Labs from Chicago, 1994 :
South Pole Base Gamma.

Dr. Jim Sweitzer
Labs written for the CARA Space Explorers, Winter 1994.

This is a project to be handed to the students.


The United States owns and operates a base at the South Pole. The current site is called the Amundsen-Scott Station. It is named for the two explorers who were the first to lead expeditions to the pole. The site is symbolically the most inaccessible and hostile environment on the earth. It is also an excellent place to conduct certain types of science. For these reasons it is considered and analog to future bases on the Moon or Mars.


The current base at the South Pole is really the second "permanent" base to be erected at the Pole. The first was installed in the late 1950s and was located entirely under the surface. It contained many interconnected rooms. The problem with it was that over time the ice moves and finally made the tunnels and rooms unsafe. This first base was abandoned in the early seventies.

The current base was built on the surface. At its center is a geodesic dome (diameter is 160 ft.). Under the dome are several separate buildings. Radiating away from the dome are storage and working "arches" (width is 50 ft.) made up of large semi-circular pieces of corrugated aluminum. Outside are many smaller specialized buildings, even tents! The problem with the current base is that it is being buried by drifting snow.


Your mission today will be to begin the design of the third South Pole base, named "Gamma" for the third letter of the Greek alphabet. You will use elevated building structures as well as "arches." You may also consider tunneling under the snow to connect the structures.

You will be on one of five teams. Each team will begin brainstorming the construction of one of five separate units of the base. At the end of your brainstorming time you should have produced a first draft sketch of your ideas as well as making lists of challenges, critical connections to other units and areas for future research.

Polar Connection

After meeting briefly with the other groups we will then receive a call from some people at the South Pole, so we may ask them some of the questions that came up as we began designing Gamma Base.

Cold Facts about the South Pole





[Here originally there was a page with half of it left for "site plan" and the other half for "building units. It doesn't translate to hypertext well. --ed.]

Units and Facilities

(Links take you to fact sheets further below.)
  1. TE Unit (Transportation and Engineering)
    1. Skiway Operations
    2. Tunneling
    3. Fire Fighting
    4. Construction
    5. Vehicles
  2. ST Unit (Science and Technology)
    1. Astronomical Observatory
    2. Atmospheric Science
    3. Human Physiology and Psychology
    4. Experimental Greenhouse
    5. Solar Energy Research
  3. HS Unit (Habitat Support)
    1. Temperature Control
    2. Energy Generation and Fuels
    3. Waste Management
    4. Water Management
    5. Storage and Backup
  4. HR Unit (Health and Recreation)
    1. Leisure and Exercise
    2. Personal Hygiene
    3. Galley
    4. Health Maintenance
    5. Crew Quarters
  5. CC Unit (Control Center)
    1. Systems Monitoring
    2. Environmental Protection
    3. Communications
    4. Computing and Information Management
    5. General Offices and Meeting Area


TE Unit (Transportation and Engineering Unit)

Purpose: This unit of the Gamma Base is responsible for all of the vehicular activity and construction as well as managing and operating any fire fighting equipment.

Unit Facilities:
Your unit must locate each of the following facilities on your first- draft design:

Specific Constraints:
  1. Outside construction can only occur during the summer months.
  2. Skiway maintenance requires keeping runway snow packed down and clear of drifts.
  3. Electric vehicles don't do well in Antarctica because of battery temperatures.
  4. Vehicles must either have skis or snow tracks.
  5. Tunnels between units are necessary when coldest temperatures (below -70° F), prevent outdoor travel.
  6. Aircraft never stay at the Pole. They leave their engines running and only remain for 45 minutes before returning to McMurdo.
Connection Questions to get you started:
  1. How does this unit interact with others if a fire breaks out?
  2. What might be used to fight fires? If they are small inside fires would the problem be the same as for large buildings?
  3. Where do materials and fuels off-loaded from the aircraft go? What about things waiting to be sent back on the aircraft?
  4. What sort and numbers of vehicles might be needed?
  5. How will the base get the snow it needs to melt for liquid water?
Don't Forget!:

ST Unit (Science and Technology Unit)

This unit conducts the basic science and technology research. It is the primary reason all the other units exist. Astronomical research exploits the clear, cold and stable skies at the Pole. Atmospheric research concentrates on studying the cleanest air on Earth as well as keeping a watch on the ozone layer.

