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Season Two, Episode 8: Diamonds in the Ice

Season 1Episode 8Nov 26, 2019

Every year, intrepid Antarctica explorers hunt for space rocks that have fallen to Earth.

On a mission logo

On a mission logo

Nina Lanza field recording: Well good morning from a beautiful day in the South Miller Range. You know, I think Antarctica just doesn’t want us to move our tents ever. Because every time we’ve tried to move somewhere, there’ve been some crazy winds and storms. We were all hosed from our camp move in the crazy 30-mile-an-hour winds. So we only worked a half day to get our camp in order and then we just essentially collapsed. Now, we’re planning on spending a whole day outside, looking for more space rocks!

[0:32] Narrator: Every year, a small group of adventurers travel to the bottom of the world to hunt for meteorites.

Ralph Harvey: The meteorites fall randomly all around the world, and some proportion of them gets mixed in with the falling snow up in the interior of Antarctica. And those meteorites become essentially sprinkled throughout the ice sheet like the canonical raisins in a pudding.

[0:54] Narrator: That’s Ralph Harvey. He’s led the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, known as ANSMET, for 24 years.

As we’ve heard in previous episodes, asteroids have different names based on their location and behavior. If a rock from space survives the treacherous journey through our planet’s atmosphere without vaporizing or exploding, and hits the ground with a thud, it’s called a meteorite. Meteorites can be found everywhere on Earth, but in Antarctica, they’re a lot easier to spot.

Ralph Harvey: I often say, “If you want to find stuff that falls from the sky, lay out a big white sheet” and Antarctica pretty much, that’s exactly what it is.

(music intro)

[2:05] Narrator: Welcome to “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m Leslie Mullen, and this is Season 2, Episode 8: Diamonds in the Ice.

(clip from TV show intro “Meteorite Men”)
“Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold live to unearth these space rocks.”
“Let’s go hunt.”
“They’re the Meteorite Men.”
“Their quest is part science…”
“Here’s our first image.”
“…and part treasure hunt.”
“That is the real thing.”

[2:29] Narrator: TV shows like “Meteorite Men” show how fun and exciting it can be to search for space rocks that have fallen to Earth. Some are valued for their unusual beauty, others because they’re rare. Meteorites that come from the Moon or Mars are worth more than their weight in gold.

A large part of a meteorite’s value comes from what they can tell us about far-off asteroids, planets, and our solar system. And that’s why the National Science Foundation pays for a more scientific search every year down in Antarctica.

Nina Lanza: ANSMET is just the adventure of a lifetime. Go to Antarctica, which is a place that most people don’t get to go in their lifetime, but also the science was incredible. ANSMET is responsible for bringing back something like 60 percent of all known meteorites in the world. But it’s a really hard mission to get on, and they don’t want to take just anyone.

[3:17] Narrator: Nina Lanza is a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and works with an instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover called ChemCam. That’s a laser the rover uses to analyze the chemistry of Martian rocks.

(cartoon laser sound)

In 2015, Nina got the call to join ANSMET.

Nina Lanza: I was on ChemCam operations, and I was like, “I have to take this call, you guys.” And I run out of the room, and I tried to be cool on the phone. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, okay. I’ll think about it. I’ll get back to you.” Then I hang up, and I was just taking laps around this building. I was like, “Yeah!” (laughs) So excited.

[3:52] Narrator: For people who want to participate in this ANSMET program, getting a coveted seat on the expedition is like opening a chocolate bar to find Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket inside.

(clip from movie: “Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” song, “I’ve got a Golden Ticket!”)
“I never dreamed that I would climb over the Moon in ecstasy
But nevertheless, it’s there that I’m shortly about to be
‘Cause I’ve got a golden ticket
I’ve got a golden chance to make my way…

[4:14] Narrator: But getting selected is only the first hurdle. You have to figure out how you’re going to leave your life and your job for two months with no pay. And you have to pass a comprehensive medical exam.

Ralph Harvey: That’s basically a set of examinations designed to eliminate any potential chronic problems, anything that need constant care. It’s not quite at the level of getting your appendix out in case anything might go wrong, because the hope is that if something were to go horribly wrong, you can get professional care within a few days. But still, they don’t want anybody where the risks of physical exertion and isolation are likely to cause issues.

