Science and Technology News

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Military Supports Science Foundation in Antarctica

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity

WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2010 – Air Force Lt. Col. Ed “Hertz” Vaughan is spending 50 days in colder conditions than most will ever experience to promote scientific research.

Vaughan -- commander of McMurdo Detachment 1 and deputy commander of the 13th Air Expeditionary Group, Joint Task Force Support Forces Antarctica -- is braving temperatures that often dip below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to support the U.S. Antarctic Program, the National Science Foundation’s science mission in Antarctica.

In a Nov. 3 “DOD Live” bloggers roundtable, Vaughan discussed the Defense Department’s support role in the interagency effort.

Defense Department officials asked the commander of U.S Pacific Command in 2005 to take the lead and be the supported command for the effort, he said, and Pacom created the joint task force to execute the mission.

The task force supports the National Science Foundation’s research and exploration in Antarctica through Operation Deep Freeze, a U.S military operation unlike any other. It is among the military’s more difficult peacetime missions due to the harsh Antarctic environment, Vaughan said. The military is uniquely equipped and trained to operate in such an austere environment, he added, and has supported the U.S. Antarctic Program since 1955.

Vaughan is no stranger to serving in harsh conditions. He first deployed to the Greenlandic icecap in 1992 and began flying Operation Deep Freeze missions in Antarctica in the 1993-94 time frame. He subsequently participated in six more Operation Deep Freeze seasons in both flying and nonflying roles.

LC-130 transport planes from the New York Air National Guard -- equipped with skis as well as wheels -- fly to some Antarctic outposts, such the South Pole, as well as numerous scientific stations around the continent that are manned on a seasonal basis, Vaughan said. The biggest hurdle they face is dealing with Antarctica’s formidable weather changes, he added.

“The weather is noncooperative,” he said. “You start getting into situations where you have a very narrow window to launch a mission or a narrow window to recover a flight.”

He added that sometimes it’s not the weather at McMurdo Station that matters, but rather the weather at wherever the crews are headed, such as the various field camps scattered throughout the continent.

While the temperatures in Antarctica are harsh, Vaughan said, he is taking advantage of Antarctica’s austral summer, which provides 24-hour daylight. “You do have opportunities to get outside. … There are some hiking trails around here, if the weather permits,” he said, but he added that the inherent focus of everyone stationed there is working to support science.

“If you were to just walk through McMurdo any time of the day or night, you’d get a sense that the people here are focused on work, and their job and the mission is the primary focus,” Vaughan said.

About 10 percent of the 1,200 people working out of McMurdo Station are military, Vaughan said, and the mission reflects a high level of interservice and interagency cooperation.

“McMurdo is truly a joint mission, with members from the Air Force, Navy, the Reserve and Guard, as well as one member of the U.S. Army that participates each year, as well as the Coast Guard, who supports the mission through their Department of Homeland Security role,” he said.

Vaughan said the task force’s primary role is supporting various National Science Foundation-projects that are headed by some of the world’s leading scientists.

Some of these scientists even share what they learn with the people working at the station, Vaughan noted. “Two or three times a week, they’ll come out into either the dining facility or other lecture halls and provide briefings and lectures on the science that’s going on,” he said.

The National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program website provides more information on the various scientific research projects being conducted on the ice.

In addition, to bring awareness to the U.S. Antarctic Program and the Defense Department’s role in supporting its mission, Vaughan has co-produced a series on DOD’s science and technology blog, “Armed with Science.” The series, “Dispatches from Antarctica,” features Vaughan’s first-hand experiences supporting scientific research through the U.S. Antarctic Program.

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