Science in a Dark Freezer

A Tale of Icy Beards, Frozen Tools, and Wintering Over at the South Pole

By Joel Shurkin Design by Joshua Stevens May 15, 2015

If you want to set up a scientific station at the bottom of the world, who would you send? Eighteen “crazy men and a dog,” of course.

The men were a collection of engineers, scientists, and support personnel. The dog, named Bravo, was someone’s pet, and he allegedly had a wonderful time.

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The South Pole team soaked up the sunshine after six months of darkness. (Courtesy of Bob Benson.)

Men and dog were hired to establish a science base in one of the most remote places on Earth. Welcome to Operation Deep Freeze and the creation of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

Robert Benson in 1957.

Just out of college, Benson was one of the youngest members of the South Pole team. (Courtesy of William McPherson, NSF.)

They toiled in the shadow of some of history’s most famous explorers, but they weren’t there for the glory. They were there to begin exploring Earth and space from a unique position. When they finished, they had established the first permanent science laboratory at the South Pole. Their famous predecessors would have been astonished.

Those “crazy men“ included a young graduate student from Minnesota. Robert Benson, age 21, was one of the youngest members of the science party. For him it was a glorious, sometimes funny, adventure and the first step on a scientific journey that would lead him through five decades at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Though retired now, Benson is still an active emeritus scientist. He is also among the last surviving founders of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (now operated by the National Science Foundation). More than half a century later, he remembers the names, sorts the photographs, and recalls the experience with astonishing clarity.

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