[4:57] Narrator: Juliane Gross, a professor of planetary science at Rutgers University, made it through the selection gauntlet for the 2017 season.

Juliane Gross: It’s a great, big adventure, and I really like adventure.

[5:09] Narrator: In her day job, Juliane learns how the solar system and planets came to be by studying different kinds of meteorites.

Juliane Gross: I look at Martian meteorites and meteorites from the Moon, and try to shed light on their formation. I’ve also started to look at chondrites, which are very primitive, the first rocks in the solar system that condensed from the solar nebula. Since I work with meteorites, I really wanted to go collect them.

[5:36] Narrator: The ANSMET selections are made in the Spring, and the candidates have all Summer to get prepared.

Ralph Harvey: Then things get real fun. In October, we have a boot camp. It’s not a boot camp in the sense of doing push-ups and chin-ups and slogging through mud. It’s a boot camp in terms of really laying out to people in great detail what the gear is like, what the work will be like, what the travel will be like. It’s kind of part travelogue, part getting to know you cocktail party, part fashion show, part sunscreen demonstration.

The idea is that even though this isn’t a very realistic simulation, you’ve put these concepts and these pictures and these ideas in people’s minds the first time. So that when everything becomes all too real, something in their brain says, “You know what? I’ve seen this before. This isn’t scary. This is exciting.”

[6:34] Narrator: In late November, the eight or so people that make up that season’s crew begin their long journey down to Antarctica. Everyone first gathers in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Juliane Gross: So you spend about a day there trying on all the specific clothing that you need. The big red parka, wind pants, the shoes, the gloves, some fleece layers. You really want to make sure that everything fits really well, because if it doesn’t, if it’s too big then the wind goes in and you could potentially freeze. And if it’s too tight then it restricts your blood flow. Again, that could also have an unpleasant ending. So you really want to make sure everything fits just right.

[7:12] Narrator: After that, if the weather cooperates, they fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica on a military transport plane. But they can’t start searching for meteorites right away.

Juliane Gross: You have to go through a lot of training in McMurdo Station. There’s environmental training, there’s safety training, there is survival training. You have to learn how to drive the skidoo’s and handle them in the field, but you also have to learn how to repair them because if they break down on the ice plateau you can’t just call triple A and say, “Hey come and pick me up.” You have to go food shopping, so to speak, because you have to pack all the food that you need for two months out on the ice field. So you have to plan breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks with your tent mate, and that’s not an easy feat.

Nina Lanza: I don’t know about you, but I have never gone to the grocery store and tried to pick out food for 40 days. The best advice that I got was, “Don’t skimp on the chocolate.” We’re allowed to take one chocolate bar per day that we are out in the field. So I was like, “This seems crazy. 40 chocolate bars?” Oh no. That’s not crazy. You’re going to wish you had like 80 chocolate bars. Because it’s high in fat and sugar. You need that. It’s so cold, right? You want to eat really high fat food. People who know that would shove all the chocolate in the storeroom into pillowcases and take it with them, because it’s such an easy food to eat and it’s so good for the field. So they restrict you, because they only have so much.

(clip from movie: “Willa Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” song: “I Want it Now!”)
“I want the world
I want the whole world
I want to lock it
All up in my pocket
It’s my bar of chocolate
Give it to me now…”

[8:51] Narrator: There’s one last thing they need do before heading out into the field. They call it a “shakedown.”

Ralph Harvey: About midway in the training process, we leave McMurdo and we go out and camp. It might only be three or four miles away but it doesn’t matter. We’re actually using the gear that we will be taking into the field and people are trying out those boots that their spouse gave them in the snow, out on the ice sheet. It’s amazing what a difference that makes and it’s a part of the training. But it is also kind of a graduation ceremony, in that once you’ve done that and know how things have gone, that things have gone well, you know you are going to be fine out in the field. And if something has broken down, if something has gone wrong, you’ve got a chance to fix it or deal with it.

[9:39] Narrator: After that, the meteorite hunting can begin in earnest. They pack up all of their gear and fly out to the search site.

