Feature

To the End of Earth
07.22.08
Tia Ferguson recently journeyed to the bottom of the world. Her job as an engineer at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., gave her the opportunity to spend four weeks in Antarctica helping with the recovery of a science experiment.

Tia Ferguson in a red coat with a furry hood in Antarctica

NASA engineer Tia Ferguson spent four weeks in Antarctica training for and assisting with the recovery of a balloon science experiment. Image Credit: Tia Ferguson

The experiment was attached to a large, plastic balloon that floated high above Earth's southernmost continent. The balloon and experiment circled above Antarctica for about two weeks until the experiment was released to fall back to Earth on a parachute. Ferguson was part of the team that traveled to the landing site to pick up the experiment.

A NASA scientist asked Ferguson to help with the recovery in Antarctica because she had prior experience recovering a balloon science experiment, NASA's Deep Space Test Bed, in New Mexico in 2005. She had designed the Deep Space Test Bed. For the last seven years she has been doing mechanical design for balloon, telescope, satellite, rocket and ground experiments.

As a mechanical design engineer, Ferguson is not a scientist and does not develop the scientific part of the experiment. Instead, she designs the hardware components that house the experiments. "The engineer helps the scientist figure out how to make the experiment work," Ferguson said.

The Antarctica experiment she helped recover is called ATIC, pronounced like an attic in a house. ATIC stands for Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter. The experiment studied cosmic rays, which are particles traveling at nearly the speed of light.

Antarctica is a good place to fly high-altitude balloons because of a unique, circular wind pattern that develops during the Antarctic summer and causes balloons to circle the continent for several weeks. The balloons go as high as 130,000 feet, or approximately 23 miles, allowing the experiments to make observations about space matter in Earth's atmosphere.

ATIC on a large launch truck in the snow

The ATIC experiment is hoisted in the air on a large truck and prepared to be attached to the helium-filled balloon before launch. Image Credit: Tia Ferguson

NASA scientist Jim Adams invited Ferguson to help with ATIC's recovery. She had worked with Adams and another NASA scientist, Mark Christl, on the Deep Space Test Bed. Adams and Christl designed and built a detector system for the ATIC experiment. Students from several universities helped build ATIC with support from scientists like Adams and Christl at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

ATIC was designed to be taken apart easily. By using satellite transmissions, a small portion of the data from the experiment was downlinked during flight and was recorded to the ground station. Recovering the experiment hardware allowed scientists to retrieve the rest of the data. The recovered equipment can also be reused on future missions.

The majority of Ferguson's four weeks in Antarctica, from Jan. 4 to Feb. 5, 2008, was spent at McMurdo Station. McMurdo is a science research facility operated by the National Science Foundation. The station is located on Ross Island just off Antarctica's eastern coast.

While at McMurdo, Ferguson learned about some of the science investigations going on there. She worked in the Long Duration Balloon Facility where the balloon experiments are managed. ATIC's scientists had no way of knowing where the experiment would land once it was released from the balloon. Because of that, the recovery team had to prepare for surviving in both snowy and high-altitude conditions in case ATIC landed on the high plateau in the middle of the continent. The recovery team prepared for this possibility by attending snow school and high-altitude training.

In addition to spending a lot of time working and preparing for the recovery, Ferguson had time to enjoy visiting one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Some of her extracurricular activities in Antarctica included cross-country skiing, snow skating and sightseeing for animals. She saw seals, penguins, whales and skua birds. "I was thrilled to see all of the wildlife because I've known people who have gone down there and seen nothing," she said.

It wasn't as cold as she thought it would be in McMurdo, but it was colder than she expected at the South Pole. She and the recovery team temporarily relocated to the South Pole to be closer to where the experiment landed. The team then flew in a small airplane to the landing site and took apart the experiment for its return to McMurdo.

"I was very nervous (about going to the South Pole)," Ferguson said. "There's some risk there. It's minus 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) and minus 76 degrees with wind chill factor. You can lose a nose or a finger, or, even worse, get hypothermia and not recover. It's scary but worth it. I certainly didn't not want to go. I was very excited about getting out in the field and recovering the payload.

Tia Ferguson and Joachim Isbert hold the purple and gold LSU flag at the Ceremonial South Pole

Tia Ferguson and ATIC recovery team lead Joachim Isbert hold the Louisiana State University flag at the Ceremonial South Pole. The flag has flown on all four ATIC missions. Image Credit: Tia Ferguson

"What was really surprising to me was I could stay warm in minus 76 degrees wind chill."

One of the most interesting parts of the trip was meeting the people who are there doing research, Ferguson said. "It was just fascinating, all of the science ... just hearing about it and talking to people," she said.

Not everyone at McMurdo Station is a scientist or engineer. Photographers and artists go there to photograph or paint the Antarctic scenery. Shop owners, cooks, doctors and clergy members support the community of scientists. Ferguson met gourmet chefs who were serving as cooks, and lawyers who were working as dishwashers just to get the chance to go to Antarctica.

A native of Natchez, Miss., Ferguson started working for NASA straight out of college. She has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, and since coming to Marshall has obtained a master's degree in electrical engineering.

She started her career at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida as an integration engineer. She then became a project engineer doing mechanical integration and testing for Spacelab and other NASA missions. She was also a project manager for the International Space Station, overseeing the design and integration of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, a cargo transportation module for the space station. She transferred to the Marshall center because she wanted to be more involved with mechanical design.

Currently Ferguson supervises a group of mechanical design engineers supporting the Constellation program and the development of the Ares I crew launch vehicle. The group is also preparing a water-recovery system that can recycle wastewater into clean water, to be installed on the International Space Station later this year.

Ferguson hopes her work at NASA and her adventures in Antarctica will inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics so that they, too, can have such cool experiences. She involves students in her work whenever she can, serving as a mentor for college students who come to NASA for internships or research projects. She has also mentored Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups.

"Inspiring people to become engineers and scientists is important to America," Ferguson said. "There are not enough scientists and engineers today."

Related Resources
Antarctic Adventure Slideshow
NASA and the International Polar Year
What Is Antarctica?
Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility   →
Scientific Balloons   →
Scientific Balloons Achieve Antarctic Flight Record
NASA Education   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services