Science and Exploration

An Interview With Alexander Kumar at Concordia Station, Antarctica

By Keith Cowing
May 24, 2013
Filed under

Image: Enjoying the last rays of the sun in April – the sunset for the last time in May – it has only just this week risen again at Concordia Station (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

Image: Enjoying the last rays of the sun in April – the sunset for the last time in May – it has only just this week risen again at Concordia Station (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

Dr. Alexander Kumar is currently residing at Concordia station located at Dome C, Antarctica at 75°06’06”S – 123°23’43”E at an elevation of 3,800 meters. Alex is serving as Concordia Station Doctor for the Institut Polaire Français (IPEV)  and as a European Space Agency sponsored research doctor. I recently had a chance to ask Alex a few questions about his experiences in Antarctica – and elsewhere as they related to space exploration – and exploration in general.

1. One of you projects involves monitoring sleep patterns in you and your fellow crewmates. (“hivernauts”) The crews is also undergoing a variety of cognitive tests to gauge their performance. How many other tests are being conducted and what is their purpose? Are you engaged only in ESA-related research or do you perform research for other sponsors/agencies?

Image: Station winter mechanic Bruno Limouzy – playing brain games and conducting various cognitive tasks during the wintertime whilst wearing EEG gear, monitoring and looking for changes in brain activity in relation to the isolation and darkness endured during the Antarctic winter (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

Concordia station was built in 2005 and is run by the French Polar Institute and the Italian Antarctic Program .

Due to its extreme and isolated location, ESA although not directly involved in the running of the station, is involved by using the station as an analogue environment for its human spaceflight research program.

There are arguments for and against why Concordia station and its overwintering crew may be considered a useful analogue environment, though some have argued against its reliability. Certainly the isolation you experience here is real. We are alone from February to November.

Each year a Research MD post is advertised and sponsored by ESA to allow a medical doctor to carry out a series of experiments planned the year before.

ESA allows any institution to submit experiments, which are competitively considered towards the following year’s Concordia research plan. Once decided, a number of these experiments are implemented as a combined protocol, where possible, at Concordia Station. Some projects are continued over consecutive years, others only for one winter/ year at Concordia. During my year at Concordia, we have a number of projects within this protocol – with supervising institutions although mostly European based, this year range from Maryland, USA to Budapest, Hungary.

2. Most space missions and research expeditions involve using the crew as test subjects. Is there a limit to how much time the crew should be involved in these tests – is there a chance that this can interfere with other mission responsibilities? Can crewmembers opt out of any of the research – or is it a requirement of all crewmembers to participate in all research?

The projects are different, but are conducted together over a 5 day period for each crew member every 5-6 weeks- I work a 6 day week here. The research is voluntary and although not everyone choses to take part, most have done in past years. The experiments involve actigraphy, posturography, polysomnography, exercise testing, Cardiac monitoring, EEG recording alongside blood, saliva, urine sampling. There are also questionnaires, reaction time tests and various brain games and cognitive tests.

Image: Sitting waiting for the sun – the sun remains below the horizon for months during the winter. It peeks up remaining just below the horizon days before the first official sunrise. (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

Being voluntary, a few crewmembers find themselves too busy to take part. This has been particularly true for the technical staff this year who have been kept extremely busy with the installation, testing and tweaking of new life systems on the station. Generally, although we try to adhere to a routine and research schedule, it is simply not possible and I have to remain extremely flexible as a result and my research comes second to others vital jobs on the base.

This presents additional challenges of its own – for me, I then change my own daily routine around others to allow the research to take place- getting up and going to bed at different times each week, depending on who I am conducting the research on – our plumber who wakes up at 7am or our astronomer who goes to bed at 5am. It is difficult. Although locked into the Antarctic winter, sometimes I feel like I am travelling the world’s time zones – waking up in China and going to bed on Easter Island. I try to look at it that way anyway.