Ralph Harvey: The place we go to recover meteorites is up on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. It’s basically above the mountains, further inland. It’s at high altitude and it’s pretty close to the Pole. Most of the places we work now are within about five or six degrees of the South Pole. It’s always the same setting along the uphill side of the Transantarctics, but that would be like saying that Alaska is the same as Mexico because it’s along the Rocky Mountains. We have gone to about 200 different areas spread out over pretty close to 1500 miles along the Transantarctics.

[10:26] Narrator: This has been a great area for the ANSMET search year after year, because ice, and the meteorites bound inside the ice, get trapped by the natural barrier of the Transantarctic mountain range.

Ralph Harvey: That ice is then slowly lost by natural processes, sublimation, you know, the fierce, dry Antarctic winds will basically just evaporate that ice away, sweep away any new snow and keep it from accumulating. These sites where this is happening are very, very stable climate wise. They can sit there for millions of years literally unchanged with just the ice sitting there, slowly evaporating away. So not only are they places where meteorites can be found, but any of those little raisins in the pudding of the ice start to build up like a lag deposit on the surface as well. These places lose surface material a couple of centimeters a year, but you do that for a million years, you are literally picking up the meteorites that have been a part of many cubic kilometers of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Whenever we see these areas, they are recognizable because they’re brilliant blue, deep glacial ice exposed in an area where otherwise you’d think it ought to be just white snow. So when we see these blue ice areas, it catches our eye, particularly if it’s very high up in the ice sheet, at high altitude where the ice is moving slowly, it becomes a likely candidate. Ultimately though, the only thing that proves the meteorites are there is us putting our boots on the ground and going and looking.

Nina Lanza field recording: I don’t know if you can hear this, this is the sound of my stove. We’re boiling our water for tomorrow. So today we went searching for meteorites for the first time. We went searching in a moraine, which is a bunch of rocks that have been scoured by a glacier. Imagine if you are looking at a field of ice. And over all that ice is just a ton of rocks of all different sizes, shapes, colors. And then you have to find the space rock in those rocks. It’s a little trickier than you might imagine. You can look for certain things, like a fusion crust, which forms when the meteorite falls through the Earth’s atmosphere. So it’s a little bit of melting, shiny kind of dark surface material. But not all meteorites have that. You can look for some sort of rounding, and then a little bit of pitting. But I mean, those aren’t hard and fast rules. So, you know, it ended up being pretty hard.

[13:03] Narrator: Nina kept an audio diary during her time in the field. She also wrote entries every day for the ANSMET website’s blog.

Nina Lanza: ANSMET has a blogging system that uses the Iridium network. Iridium has a constellation of satellites that are in polar orbit, so we actually have really great coverage at the poles. We can use a phone and we can just tether and just send data via an iPad. I decided I would blog every single day, even if it was really short. That’s actually easier said than done, because the network is pretty good, but sometimes you’ve got dropouts, and if you’re sending data like an image and it drops out, you have to start again. There were evenings where I was so tired. I was like, “Oh, I could not do the blog. No. I have to do this. I vowed that I would do this.” So I would just stay up waiting until we got the right number of passes from functional satellites to actually get my full post out. But I liked it. It made me feel in some way more connected to the outside world, because even though I couldn’t receive any responses back, I’m sending out something. I know people are looking at it. So it made me feel like I was making a connection, even if it was at a distance.

It’s really hard to be in touch with people from home, even though we have phones, but we are working quite a bit of time, and then there’s an 18-hour difference. It’s really hard to align schedules to talk to people, and even then, you don’t have a long time to talk. You don’t have the same communication that you’re used to, so it’s actually quite a bit of solitude. And I think that can be surprising because you’re with a team. And I don’t want to say that my teammates weren’t supportive, because they were. It’s a little bit different though, right? We got to know each other very well and now I would say we’re like family, but right at the beginning, we didn’t know each other very well. Even though we’re working as a team and in fact we need each other, it’s very hard to speak when you’re out in the field because of several things.

(ski doo sound)

One is that we’re on these skidoos that are very loud as it is, right? They’re extremely loud. It’s hard to talk over them. Then our skidoos are actually spaced out so that we can search in a systematic way. So all day, you’re driving around on skidoos with people, but without ever speaking to them. There’s no time for chitchat. We really got to get the job done. So I was so surprised that we would spend nine hours outside together, but we only really spoke to each other at lunchtime. So as an extrovert, this actually felt very lonely to me, and that can be challenging if you do that for weeks on end.

