The role we play in making Antarctic research possible
As part of the 50th anniversary celebrations at Leidos, Insights will be taking a closer look over the course of this year at some of the key moments in the company's history. For a deeper dive into our past, we invite you to download and read our new eBook.
Antarctica has no native population, but about 4,500 people make their home there each year. About a quarter of these folks are from the United States, and Leidos manages logistics and operations for the National Science Foundation's United States Antarctic Program (USAP).
One of the subcontractors that works with Leidos in Antarctica is the Anchorage, Alaska-based Gana-A'Yoo Services Corporation (GSC). The result is a supply chain from the U.S. to the South Pole Station that is the longest on Earth!
Many of the people working in Antarctica fall into two groups: researchers who have designed specific projects that require travel to the continent and the people who support them, whether they be, cooks, computer technicians, or mechanics.
Recent scientific expeditions have generated images of super-massive black holes, made discoveries about streamflow that could affect watershed management around the world, and discovered the skeleton of a previously unknown type of dinosaur. The program also supports artists and writers who use their craft to help the public understand NSF-funded activities in Antarctica.
Thinking a year ahead
Leidos’ role in Antarctica came about as a result of the Lockheed Martin IS&GS merger in 2016. Lockheed Martin won the $2 billion contract five years earlier to hire and manage the people and facilities that make Antarctic research possible. The contract includes work to modernize the facilities “on the ice.”
The USAP includes three permanent research facilities, two research vessels, and dozens of seasonal field camps. Because activities in Antarctica are regulated by an international treaty system, the U.S. works cooperatively with several other nations’ research programs.
Most visitors from the U.S. to the Antarctic arrive at McMurdo Station, the largest base on the continent with more than a thousand residents each austral summer (October through February).
Every February, two supply ships arrive at McMurdo from Los Angeles to stock the U.S. facilities for the entire year. One of the ships carries fuel and the other has everything else that the scientific expeditions and support staff will need. These ships are hardened against icy waters but must be accompanied by a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker to ensure safe delivery and return.
Because there's only one supply delivery each year, logistics management has unusual challenges. Materials that are needed in October have to be ordered a year in advance so they can be delivered on the February supply ship. There's no running out to Office Depot or calling Grainger if a technician remembers something they forgot while on a glacier at the bottom of the earth.
Preparing contractors for their time in Antarctica
Because most workers in Antarctica are on six-month contracts and only about a quarter stay over the winter season, there isn't much institutional memory. Everything has to be documented so that the next team can figure out what needs to be done and where.
Before being hired, contractors have to pass extensive medical and dental exams because on-site medical resources are limited, and additional care can be weeks or even months away. In addition to salary and wages, contractors receive airfare, room, board, and polar clothing for their time on the continent. Contrary to legend, though, you don't have to have your appendix removed to work in Antarctica.
The supply ships depart for Los Angeles before the weather changes, but first they must be loaded with everything that needs to go back. To keep the continent pristine, waste generated in Antarctica is returned to the U.S., where approximately 65 percent is recycled. Construction and research plans include specifications for waste management and transport. This is a challenge in the current modernization program.
Flights go to Antarctica more frequently than once a year, and the research bases share materials and expertise in a pinch in the spirit of international scientific cooperation. People don't go to Antarctica unless they can “MacGyver” out of tight situations. Still, it's better for both science and sanity if supply management and base operations work well. Leidos has a big responsibility to make sure that the right people are hired and the right systems are in place so far south.
Breathe easy on the white continent
People who live in Antarctica can get haircuts and take yoga classes. They can even have an appendectomy if necessary. Because Leidos has ensured that all of the support and materials are in place, Antarctic researchers are able to make amazing discoveries about this most remote and forbidding continent — and beyond.