Ice and Space: research at Concordia Station

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Concordia Station, which opened in 2005, is an Italian-French research facility in Antarctica. The tenth winter-over mission involves a team of 13 people. We had the pleasure to speak with Adrianos Golemis (Greece), the ESA-sponsored medical doctor.

- Dr. Golemis, can you describe your activity and tasks as the ESA-sponsored medical doctor at Concordia Station?

Good morning, first of all let me say that i am very happy to be here and would like to thank the European Space Agency for that. Concordia Station, which lies in Dome Circe, in the heart of the Antarctic, has 2 Medical Doctors: one is responsible for clinical assistance and treatment of the crew; the other position, which i currently hold, is about medical research. Every year European Universities propose medical experiments for Concordia and ESA selects the 10 best ones to be implemented.

My activities include executing, overseeing and amending (when needed) these medical experiments. For that i am in frequent contact with the principal investigators back home. But all people at Concordia Station are not only concerned with their primary jobs: There are housekeeping tasks to be done, like cleaning the floor, washing dishes or similar, which we all share. In some ways it is like a commune and that is quite a shaping experience. We also have secondary roles, for example the ESA doctor is responsible for emergencies outside the base, while other members of the crew have trained as firefighters.

- Concordia Station shares many stressor characteristics with long duration deep space missions, in particular extreme isolation and confinement. How can medicine help you and your colleagues?

The conditions here assimilate those of a deep space mission and Concordia Station is quite an accurate analogue for most of the parameters that would concern astronauts bound on a journey to Mars in the future. On the other hand, Concordia simulates other aspects of a space mission much better: first of all, here the confinement and isolation are real, with absolutely no way for evacuation during the 9 winter months, even in the case of a grave emergency. Secondly, our circadian rhythms can be altered due to the irregular day-night cycle. Astronauts travelling in space would suffer the same, and it is hard to recreate this elsewhere. Other facets of our living conditions, like hypoxia and sleep disturbances, can be counted as similarities to the stress that Astronauts would face too. What is more, Concordia is the only international Antarctic base and this simulates well the crew of a future human endeavour to go beyond Low Earth Orbit. Crew size and habitable volume here are larger, but still comparable to the actual figures of a Martian mission.

To answer your question, the results that come out of the Concordia experiments are used in multiple ways. One of them is to ameliorate the life of future Antarctic crews. A good example is this: this year we experiment with Vitamin D. If we find that there is a good advantage in taking Vitamin D supplements during the complete lack of sunlight in the winter, this will be considered for implementation in all winterovers in the future. Similarly, we at Concordia today have benefited by results of past experiments.

- You decided to leave “civilization” for one year. Is it difficult to have a mind-blowing experience like yours and then, suddenly, be expected to live again “normally”?

I would like to make an analogy with running a Marathon. In the beginning, it seems daunting, but as you begin to run the few first kilometers you feel brisk, with a lot of energy and optimism. We are at this point currently, also, since we are in the middle of the austral summer, we have more people around us and frequent flight to and fro the Station.

The more difficult parts come when you have run half a Marathon, you begin to feel quite tired, but realize you still have another half to finish. Psychology is very sensitive at this point and we need to have perseverance and help each other get through. So, i agree, life in Antarctica can be a mind-blowing experience and i am happy i was given the chance, but there will be difficult times as well throughout.

Finally, you finish the Marathon, exhausted, but elated. For sure it will take you time to recover and get used to walking a normal distance in the street, for example just to go to work again. You also need a long rest, with no more running! Similarly, i expect that after our return we will gradually adapt back to the life we used to have. I saw that people can remain isolated and go back to normal life with a smooth transition, plus you keep the benefits from your adventure - memories, self-confidence and self-improvement by having to collaborate and learn from others.

- You are working with some colleagues from several countries. In particular, what is the role of your Italian team-mates? What are their activities and tasks?

Yes, it is rather heart-lifting for me to be in an international environment and i have to say that doing a Master's course at the International Space University in Strasbourg last year was the perfect preparation, professionally and socially. It is great to see French, Italians, as well as people from other nationalities (like Russian or Greek) contribute to the life at Concordia. One could say, it is like Europe at its finest and i really hope we can cultivate this spirit back in the Old Continent. Let us not forget that Concordia comes from Latin and means "hearts together, aligned", which points to cooperation and togetherness.

On the Italian side, which is half of the winter-over crew, some of my colleagues are working on Astronomy, Meteorology and Atmospheric science. Two more are responsible for the electronics and informatics of the Station as well as radio communications. Last but certainly not least, i am very happy that we have an Italian professional cook with us, whose exquisite cuisine i am always eager to explore! As you see, in Concordia, not everyone is a scientist, luckily! Technical personnel are as much important, if not more, to keep the Station going and producing results. In other words, we can only function all together, in collaboration.

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