(wind sound)

Antarctica is a harsh continent. That’s a catchphrase that you hear people saying all the time at McMurdo. It’s a harsh continent, but it’s really true. It does not feel like Earth. It’s so alien to any experience that I’ve ever had. The only things that are alive are your team. There’s nothing but wind and ice and the Sun that never sets. You’re so disoriented because you’re in this weird place. It’s like you’re on another planet, and you just start being very detached from your regular life. But as you become more and more distant from that and as more time passes, I think I can totally see how you just sort of stop remembering what it was like to live your other life. That’s like something that never happened, almost like a dream.

[16:32] Narrator: Nina says this sense of being in an alien place could get spooky at times.

Nina Lanza: The sounds were only the sounds that we made, but even those sounds were swallowed up very quickly into the wind. And the wind sounds are crazy. I mean, it’s not like a regular wind. I don’t know how to explain this, but it made sounds that I could’ve sworn it was a plane or a train or voices.

(wind and whispers)

The wind has so many different voices and you want to make sense out of it, but it’s nothing. It’s just the wind.

The wind was so loud that I just never fully got a full night’s sleep. I mean, I would put in earplugs, but they would eventually fall out. You know how you’re waking up slowly from a dream and you’re not fully certain what is reality?

(wind and whispers)

You would hear these wind sounds, it sounded like there was a crowd of people outside, which would be weird, right? How would they get there? But that’s what your brain tries to do. It’s like, this sounds like something I understand. I could see how you could easily go a little nuts.

Nina Lanza field recording: It’s already a tent day. That’s a day where you don’t spend a lot of time outside of the tent, because the winds are so strong here. And it’s just shaking the tent. It’s just like somebody’s wailing on the tent.

(music theme from the movie, “THE THING,” composed by Ennio Morricone)

Nina Lanza field recording: More and more snow has built up outside our door. This morning I had to shovel our way out from the inside. And there was actually snow in the tent as well. Because somehow, as this wind was blowing, it was coming in through our closed zipper in the door. And so I woke up, and there’s a big snow pile inside the tent.

Nina Lanza: I actually ventured outside, and I took a measurement, and it was up to 62 mile an hour winds that day, which apparently for Antarctica is not even that bad. And I could barely stand. I mean really and truly barely stand up. Because the wind was so strong and the snow is so dry, it was blowing like sand. It was like a white dust storm. Because it was complete white out, you just could not see anything. When we went outside to try to get supplies, you really had to pay attention to where you were in relation to your tent, because it would be so easy to lose your way and no one would hear you screaming for help because the wind is so loud.

That was a really sobering experience. Antarctica can swallow you up really easily.

[19:15] Narrator: Antarctica seemed to play with all the senses: sight, hearing, even smell.

Nina Lanza: There are almost no smells in Antarctica. There’s nothing growing. Those smells are all around us here, but in Antarctica, they don’t exist, and you kind of get hungry for a smell. The smell of somebody’s armpit is actually not that terrible; it’s the smell of something being alive. But it turns out you don’t actually need to change your clothes that much, which sounds crazy and gross, but the only time that you really start smelling is when the bacteria on your body start getting warm and excited about reproducing, right? If it’s cold, they just don’t do very much. You don’t really sweat very much, and so there’s just not a lot of food for those bacteria.

I think the only person who really smelled was one of my teammates who decided, just for funsies, he’s like, “I’m just never gonna change my clothes. I’m gonna see how long I can last.” And when I say never, I mean to sleep, never. So he had just one outfit. And several weeks in, I was like, okay. I can smell you. I definitely smell you. I’m not going to say that I enjoyed his armpit smell in the sense that you enjoy the smell of a flower, but it was a familiar, living smell that is actually comforting. It’s almost like an affirmation that we’re here and we’re not all aliens.

[20:30] Narrator: Juliane says the lack of smells messed with another sense: taste.

