Antarctica team endures extremes in hope of showing the way to Mars

Fourteen researchers are undergoing four months of freezing darkness, all in aid of space travel

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The Independent Online

Alexander Kumar watched the sun set last night over Antarctica's dazzling white horizon. The next time he will see it will be in August.

The accident and emergency doctor will spend the next four months without as much as a glimmer of natural light in the most inhospitable environment on Earth, braving temperatures of minus 80C.

Dr Kumar is part of a 14-strong European Space Agency mission, which is conducting scientific investigations in preparation for the first manned mission to Mars.

He and his mainly French and Italian colleagues have committed to pushing themselves to the limit of human endurance by remaining on the Concordia Research Station, high on a plateau of Antarctica, for eight months.

Shortly before their blackout, Dr Kumar spoke to Jon Spooner, from Unlimited Space Agency. "We're away from friends, family, McDonald's Happy Meals and life as you know it," a heavily bearded Dr Kumar explained via satellite phone. "It really is like living life on Planet Concordia. We suffer from low oxygen levels as well as isolation.

"We're about to enter into the harshest winter the world has to offer. It's an Antarctic winter and temperatures will drop below minus 80C – not that it makes that much difference below minus 20C for me.

"On top of that, we have four months of complete darkness."

The extreme conditions being experienced in the name of science by the medic and his crew are said to be the closest human beings have come to living on another planet.

As the southernmost point on the globe, Antarctica has no indigenous population and there are few natural resources aside from ice.

Dr Kumar admitted that the impact of the harsh environment on the Concordia researchers' minds and bodies has already been considerable. "Your life cycle that you would have back in England changes," he said.

"The second thing is your immune system drops. You're more susceptible to infections."

On a personal level, the 28-year-old said he misses the most simple things such as cut grass and more poignant events like family birthdays.

But he is still certain that the hardships are more than worth it if their research paves the way to sending people to Mars.

"More important is that we've shown that humans can live in such extreme environments," he said. "I hope this shows we can make it to Mars one day."

Dr Kumar, who works in the A&E department at Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital and specialises in anaesthetics, left for Antarctica in January this year.

A seasoned explorer, he cites Captain Scott and Edward Wilson as figures of inspiration. Such is his appetite for adventure, he says, there have been times when his commitment to medicine has been questioned. "Working at the John Radcliffe emergency department, before I came away, people questioned whether I'm a doctor with the amount of time I spend exploring and adventuring across the world and abroad.

"Certainly, I have a curiosity and interest in the natural world – but not just the natural world, also the different cultures that exist around the world. I've never had a better time than a day spent with the Inuit in the Arctic," he said.

Asked if he had any advice for adventurers such as himself, Dr Kumar replied: "Never stop dreaming, and never stop believing in your dreams, because dreams have pushed mankind as far as we've gone – whether they've been through the interior of Africa, like Livingstone, or into space, like Neil Armstrong, and on to the surface of the Moon."