3. NASA is now looking at using the International Space Station as a research analog for a ship traveling to Mars. Has there been any discussion between NASA and ESA on how studies on the ISS (including work in the ESA Columbus module) could be aligned with research done at Concordia station – or at other polar research facilities?

The polar regions have been used for long periods as space analogue studies. In fact, research has even looked at the use of long land traverses as space analogue environments also.

I have studied about analogue environments for a few years – from Devon Island to Concordia, inspired when I had flown over the Mars Society’s Devon Island project many years ago. [Editors note: both Devon Island and Dome C are located 75 degrees from North and South poles respectivey]

Image: Standing on the roof enjoying the first rays from the Sun in months – Alexander Kumar and French Marine Chemist, Sebastien Aubin (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

From conversations and discussions by satellite phone sharing my experiences over the past year with my friend Dale M. Molé who is currently working as the lone physician at the American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, I would also like to introduce you to his idea – supporting the use of submarines as space analogue environments. As a retired US Navy Submarine doctor with many years experience behind him, Dale has convinced me. He explained, alongside having an all-male crew living in confinement, that certain submarines position themselves at tactical points in isolation in various extreme areas of the world in training and also rely on life systems to create and maintain their own atmosphere. Certainly, submarines present an interesting and appealing area of further study as analogue environments.

Now, as part of my PhD in extreme physiology, I am looking at such environments in closer details trying to understand what can and cannot be learnt from each type of environment.

Living at Concordia, aside from the lack of Zero-G, I realize there are significant differences not only in the location but also in the crew – when compared to astronauts.

These differences make the extrapolation of the results from the research I am conducting very challenging, when trying to then apply them to astronauts and future space missions. I think the huge folds can be ironed out but finite details really can only be learnt from time spent in space and on ISS. Concordia, alongside other analogue environments can only teach us so much.

I would like to plan the next step in research, which would be to create a project similar to Mars 500 in a ‘real’ environment like Antarctica or the Arctic. I have some ideas and a project I am working on right now and would welcome any reader to contact me about this.

Image: Aurora Australis visits Concordia Station, beneath the Milky Way – the wonders of the universe appear over Concordia Station during winter (Credit: Alexander Kumar and Erick Bondoux)

4. Speaking from personal experiences during ling stays at Everest Base Camp and on Devon Island, having good food on an expedition can often become more important than many other things – and bad food can often make the experience difficult to get through. Are you studying crew reactions to the menu? Do people at Concordia start to develop tastes for foods that are different than they have back in the real world? We used pressure cookers at Everest due to our altitude – do you use them at Concordia (for the same reason)?

Sadly this is not an official part of my research protocol. But certainly having a good chef helps. We have a chef called Giorgio Deidda from Sardinia, Italy. This is his third winter at Concordia station and he has worked all over the world. Surprising us with his many creations, he keeps our imaginations and taste buds afloat using only limited and finite tinned, canned, dried or preserved foods, once our fresh food had become depleted and moudly so many months ago.

I know Everest Base camp well – having visited there aged 18 years in 2002 when I spent the year teaching English as a foreign language in a Nepalese school. I remember stopping en-route through the various villages, buying cans of tuna and drinking garlic tea- which people speculate help with the altitude. When I arrived there at Base Camp, I was extremely privileged to meet Peter Hillary – son of Sir Edmund Hillary. There were many other amazing characters in Nepal – Ed Viesturs and the American doctor who had been part of the team that found Mallory’s body.

At base camp, I remember having had to make a choice on how to spend my last $5 – choosing between making a satellite phone call home to my mother ($5 per minute) or buying a Snickers chocolate bar ($2). I hope people carry spare change to Mars when a manned mission eventually departs. How things have changed- I now carry a satellite phone supplied by Iridium due to finding myself frequently traversing on expeditions through the world’s most extreme environments, and sometimes have had to use it, not only to call my mother.