Juliane Gross: You’re so deprived of anything smell wise. So during the day you have to like force yourself a little bit to eat because you’re just not that hungry, and most of the times you’re just thirsty. Because Antarctica’s so dry it just sucks out all the moisture from your body.

And in Antarctica, you need to fuel your body to produce heat. I’m a fairly small person to begin with, and so I had trouble producing enough heat. So I got colder and colder every day even though we were eating lots and lots of food. And then one day I got really, really cold and I didn’t really want to collect meteorites anymore. That night we called Johnny, who’s the other mountaineer, and he was like, “Tell her to eat pure butter.” So that night I started eating pure butter. And then life got so much better because then I got enough calories, and so my body could start producing more heat.

You can melt the sticks of butter into hot chocolate and just drink it. You can smear the butter onto a piece of chocolate and eat it. There are different ways where you don’t actually have to bite into like a stick of butter. And I know it sounds really disgusting, but honestly when you’re out there, pure butter is the most delicious thing you’ve ever had in your entire life, because your body just really wants it.

You know, everybody was eating oatmeal and I… honestly, I hate oatmeal. People eat it because you put warm water in it and so you have something warm to eat, but I just don’t like the texture and it doesn’t really have a lot of calories. And so once I stopped eating oatmeal for breakfast and I started eating like cheese sandwiches that are fried in butter and drank hot chocolate with butter in it, things got a lot better for me.

[22:05] Narrator: Eating lunch or snacks outside while they searched for meteorites was still a struggle though.

Juliane Gross: Everything that you eat out there is frozen, so you can’t have a huge meal out there, you just eat a sandwich. We used to attach hand warmers to the little bags with the sandwiches in so they wouldn’t completely be frozen by the time you eat lunch. Once you take it out of the bag and you start eating it, after like a couple minutes it is frozen just because the wind is so cold and the wind chill. But you can still bite into it and then you just suck on it in your mouth until it’s chewable.

It’s weird; even the beef jerky freezes, and you have to be really careful. We had some Starburst candy and I almost broke my jaw once because I bit down on it and it was, ow, that really hurt. Because it’s solid frozen. When you have different granola bars, depending on how much moisture they have in them, they freeze differently. So the really dry crumbly ones you can still eat them in the field, but if you have like a cliff bar you can actually kill somebody with that, you know, it’s so hard. (laughs)

[23:00] Narrator: Even the act of drinking water could be a challenge in Antarctica’s extreme cold.

Juliane Gross: The ice on these plateaus are just absolutely pure water because it hasn’t been contaminated with anything. One day I came back to the tent at the end of the day, and my drinking bottle still had liquid water in it. And I was surprised because the tents, they get really cold on the floor, where you’re sitting on the ice it’s about minus 20 degrees Celsius. And so the water should’ve been frozen, and I didn’t think of it, so I just picked it up and started drinking. And then while I was drinking it, it turned into ice in my mouth. And so what essentially happened is that because the water is so pure there is nothing in the water that can be used as nucleation sites, so you have a super-cooled liquid. And then once you pick it up the slightest disturbance then can be used as a nucleation site and then the ice crystals will form instantly. And so, I held up the bottle and before our eyes it turned into solid.

[23:55] Narrator: Nina says the ice in Antarctica had other strange qualities.

Nina Lanza: The ice is glacier ice, so it’s far more compacted than typical, regular ice that we normally experience. So this ice has a very specific crystal structure and very little air and it ends up looking very, very blue. This blue ice stretches on forever, and it looks like plastic. Like it doesn’t look like a natural material. So it’s just this really hard, impervious material that’s the same color as the sky. So sometimes, there’s white snow patches on blue ice and some clouds in the blue sky, it’s really hard to tell the difference between where does the sky end and the ice begin? It’s almost impossible sometimes to actually see that horizon.

[24:43] Narrator: The meteorite hunters would be out on this strange blue ice for hours every day, spread out in a search pattern as they tried to find rocks that looked like they’d been scorched as they fell through Earth’s atmosphere.

