Beth Healey: meet the doctor who braved remotest Antarctica in the name of space exploration

Beth Healey is describing how her body adapted to living in Antarctica over winter. “I felt like I went into hibernation,” she tells me. “To do anything, you really have to think about it. We all lost weight.”

The 29-year-old returned in January, having spent more than a year on the ultra-remote Concordia base as the European Space Agency’s research doctor. The long polar night — for 105 days at Concordia you don’t see the sun — is brutal. “I’d worked in the Arctic and 24-hour daylight never caused me problems, so I was a bit smug. But as soon as we lost the sun I didn’t sleep for four days.” It also causes forgetfulness. “Your thyroid is affected by low light levels so you have to write things down.”

Before she went to Antarctica Healey was a junior doctor at Chelsea and Westminster hospital. Keen on the outdoors, though, she was involved in “expedition medicine”, supporting endurance races such as the North Pole marathon. “I love skiing. That’s how I got into it. It escalated.”

I meet her at Greenwich Observatory. Later this month Healey is speaking at New Scientist Live at ExCeL about her experiences in Antarctica, or “White Mars” as it’s known. Much of the research conducted on Concordia looks at the effects a long space flight could have on crew: “It’s about psychology and physiology. I looked at the biochemical markers for stress caused by the over-winter period and confinement.”

Concordia’s crew are used as an extension of experiments happening on the International Space Station too: “Astronauts are expensive and there are not many of them. When they’re developing tools, we’re similar enough that you can increase subject numbers.”

There are also experiments you can’t do on the ISS. “It’s the gold standard but there are limitations. If someone has a big medical problem, you can evacuate them within half a day. That’s impossible on Concordia. We looked at the effect that has on crew.”

It certainly makes them risk-averse. “If you break your leg there, it’s very different. Medical models from Antarctica show what we’ll need to do for space missions.”

One test was about cognition, and is set to be implemented into astronauts’ routine. “It’s testing themselves against themselves, so any dip in performance is a red flag. Are they sleeping enough? Having emotional problems?”

They also wore activity watches for a test in collaboration with Nasa. It monitored team dynamics, including whether relationships had broken down. But one of the most interesting experimental elements is accidental. “Money is meaningless. Everything’s free.” How does this change things? “It alters the hierarchy. Big-name scientists come in the summer and they suffer.”

concordia-crew-2.jpg
Dr Beth Healey with colleagues at the Concordia research base in Antarctica ()

Flying into Concordia on a Twin Otter (the classic polar plane), Healey was struck first by the void. “The coast is exciting — you have mountains and penguins. But at Concordia life doesn’t exist. You don’t even have bacteria surviving because the conditions are so extreme. ” One of her experiments there was looking for new species of bacteria that could live there. “It’s believed that if we can find some they might have similar traits to those we’d find on other planets.” None have yet been found. 

After landing, the altitude hit: “It’s a bit like living on the top of Mont Blanc. When you get out of the plane, you’re short of breath.” 

Concordia is a French-Italian station. Though the official language is English, people ended up speaking “Concordian”: a mish-mash of different tongues. “In times of stress, you’d find people would revert to their own language.”

There were 13 crew members, both technicians and scientists. Healey says they formed three sub-groups, with factors like nationality, jobs and sleep cycles marking the divisions. But they all ate together to maintain cohesion and Healey says theirs was the first contingent where everybody made it to the debriefing — “So no one was like: ‘I never want to see these people again’.”

Before travelling to Antarctica the Concordia crew had human behaviour performance training. “It’s the same as astronauts get — how to live and work together, making you aware of what might cause conflicts.” 

There’s a strange mix of being isolated yet never alone. Healey concedes “it’s difficult to get on all the time” but notes that you could simply retreat to your bedroom if you needed space. Did anyone’s habits irk her? “There were issues,” she says, diplomatically. “But that’s a lot of the training: if someone sniffs and it annoys you, tell them.”

She was single when she was there, which she believes made it easier. “Some people who went in relationships became single during the over-winter.”

Concordia has an Italian chef (although all the food is frozen), a gym, Skype and even WhatsApp. Many learn languages while there and developed new skills. 

There is communication between the different bases, with trans-Antarctic darts matches and greetings sent for the mid-winter celebrations. One base showed them a watermelon they’d grown. “I was so envious because we didn’t have hydroponic growing facilities so had no fresh fruit and vegetables.” 

When she ventured outside (-80 centigrade in the winter), she had to wear extensive gear: under-layers, a big suit, a balaclava made of down feathers and goggles: “It’s a bit like wearing a space suit. It’s claustrophobic to go outside.”

What did she miss most? “Going for a run, speaking English quickly and food: mango and avocado.” Because Concordia recycles its water — the prototype for the ISS’s system — they also had to use a special three-in-one shampoo, conditioner and shower gel: “It’s supposed to do everything but does nothing.” 

There was wine, though, I note. “It’s a French-Italian base — of course there’s wine!” She laughs. “It’s not a prison.”

Follow Rosamund Urwin on Twitter: @RosamundUrwin

Dr Beth Healey will be speaking at New Scientist Live, September 22-25 at London ExCeL