Moving image: filmmaker Anthony Powell has yet to find cold-beating tech solutions on his feet. Image: Anthony Powell for his film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice"
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What happens when your dishwasher breaks down in Antarctica?

When you're living at the bottom of the world, you can’t just pop out to a hardware shop when something breaks, so your appliances are like part of the family.

Can you connect to the internet at the South Pole? It might not be the most obvious question to ask when planning a trip to one of the coldest, windiest and driest places on earth, but it has an unexpected answer: yes. We often assume that Antarctica is a lot like the moon or Mars – dangerous, uninhabited and with no wifi. In the past decade the situation has changed.

Felicity Aston, who in 2012 became the first woman to ski solo across Antarctica, explains: “There’s a gizmo which turns your satellite phone into a wifi hotspot, through which you can then connect a smartphone.” Mundane as it sounds, it’s transformative. Gone are the days of lugging heavy radio transmitters across the ice; and it isn’t just a piece of kit, it’s peace of mind. As Aston explains: “I’ve been able to tweet, I’ve been able to make podcasts, and it’s also my lifeline. It’s the way I can get help if something goes wrong.” The bandwidth isn’t sufficient to upload photos or video yet, but Aston predicts it won’t be long: “I think that’s more a case of them bunging up a new satellite in space than creating new technology.”

Out there on the ice, hundreds of miles from any other human beings, her phone enables her to call anyone on earth. But that’s a mixed blessing, as the tantalising prospect of a chat with your mum when you are utterly alone can play tricks with your mind: “It was too difficult to have those loved ones effectively in the tent with me one minute, and then press the disconnect button and send them back thousands and thousands of kilometres.” The potential link it represented was psychologically important, though. “The whole time I was in my tent, I would have my satellite phone in my lap, even if I wasn’t using it . . . It became a symbol of the connection to the outside world, and I was literally clinging hold of it.”

Yet technology isn’t just a guarantee of safety or a means of alleviating loneliness. For Anthony Powell, a film-maker who has worked on the BBC’s Frozen Planet, keeping his equipment going in viciously cold temperatures is vital to being able to do his job. “Cameras tend to start failing at about -60°C with mechanical and electrical problems,” he explains. There is also the problem of power – normal lithium batteries fail after about ten minutes in the cold, so he has to wire up his cameras to car batteries. Video cameras work in Antarctica only with difficulty, so he has designed his own timers and motion-capture techniques in order to get the magnificent time-lapse sequences in his films.

Powell has been working in Antarctica since 1998 (he and his wife, Christine, even got married there). His most recent film, Antarctica: a Year on Ice, chronicles life from the point of view of the mechanics, technicians, cargo handlers, carpenters, electricians, cleaners and cooks who keep the research stations running. Technical problems are on a different level there. As Powell puts it: “You can’t pop out to the local hardware store to pick something up.”

On the Antarctic Sun website in 2012, Beth Jennings of McMurdo Station (the largest community on the continent) mourned the passing of their dishwasher, named Bertha. “She may not have been flesh and bone, but Bertha was indeed part of the family – love her or hate her,” Jennings wrote, reminiscing fondly about Bertha’s ability to “unexpectedly spew slime” over kitchen workers. Next to the report was a photograph of black-clad people standing around a dishwasher with heads bowed. The report recorded, only half-mockingly, that a “dance was performed in her honour”. At the bottom of the world, you have to take care of the technology that takes care of you.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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