Juliane Gross: Usually we would do this until around noon, then we would take about ten minutes for lunch. You don’t really take more time for lunch just because it gets really cold when you don’t move. And then you continue to search until about five o’clock, and then you go back to camp and do the camp chores. I was the one who usually didn’t want to go back, you know, “Let’s find two more meteorites! Five more minutes, please!” In the beginning everybody was like, “Okay, five more minutes,” and then eventually they’re like, “No! We need to go home. (laughs) We’re cold. And so are you, so let’s go.”

[25:25] Narrator: Part of the reason Juliane was reluctant to go back to camp, despite the intense cold, was because she was enchanted with Antarctica’s landscape.

Juliane Gross: The sky is so dark blue because it’s so dry — there’s no moisture in the air — and so when you look up, you almost have the feeling you’re looking into space. And then everything is white and the snow crystals are hexagonal. So when the light shines on them at a specific angle, it reflects the light, so they start sparkling in these rainbow colors. So when you walk it really looks like there’s all these little Christmas lights on the floor, and they’re just for you. It’s just magical.


When the wind moves over the ice, it moves the ice crystals and you can hear the ice crystals colliding with each other, and it makes this very faint bell-like sound and it’s the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard in my entire life. And if the wind picks up these snow and ice crystals and brings them up higher into the air, you get rainbow clouds. You see these beautiful sun halos all the time if bad weather is coming in. You know something bad is coming, but at the same time it’s so gorgeous seeing these sun halos that you can’t be anything but happy about it. And then the ice itself changes color depending on how the weather is. So the ice ranges from baby blue to yellow to light blue, sometimes it looks like it’s glowing from the inside, and sometimes when it’s overcast the ice is black, like wax. The wind carves these intricate ice patterns on the blue ice. It carves swirling patterns into wind streaks. It’s like a sculpture that’s just really, really gorgeous. The ice sheets, there are waves in there, there are ripples in there. There are pinnacles, and it looks like an ocean that is frozen in eternity. It’s just breathtaking.

If magic exists on this planet, it’s Antarctica. But every fairy tale has dark sides, and so does Antarctica. And so Antarctica literally tries to kill you every second you’re out there. It’s extremely cold, it’s extremely dry, and you have crevasses – they are huge cracks in the ice. But they are covered by snow, you don’t really see them. And if you don’t know it and you step on it, you fall into the crevasse. And then that’s it. It’s like a funnel that goes down and it’s extremely dark blue ice, so it’s gorgeous and it’s terrifying at the same time. So there is this magic part, the beauty of Antarctica, but at the same time it’s also a beast and just waiting for you to fall into it.

If you fall into a big crevasse, honestly I don’t think there is much they can do. Because crevasses get narrow the further down you get, so you crush your rib cage and then that’s it. Maybe you have an hour. You don’t have much time. And you’re so far out on the plateau… they can start search and rescue and get to you after a couple days or a week or so. But the crevasses we came across, they were not that big. If you step on you probably would fall in a little bit or break your leg. But nothing like that happened, and I don’t think in all of the ANSMET time anything like this has ever happened before. So that’s why the mountaineers are on the team, and they really do a good job of keeping us safe.

One day it was overcast, and the wind picks up all these snow crystals and swirls it up into the air. Brian, our mountaineer, said we need to get back to camp. By the time we got back to camp we were in a full-blown whiteout condition. And once that happens you lose the horizon so you can’t orient yourself anymore, and it feels like you’re inside of a ping-pong ball. And I remember coming back from the field crawling into our little tiny yellow tent and I was just like, “Oh wow, this is our protective little cave. This is amazing.”

In the beginning, living in a tiny tent was really hard. So inside this tent, you have nine by three feet of personal space, so everything is cramped. And when you sleep your body is fighting to keep you warm and so your muscles and bones get really stiff when you wake up in the morning. The sunlight is up 24 hours a day, so it’s really bright on the inside so it’s really hard to sleep, and the wind is rattling on it. There’s no liquid flowing water so you have to actually go and hack the ice and the snow to melt it to turn it into liquid water. And (sigh) you’re just exhausted. You’re tired all the time because your body is working so hard to keep you alive.


You snuggle up in your really cold sleeping bag trying to warm it up and you can’t help but think about the early explorers like Scott and Amundsen and Shackleton, and how they were on the ice plateau like we were, with the same conditions, but their gear was way less good than what we had, and it makes you feel really humbled.