Unit Facilities:
Your unit must locate each of the following facilities on your first- draft design:

Specific Constraints:
  1. Both astronomy and atmospheric research need to be upwind and as far as possible from the light, heat and pollution of the other base activities.
  2. This unit's facilities also need to be located away from communication antennas and other sources of electromagnetic pollution.
  3. Most of the research will be done during the dark winter time.
  4. The greenhouse is to grow a few fresh vegetables that aren't or can't be flown in, especially during the winter. It is also a place where people might enjoy working and being.
  5. Solar energy is only available between the end of September and the end of March.
Connection Questions to get you started:
  1. If located some distance from other base units, how will scientists travel to these facilities during the coldest part of winter?
  2. What forms and uses of energy from the sun might be useful at the Pole?
  3. Should there be a reference library and if so, where?
Don't Forget!:

HS Unit (Habitat Support Unit)

This unit is necessary to the survival and operation of all the buildings. Among its most important function is generating the energy for the base. HS is also responsible for managing wastes, water and storage of essential supplies. Backup energy systems and a stockpile of supplies are also managed by this unit in case of an emergency. Finally, they must separate, recycle and prepare for shipment all wastes that can't be left at the base.

Unit Facilities:
Your unit must locate each of the following facilities on your first- draft design:

Specific Constraints:
  1. At the present time, diesel fuel brought in by the aircraft is the only reliable and practical way to generate electrical and most heat energy.
  2. Waste water (for example, dish washing water) cannot be "dumped" into the snow. (The only exception at this time is human wastes).
  3. All fresh water must be generated by melting snow. This requires regularly "mining" the snow, and, more importantly, supplying the energy to melt it and keep it liquid.
  4. If there was a power failure or other catastrophe that required the evacuation of the base personnel, waits of up to two weeks could be necessary before an aircraft could land. Remember, no planes are kept at the Pole.
Connection Questions to get you started:
  1. Should heat be generated in one place and “piped” around or should it be generated at each individual building?
  2. What about water? How would you store and move it?
  3. Can everything that needs to be stored be frozen?
Don't Forget!:

HR Unit (Health and Recreation Unit)

This is the unit in which base personnel will spend most of their time. They will sleep, eat and play here. This unit also contains the medical facilities where the doctor works and can perform simple medical procedures.

Unit Facilities:
Your unit must locate each of the following facilities on your first- draft design:

Specific Constraints:
  1. There is no broadcast TV or AM/FM radio at the Pole.
  2. Outdoor recreation is limited. One might do some cross country skiing, but generally, people are discouraged from wandering very far from the base. When it's very cold, nearly all outside movement is prohibited.
  3. The isolation and general cramped quarters make separate bunk rooms desirable.
  4. Major medical problems are to be handled by evacuation. Major surgical equipment and personnel are unnecessary.
  5. Smoking is prohibited everywhere.
Connection Questions to get you started:
  1. How much space will be needed to bunk everyone?
  2. What sort of wastes will be generated by this unit and who will have to take care of them?
Don't Forget!:

CC Unit (Control Center Unit)

This unit is like the central nervous system of the base. It must monitor and manage all the information flowing within the base. It's responsible for all communications within the base as well as between the base and the outside world.

Unit Facilities:
Your unit must locate each of the following facilities on your first- draft design:

Specific Constraints:
  1. Internal communications must rely on the base's own systems. There is no outside operated phone system.
  2. Data communications with the outside must be done using a satellite that "wanders" into view for a few hours every day. All normal satellites are below the horizon at the Pole.
  3. Voice communications with the outside world take place using high frequency (short-wave) radios.
  4. The snow doesn't conduct electricity, so it's impossible to ground everything properly. Furthermore, the extreme cold temperatures make the transmission of weak electrical currents inefficient. This means that buildings should be connected by non-conducting links -- fiber optics or radio.
Connection Questions to get you started:
  1. What about recreational and personal communications using computers? Should they be done here or in the HR unit?
  2. How important are personal communications with the outside world?
  3. What would happen to this area if there was even a temporary interruption in power?
Don't Forget!:

[Here was Worksheet 1 of 3, Proposed Gamma Base Plan - one sheet of paper, with place for unit name and scale. Worksheet 2 of 3 was the unit detail. Worksheet 3 of 3 is below. --ed.]

Challenges, Connections, Questions and Research

Critical Connections
In the table below write the most important connections to the other units:...

Environmental Challenges
What is the main environmental problem faced by your unit?

Outstanding Questions
If you could (and you will) ask someone currently at the South Pole a few questions that would help you take the next step in your design, what would you ask them? Please rank the questions in order of priority.

Future Research
What's the most important thing you would need to research to take your unit's design to the next stage?

Important Disclaimers and Caveats
Go back to the Chicago Winter 1994 home page.