Natchez native conducts NASA research in Antarctica

Published 11:35 pm Saturday, February 23, 2008

The phrase “it’s basic science” just doesn’t do justice to why Tia Ferguson spent five weeks in Antarctica. But that’s exactly how the Natchez native and NASA engineer described it.

Ferguson, who serves as a branch chief at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., recently braved the barren, cold southernmost landscape in the name of what most would consider not so basic science. From a research station in McMurdo, Antarctica, a crew from NASA and Louisiana State University launched enormous balloons toward the edge of outer space.

The balloons’ purpose was to collect data about deep space radiation. The balloons carried up to 5,000 pounds of carbon blocks to the edge of space, then drifted in the atmosphere for a few weeks, and returned to Earth near the South Pole. The carbon blocks were used to determine the direction and speed of cosmic rays.

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Ferguson offered a detailed explanation of that process using terms such as “secondary back scatter” and “cascading,” but to put it simply, scientists gathered useful data when cosmic rays hit the carbon blocks. That information may be used to prove the Big Bang theory one day, Ferguson said.

“We don’t currently understand much about where cosmic radiation comes from,” she said. “That’s the purpose of the research.”

Ferguson’s job at the bottom of the Earth was to recover the balloons when they returned to the ground at the South Pole. The balloons, which Ferguson said are large enough to fill LSU’s football stadium, were used because it’s a cheaper way to get close enough to space to conduct research.

The crew chose Antarctica for their launch site because of its unique weather patterns.

“If we would have launched in the U.S., the wind patterns would have allowed us maybe a couple of days of balloon flight,” she said. “We get much more flight time down there. When the winds are right, we can get up to 40 days.”

When you mention the South Pole, most people picture a blank, unbearably frigid nothingness. And Ferguson said that’s a pretty accurate description.

“There is nothing there,” she said. “It has got to be the closest thing to outer space on Earth. There’s nothing but white space there.”

The conditions at the research base in McMurdo were tough, but much more bearable than the South Pole, Ferguson said.

“Most of the time, the temps at the base were in the 20s and 30s,” she said. “While I was there, my son bragged about camping in colder temps in Alabama than we had in Antarctica.”

McMurdo may have been mild, but Ferguson said the South Pole was anything but.

“Near the pole, it was close to minus 40 with a wind chill of minus 76 degrees,” she said. “But they issued enough clothes to keep us warm.”

The wardrobe for the researchers included thick jackets, Eskimo-type hoods and ski pants. When they ventured into the frigid South Pole environment, they just added more of the same, Ferguson said.

“We layered a lot,” she said. “That’s the key to staying warm, you can’t get too hot. If you sweat, it will freeze. They sent us to snow school before we got there to teach us how to avoid hypothermia. You can’t have any skin exposed.”

Ferguson said life at the McMurdo station was unique and interesting, but not something everyone should try.

“Everyone that’s there goes there for a purpose,” she said. “There are no kids, no families, no dogs — it’s just a working environment.”

Ferguson said it’s not unusual to see lawyers taking jobs as dish washers just for the opportunity to live there.

“There’s a very highly intelligent work force here,” she said.

And that seems to make good sense for a NASA research facility.

Ferguson said she was grateful for the opportunity to work in Antarctica, but doesn’t think she will be going back. A recent promotion has landed her in a position where she doesn’t see a need for her to return. Plus, she said it’s tough being so far from her family.

“I think my family missed me as much as I missed them,” she said. “Five weeks is just too long to be away. But my kids are proud of the job I have. It’s good for them to see me do this. Hopefully, it will inspire them to follow their dreams.”

In her new position, Ferguson heads a team of engineers that work on everything from the Space Station to space rockets. She may even get the chance to work on NASA’s new lunar lander, all in the name of basic science.