[30:14] Narrator: The Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton Antarctic expeditions all took place over a hundred years ago, starting in the early 1900s. Ralph Harvey says those explorers would still feel at home with the modern day ANSMET program.

Ralph Harvey: If you took Scott or Amundsen from 1912 and dropped them miraculously into our camp 107 years later, they’d know what we were doing. They’d recognize the shape of the tents, which are still called Scott tents. They’d look at the snowmobiles and say, “That’s pretty nice, but we had those too. And they’d say, “Yeah, our food was not very good either.” So stylistically, things haven’t changed that much at all. It really requires a certain mindset to go outside on a really nasty day and get the job done anyway.

Technologically, things have advanced dramatically and made life a lot more comfortable, better materials, better clothing, better mobility. But at the end of the day, finding a bunch more meteorites means opening your face to the wind and getting outside and just dealing with it.

[31:23] Narrator: The ANSMET program has collected over twenty thousand meteorites since it began in the late 1970s.

Ralph Harvey: None of the field party volunteers ultimately get any control over these meteorites. They go to the Johnson Space Center where they are curated and collected. They ultimately end up at the Smithsonian Institution. This program is still around after 40 years because my predecessor, Bill Cassidy, was willing to say, “You know what, it’s enough for me to find these specimens and recover them and let other people discover the universe through them, rather than me.” That was an amazing thing for him to choose. That first season when they’re out there in Antarctica and they found about a dozen meteorites, he could have taken his meteorites back to the University of Pittsburgh and said, “They’re mine and I’m going to play with them, and none of you else can play with them.” And instead he saw a future partnership with field people and museum curators and NASA scientists where everybody got to make amazing discoveries, and that’s what they did.

The most unique thing about the ANSMET program I think is that it is an altruistic space program. We really are recovering bits and pieces of other worlds, but at an absolute fraction of the cost of going there. What it really costs us is the travel to Antarctica and a little bit of skin off our noses and far too many pounds of butter. But the return is phenomenal. New discoveries keep happening every year as a result. I love to find out that a meteorite that our program has recovered from Antarctica represents something fundamentally new and shifts a bunch of paradigms. It makes us smile.

Nina Lanza field recording: We’ve had quite a bit of variable weather here. We had five tent days in a row. Fun! And then the weather cleared a little bit, and then we got socked in with a lot more fog. Which here is a really big deal, because it’s really hard to tell the difference between the ground and the sky when they’re all the same color. So it’s hard to travel then. Luckily today was such a beautiful day. But as things go, unfortunately, it’s our last day of searching. Because we’re talking to the folks at McMurdo Operations, or “Mac-Ops,” and they’re thinking they might start our pull from the field as soon as tomorrow. So we may not be looking for any more meteorites. I’m not sure what the number is, we haven’t counted them totally, but we are well over 500, so that’s pretty exciting.

[34:08] Narrator: After about six weeks in the middle of Antarctica, the team breaks up camp and heads back to McMurdo Station on the continent’s coast, and the comforts of relative civilization.

Nina Lanza: I felt like I was, reborn is maybe not the right word, but I was so excited and grateful for all the little pleasures in life that I didn’t even realize were pleasures. I mean like sleeping in a heated room on a bed, right? Showers, oh my gosh, my tent mate and I went into one of the bathrooms that had two showers and were showering and we were like singing and shouting, throwing soap at each other over the wall. We were just so excited. So much hot water, we didn’t have to do anything! We didn’t have to melt any ice. It was just amazing. I will never not be grateful for indoor plumbing ever again. I’ve done a lot of long backpacking trips, but I’ve never camped for five weeks like this. The miracle of running water that comes out at any temperature from a magic hole in the wall. Never gonna not think that’s amazing now.

[35:13] Narrator: Before camping in Antarctica, Juliane had thought McMurdo Station was a crude, cold, barren place, and couldn’t understand how people could work there for months at a time.

Juliane Gross: And then later coming back from the field, my whole perception had changed. You come back to McMurdo Station, and it’s a luxury spa. Because you have running hot water on demand. It’s tropical temperatures of zero degrees Fahrenheit. You have a small soft bed with a military wool blanket inside a room that is actually warm. There’s somebody who prepares meals for you and washes your dishes, and you can have food 24 hours seven days a week that is unfrozen.

