Interview with Pierre Retief - Antarctic Engineer

Collaboration with Pierre Retief, Antarctic Engineer South African Antarctic Base.

This page is a transcript of the questions and answers from Space STEM students with Pierre Retief while he was living on Antarctica.

Luke: what has been your most bizarre experience since you left on your adventure to Antarctica?
Pierre:  I think the most bizarre thing I experienced here is the 24 hour daylight during summer. It is really something to wrap your head around. You find yourself working till late, since your body is expecting it to get dark. Also, when you go outside at 2AM and the sun is still shining. Weird... Another very bizarre thing to get used to is to get shocked, all day, every day. It is so dry here that every time you get up and open a door, you shock from the static electricity, You have to touch something metal every time you want to use your laptop or any electronic device, as the static discharge can easily destroy electronics. Earlier this year a person "zapped" our intercom system, we are now operating on the backup system.

Josh: How much wind can the building handle during a storm? Do you have a limit at which you must evacuate, and can you evacuate?
Pierre: In terms of wind limits and evacuation. The building is rated for 300km/h. This year so far the highest wind speed has been 148 km/h, though I predict that some heavier storms are still coming. We regularly have storms with wind speeds in excess of 100km/h. We will always try anything and everything before evacuating. Evacuating here is a BIG deal. The weather outside is so hostile that you won't survive for long. We would have to get vehicles going and make our way to our emergency base, which is located about 100km away, close to the ocean, next to the German base, Neumayer.

Joon: What small and big discoveries have you made since arriving?
Pierre: I haven't really made any discoveries, my role here is to service and keep the instruments running, my involvement with Science and new scientific discoveries is pretty limited. I am planning on doing some cool experiments for my ex-students. I was a Science teacher for a few years before coming to Antarctica. So if you have any ideas for a nice experiment, let me know.

Julie: What was the most counter-intuitive discovery you have made, the biggest surprise for you?
Pierre: The most counterintuitive experience was working outside in summer. I thought it would be freezing all year, since we are close to the South Pole, but the weather was actually very nice during December and January. We got so hot at times that you end up working in a T-shirt! Another surprise is the complete lack of life. This place reminds me of space or an artificial habitat on Mars. The only living thing close to base I have seen was a bird during summer. During the rest of the year there are no birds. There is nothing, no plants, no insects, nothing. You can leave your sugary drink out since there are no ants. There are no mosquitos or flies to bug you, no spiders, nothing.

Michaela: What has been your favourite experience so far?
Pierre: It is so difficult to choose a favourite experience, but it is definitely those "What the hell am I doing" moments. Like when I have to service the antennas, I need to climb quite high on the masts, being up there with gloves and full kit, working on an antenna above snow, ice and rock in negative temperatures, is a surreal experience. Climbing those masts are scary at times, especially if the wind blows. We cannot climb when the wind speed is more than 20 km/h. Photo attached of me climbing the antenna:

Another wow moment was visiting the German base Neumayer, and seeing the largest penguin species on earth, the Emperor penguin. Here is a photo of me and the penguins.

Luke: What do you miss the most?
Pierre: What I miss the most is my wife. Second to that, fruit. We have no fresh fruit, so I find myself dreaming about eating some nice watermelon or an orange. Thirdly, I miss rain. It never rains here, it's just too cold. 

Julie: Can you take night sky photos, can the camera equipment handle the outdoors in your long night?
Pierre: I don't take a lot of photos at night, we are hoping to see an aurora soon, here it is called Aurora Australis, in the Northern Hemisphere it is called Aurora Borealis. I did have to take a panoramic photo on the roof, for the scientists back home. This required me to place my phone on a tripod and take photos every 22.5 degrees. I had to attempt that mission several times as my phone would die after about 10 minutes outside, the batteries do not like the cold.

I hope that answers some of your questions, and if you want to see a cool video we made of life on the base, check it out here.

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