Would you rather: Spend 12 months on the ISS or in Antarctica?

In the Cosmos newsroom, questions of ‘would you rather’ usually end up down weird and wonderful scientific rabbit holes. You can’t answer whether you’d prefer to get sucked up by a black hole or roasted by the Sun unless you know about the spaghettification of a black hole, as well as the heat of the Sun’s corona (you probably aren’t going to make it to the surface).

Now the Cosmos newsroom brings those conversations to you with a new podcast: Would you Rather…?. Our journalists will delve deeply into the benefits, and costs, of opposing arguments on matters of profound scientific interest – like living in the freezing wastes of space, compared to the freezing wastes of Antarctica.

The centre of this week’s argument are two places which are fearfully isolated, technologically advanced, extremely challenging and to which very few people have been to : so the question is…would you rather live for 12 months on the International Space Station or in Antarctica?

Listen to the podcast, and then vote here for who you think should be crowned the winner.

The International Space Station

The International Space Station’s first big draw is that it’s in space. The station is about 420 kilometres above the Earth, orbiting  at  27,700 kilometres per hour.

This means that an ISS astronaut would experience 15 or 16 sunrises per day – that’s a sunrise every 92 minutes, and significantly more than someone in gloomy Antarctica would get to see in 12 months’ time!

But home is just 108 meters from end to end, and the place to view those wonderful sunsets – called the cupola – is right next to the toilet and the exercise machine, so not quite as tranquil as you might imagine.

The toilet is a whole other issue… A US$23 million dollar issue. But at least you don’t have to carry your poop back to the Antarctic Research Station when you’re out on a mission.

But being one of only 112 astronauts that have ever been aboard the ISS would be quite an exciting feat, and you’d be part of something much greater.

“We’ve had humans living and working aboard the International Space Station continuously since November 2000. Put another way, it’s been more than 22 years since humans were only found on Earth,” Daniel G. Hout, the Public Affairs Lead at NASA told us in an email.

“Work takes place every single day, focused on research designed to benefit those on Earth while also pushing the limits of technologies we’ll need to establish sustained human presence on the Moon and Mars.”

Antarctic Research Stations

Antarctica might not be in space, and – compared to the ISS – it has space. The Australian Antarctic Division has three permanently-occupied Antarctic research stations: three on the coast of the continent, and one on Macquarie Island. The human population fluctuates between around 80 people across 4 stations in winter, up to over 500 in summer. There are about 16 million penguins.

Except during the very busiest season, nearly everyone gets their own room, and (for users), the toilets operate just like they would ‘up north’: two huge advantages compared to the ISS.

Two of the permanent stations (Macquarie and Casey) are far enough north to get sunlight year-round (although there are only a few hours of daylight in June). For those wintering at Mawson and Davis, there is indeed a month or two of dark during the middle of the year.

While the number of expeditioners in Antarctica doesn’t lend itself to quite the prestige that you might get from being an ISS astronaut, it does bring one other huge advantage: more staff to help each other with  jobs – like cooking and medicine. Each station has a chef who, with help from the others, makes most of the meals. No rehydrated food, unless you’re headed out on the ice.

“We really are unparalleled in medical support that we can provide to our expeditions in Antarctica,” says Dr John Cherry, an Antarctic Medical Practitioner with the Australian Antarctic Division and Fellow of the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine. Cherry spent a winter as the doctor at Davis station.

“We have some of the best telemedicine capabilities in the world, and the training we receive as doctors before we head south is some of the best training you could ask for.”

This is important, because it’s much harder to get someone out of Antarctica than it is to get them off the ISS in a medical emergency – we’re talking an evacuation that takes months, rather than 24 hours. Cherry, who is also a researcher in space medicine, says that Antarctica is a key testing ground for long-haul space flights, for exactly this reason.

But when asked whether he’d rather spend 12 months on Antarctica or the ISS he laughs.

“Can I choose both?”

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