So after about two months with having no freshies, and freshies is what we call everything that is fresh and raw, like carrots or piece of lettuce or an apple or an orange or something like that. If you don’t have that for like two months, you start dreaming about it. And so we were lucky when we were in McMurdo, the cargo vessel came in and they brought fresh apples. And I freaked out. We each got an apple and it was the most precious thing I’ve ever owned in my entire life. So we actually hiked up on top of a mountain so we could eat our apple in peace and quiet, and just enjoy the smell of it and the taste. When you bite into it and it’s crunchy and juicy and so full of sugar, it’s just like an explosion of flavor in your mouth. Antarctica really teaches you to appreciate the little things in life.

[36:44] Narrator: Nina also gained new appreciations from her experience in Antarctica, and valuable life lessons.

Nina Lanza: You gotta let things roll off your back. You cannot hold onto small things. So what if somebody snaps at you one day? Maybe they were rude, but we’re all tired. It’s a lot of work. Things happen. We just gotta get over it and keep going, right? We can’t hold onto this stuff. And we have to ask for what we need, as my tent mate did.

We didn’t know each other before we got there, and when you’re living with somebody in an eight-foot-by-eight-foot square spot, you learn a lot about them. And apparently, I am a really irritatingly cheerful person in the morning. I get up and I’m so excited, and my tent mate was like, “I’m gonna stab you. You have to stop this. I know you’re really happy. I’m gonna need some coffee to feel happy.” So we actually had to come to an agreement about how to deal with the morning, because she needed me to just let her have a little bit of time to wake up.


One of the things that NASA does with ANSMET is actually human factor studies, so we learn a lot about team dynamics. It’s a volunteer study; we don’t have to do it. We fill out these journals every day, and so they can use that to track how we’re feeling. They compile that over years, and they say, when this happens, here are the pitfalls that a team could find themselves in. We really have to gel as a team. We have to be willing to work together to make this happen, and if one person doesn’t want to do their job or can’t, it’s a real drag on the rest of the team.

So it’s really important, as NASA’s looking forward to long duration space flight missions, to really understand how do we structure teams to make these missions work? Every other year, Johnson Space Center sends an astronaut to do the ANSMET project, because there’s really no other way that they can give their astronaut corps training in long-duration space flight. So we’ll have this huge body of knowledge from the ANSMET project to build the teams and the structures around those teams better.

[38:40] Narrator: Juliane’s readjustment to life after Antarctica sounds as disorientating as an astronaut returning to Earth after a long space voyage.

Juliane Gross: Coming back to real civilization is really overwhelming, because once you step off the airplane, everything smells. You smell the dirt, you smell the cars, everything smells disgusting. The water tastes horrible. The first thing I bought when I came back home was a water filter, because I couldn’t stand tap water anymore. People are overwhelming – you know, there’s just way too many people. In Antarctica there’s no internet, there’s no cell phone service. So you come back home and you check email for the first time then you are thrown three thousand emails at your face. You go through all of this trying to readjust into normal civilization, with all the craziness that’s going on, and before you were so protected on the ice plateau with absolutely no news in this like magical happy bubble.

And the teammates, you really make friends for life. You just share this hardship with these people and then you turn this into happiness and joy. And it’s something that you don’t really experience much, I guess, in normal life, and it’s something that I really treasure and I totally want to experience this again. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

[40:01] Narrator: Next time, “On a Mission.”

(Excerpt from Episode 9: Hunting in the Dark for Monsters)
Vishnu Reddy
: I took all my students to Mauna Kea in Hawaii to observe. When we were observing, right before we got to the asteroid, the whole mountain lost power. So the power came back on, but we couldn’t figure out which breaker to turn on to get everything back up. And so we lost that night.

[40:20] Narrator: If you like this podcast, please subscribe, rate us on your favorite podcast platform, and share us on social media. We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

[run time = 40:36]

Note: NASA shares the costs of the ANSMET program with the National Science Foundation. NSF supports the infrastructure – such as maintaining planes and buildings – while NASA pays for personnel travel and fuel, as well as other costs.