March 28, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 14

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    Funding in jeopardy as plans move forward

    The future of the South Pole station and of Antarctic astronomy -- a major component of which is the University's Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica -- currently hangs in the balance of a debate that has more to do with politics than science.

    Under the 1996 National Science Foundation appropriations bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommends a full review of the feasibility of the continuation of the U.S. Antarctic program, given current budget considerations. The committee noted that in fiscal year 1995, the NSF required $167 million in logistical support for only $29 million spent directly on scientific research.

    The Senate report language dictates: "At a minimum, budget-saving operations should include greater international cooperation, less than a year-round presence, and closing of one or more of the stations." The review, being conducted by the National Science & Technology Council and the Office of Science & Technology Policy, is due March 31.

    Despite the congressional scrutiny, CARA Director Al Harper is optimistic. "We can do science at the South Pole that can't be done anywhere else on earth," he said. "I think the astophysics program will sail through the review with flying colors because of the significance of the research and its uniqueness."

    Aside from the special review, there are other considerations that are worrisome to Antarctic astronomers. The aging South Pole Dome is nearing the end of its design life, and the NSF is asking Congress for $200 million over 10 years to replace it with a modern facility that would be better suited to the Antarctic climate: built on stilts to prevent the buildup of windblown snow; equipped with solar cells and wind generators to take advantage of the six-month-long day and steady breeze; and employing a well-insulated, modular construction. The new station, although no larger than the current one, would be more efficient and require a smaller support staff, allowing a larger percentage of the Pole population to be scientists. In addition, the winter population could nearly double, to 50 from the current 27.

    The NSF has already begun preparations for building the new station. In the austral summer of 1995-96, mountaineers scouted a potential overland route to the South Pole from McMurdo Station, a means of approach that would allow the new station to be constructed in larger pieces. Currently, the size of anything shipped to the Pole is limited by the size of the interior cavity of an LC-130, the ski-equipped military transport plane used to carry large cargo loads to the Pole. Transporting equipment over land would greatly reduce the cost of building the station.

    The South Pole lies 800 miles in a direct line from the coastal McMurdo Station; the ground route is much longer, through the 14,000-foot Transantarctic Mountains and across treacherous, crevasse-ridden glaciers. This austral summer, teams of mountaineers scouted the glaciers on snowmobiles, using radar to check for crevasses hidden by snow bridges. The journey was a high-tech analogue of those pioneered by the earliest Antarctic explorers, Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackelton. After Amundsen and Scott reached the Pole on foot in the winter of 1911-12, it was 44 years before anyone set foot there again -- not until construction on the first permanent base was begun by the United States for the International Geophysical Year, 1957.

    The fate of the current and future South Pole stations rests on the shoulders of legislators. But astronomers are already looking beyond the South Pole to the future that international cooperation -- with the Australian, Russian, French and Italian programs -- may afford: a new station built higher on the Antarctic plateau.

    Up until now, the South Pole has been the most convenient site because of the availability of logistical support, but it may not actually be the best possible site on the continent for astronomy. Plans for next year include the deployment of an automated astronomical observatory, first at the South Pole for testing and then at higher elevations on the Antarctic plateau. Colder temperatures, less atmosphere and, just possibly, better "seeing" await.

    -- Diana Steele