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NSF Station 1975

South Pole Station 1956
Drifting snow partly covers NSF's 1975 South Pole station, seen here in 1999
Ten years after it was built, the first South Pole station was in trouble. By December 1967, a full ten meters (33 feet) of snow crowned the building. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Naval Support Force Antarctica began mulling the best way to build a replacement. With the aid of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command and the Naval Civil Engineering Laboratory, they explored three alternatives building the station: on the surface of the ice sheet, below it or elevated above it. The second alternative was rejected as too difficult, the third as too expensive. In 1968, planners decided on a geodesic dome, with long steel arches, built on the surface of the ice sheet. The dome, roughly 50 meters (164 feet) wide at its base, would shelter three two-story prefabricated buildings, each designed to fit into the cargo hold of an LC-130 Hercules aircraft. Compared to its Spartan predecessor, the station would house its occupants in unprecedented comfort and would contain a library and recreation center, science spaces, single-room berths for up to 23 persons, a galley, a post office, a photographic darkroom and a meeting space. There would also be room under the arches for a dispensary, biomedical facilities, vehicle repair and maintenance shops, diesel generators, a storage space for the helium used in weather balloons, and even a small gymnasium. The buildings were heated, but the domed enclosure was not. It was vented at the top to release heat that could cause snow to form into dangerously heavy ice.


South Pole Station 1956
The geodesic Dome at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was deconstructed during the 2009-2010 austral summer and portions relocated to the Seabee Museum in California (inset)
U.S. Navy Seabees began during the 1970-71 austral summer, working 10 hours a day, seven days a week. As is the case with today's construction program, they took advantage of 24-hour daylight during the fleeting summer months from October to February, when temperatures average minus 32 degrees Celsius (-25° F). Mechanical and weather delays, coupled with the crash of a Hercules aircraft, slowed work in the 1971-72 season, forcing a rescheduling of the proposed completion from January 1974 to January 1975. During the 1972-73 season, a camp was built to house more than 100 construction workers and the dome was completed in mid-January 1973. With urgent demands for their services elsewhere on the globe, fewer Seabees were deployed during the 1973-74 season, and NSF hired a contractor, Holmes and Nervier, Inc., to make up the shortfall. In December 1974, scientists and support personnel began the move from the old station to the new one, with the move being completed by the end of the 1974-75 summer season. On January 9, 1975, political leaders, administrators, scientists and support personnel gathered at the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for a dedication ceremony. Truly an international gathering, the dedication included Tore Gjelsvik, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute and president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, who presented a photograph of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, his party and their tent—inscribed 'the first South Pole Station'—taken in 1911. NSF Director H. Guyford Stever read a message from President Gerald Ford that underlined the spirit of international cooperation inherent in Antarctic scientific exploration, a hopeful message at the height of the Cold War. "I am pleased to see that the nationalistic objectives of early expeditions to Antarctica have faded before the sprit of international cooperation embodied in the Antarctic Treaty," the statement said. "By making our South Pole station accessible to scientists of all nations, we reaffirmed our devotion to the ideals of cooperation that are characteristic of Antarctica and that have extensively benefited mankind." At the time, the station's estimated design life was 15 years. But it stood as an icon of the South Pole for more than 30.


NSF Station 1975 Photo Gallery

  • Half BuriedWhen this photo was taken in 1999, drifting snow had covered much of the dome of the South Pole station. The entrance was at ground level when the station was completed in 1975.
    Credit: Josh Landis, NSF
  • An Endless ChoreFootprints track through the snow that has drifted up around the dome, Removing that build-up, an endless task, is not necessary at the new station, which is elevated above the ice sheet and can be raised on its supports over time.
    Credit: National Science Foundation, USAP
  • Big TopThe Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which opened in 1975 and is still partly in use, is a two-part structure. The familiar geodesic dome - shown here during construction in the 1972-1973 austral summer season - is an enormous roof that provides shelter for smaller buildings that sat beneath the 55-foot-high, 165-foot-wide dome. Some of the buildings already have been removed as the new station rises outside the dome.
    Credit: Lee Mattis, NSF
  • SunsetThe sun sets over the dome (foreground) and Skylab, one of the buildings that will be decommissioned when the 1975 station is replaced. Days and nights stretch for roughly six months each at the bottom of the world.
    Credit: Jonathan Berry, NSF
  • Overhead ViewAn overhead view of the geodesic dome and support tunnels taken before construction began on the elevated replacement station. The location of the new station is in the lower left quadrant of this 1992 photo.
    Credit: PH1 Edward Martens, U.S. Navy
  • Abstraction in IceIce forming on the support structure of the tunnel that provides access to the dome takes on fantastic crystalline shapes that can resemble hieroglyphic symbols. When the station was built in 1975, the entrance to the dome was at the surface of the ice sheet, but snow and ice accumulation eventually required the access tunnel to be dug.
    Credit: Peter West, NSF
  • Geometric PrecisionTaken during the construction of the dome, this photo shows the support structure rising from the ice sheet and forming a geometric abstraction against the blue polar sky. In time, the triangular spaces were filled with a metallic covering to shelter the buildings beneath the dome.
    Credit: John Perry, U.S. Navy Seabee, NSF
  • End of an EraBy early 2006, very little remained under the dome of the 1975 South Pole station. Where three modular buildings once stood, relics of 30 years of human occupation were awaiting reuse or recycling.
    Credit: Peter West, NSF
  • Breathing SpaceThe U.S. flag flutters over holes built into the roof of the dome. The five circular openings provide ventilation, preventing heat build-up that would melt ice on the interior, threatening the structures below.
    Credit: National Science Foundation, USAP
  • 'Summer Camp'Korean War vintage Jamesway huts await occupants. Named for their inventor, Jamesways were developed at portable shelters and have been used in the U.S. Antarctic Program for decades. At the pole, they served as 'summer camp' accommodations as the number of seasonal residents exceeded space available under the dome.
    Credit: Patrick Hovey, NSF
  • In MemoriamIn June 2004, the U.S. flag, backlit by aurora australis or Southern Lights, flies at half-staff atop the geodesic dome in memory of former President Ronald Reagan. The flag was also lowered following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.
    Credit: J. Dana Hrubes, Space Sciences Laboratory, South Pole Station
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