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A Doctor goes to White Mars

Compiled/Written by Murali Kamma Email Compiled/Written by Murali Kamma
October 2012
A Doctor goes to White Mars

Alexander Kumar is the only medical doctor on what he calls Planet Concordia. No, this British-Indian and 12 other residents are not in outer space— but the region where they are stationed, deep in Antarctica, certainly feels like another planet. In fact, he refers to it as White Mars.

Concordia is a French-Italian research station, located on a plateau 12,467 feet above sea level and about 1037 miles from the South Pole. The environment is so remote and harsh that the temperature can drop to below -176 F (though the average is more like -67 F) and there is complete darkness for three months a year.

Though unfit for human habitation, White Mars is ideal for figuring out what it would take to live on the real Mars. The frozen white land mass, stretching for hundreds of miles in every direction, is empty and completely inaccessible during the winter months. It leads to hibernation, or over-wintering— and being a ‘hivernaut’ is an excellent way to understand what an astronaut goes through. This is where Dr. Kumar comes in. Not only does he study his team members, he helps them cope with hypoxia and other physical ailments caused by severe conditions. He also treats problems like depression, which can result from sensory-deprivation and isolation.

Appointed the European Space Agency’s Human Spaceflight Research MD, his stint at Planet Concordia ends this year. Dr. Kumar, whose parents were cancer specialists, will join a polar expedition next year to retrace Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trip a century ago. As the team’s doctor and scientist, Dr. Kumar notes, he “will carry both the British flag and the Indian flag, with equal pride, across Antarctica.”

 


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