radio operations andprotocols, the contents of survival bags, and ran a couple of emergencyscenarios (my favorite was the white-out search and rescue scenario,  when anyone going out had to be ropedand wear a white bucket over their head). 

8-9 January 2013 Snowcraft I, “Happy Camper” field safety training class group.