Living at Concordia – at 3,800 meters equivalent altitude – leaves me breathless at times and reminds me of trekking through the Himalayas. Even as an anesthetics trainee, I find hypoxia to be the most intelligently fascinating of killers. I would love to get involved in the Xtreme Everest research – I hear a second trip is leaving in March 2013. Similarly, I would like to volunteer for the Mars Society’s Devon Island analogue.

5. At what point does the mental detachment from the world back home start? You refer to your location as “Planet Concordia ©”. Do you ever get to the point that you can easily imagine yourself on a space mission or on a base on another planet? If so, what aspects of the isolation lead you to begin thinking this way? Do you treat the Concordia base station itself as a “ship” in any way?

I coined the term Planet Concordia © because to me, when using my imagination it is the closest I can feel to living on the surface of another planet – very difficult to explain. I have had similar feelings when isolated in the Sahara desert and Amazon. There are times that you feel like an alien on Earth.

Concordia brings additional challenges of its own. Although a fan of technological initiative, increased communications, for example when compared to previous polar expeditions 100 years ago, allow a certain degree of luxury – in knowing your local football team’s scores – but also can deliver bad news. I recently wrote an article for BBC News about exactly these challenges.

Image: Moon halo – an effect seldomly seen over Concordia.  Photo taken by Alexander Kumar at 2am during the Antarctic winter (Credit: Alexander Kumar)

Living onboard Concordia can certainly be likened to living on a ship. Perhaps the Endurance would be a good example to use. Here we are ‘frozen’ into the world’s most extreme environment, unable to escape and unable to have outside help reach us.

There have been many times when walking outside the station and a part of it – covered in ice, has caught my eye. It makes me stand bolt upright and to attention. I have been immediately reminded of and my imagination haunted by Hurley’s famous images taken during winter of the skeleton of The Endurance captured in the dark polar night by using flash, with its rigging covered in ice, like a Marie Celeste – abandoned by its crew, cast adrift, trapped and strangled by the ice. These images are among my favorites taken from the heroic age in polar exploration and so far in life.

6. How would you describe your Internet access with the rest of the world – adequate? Infrequent? Do you use instant messaging, Twitter, and other social media services? Due to the realities of communications in Antarctica, do you find yourself engaging in the same asynchronous and delayed communications one would expect between Earth and a Mars ship?

Whilst in Antarctica I had been asked to commence ‘Twittering’ by ESA. Before this, I had never had the inclination or urge to use it, remaining against the idea of moving forward into the 21st Century’s social media. My Twitter account name is @DrAlexKumar in case any reader is interested. I find new social media fascinating, but very destructive to the fabric of a winter team’s society. Instead of involving themselves in fellow crew members and life on the base, people remain loosely connected, in fact disconnected with life in Antarctica – by regular Skype, Facebook and telephone access.

I am thankful to report that I have not yet heard a Nokia mobile phone message or telephone ringtone resonate around the base, whilst living at Concordia. Since there is no mobile phone coverage, we have to rely on satellite phones which although leaving a delay of 1-3 seconds, do not go anywhere as far as to mimic the communications delay from a Mars mission that could be between 8 and 40 minutes. I understand the Mars 500 project simulated this delay, which I find very interesting and realistic.

Whilst living at Concordia I have reignited my love of reading – having brought here all of the books I could find on polar exploration, alongside a few others. I have slowly been chewing my way through Shackleton, Mawson, Scott and Byrd. This has caused me to start penning my thoughts myself and further inspired by Hurley, furthered my experience in photography, including in -110 degrees Fahrenheit and astrophotography – of the wonderfully clear polar night sky above us.

I have maintained a record of my experiences on my website at and just this week have started writing for the New York Times.

For more information, visit:

Dr Alexander Kumar FRGS
Concordia Station Doctor, Institut Polaire Français (IPEV) 
European Space Agency sponsored Research MD

ITACE 2014 Expedition Doctor & Chief Scientist

Concordia station, Dome C, Antarctica
75°06’06”S – 123°23’43”E 
Local time GMT+7 hours

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.