Why go?

ESA's next medical doctor to visit Concordia Adrianos Golemis explains why he is prepared to leave civilisation behind for a year. 

Morale: Low

Concordia Station at Dome C appears tiny in the Antarctic desolation. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Salam

Concordia Station at Dome C appears tiny in the Antarctic desolation. Credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA-A. Salam

I was always fascinated by Antarctica, the exotic piece of land covered by ever-lasting ice. One of my early recollections of Antarctica was when I read a small Greek book called “The World’s Encyclopaedia” that my parents bought me when I was eight years old to quieten my ever-growing (and maybe, at times, annoying!) curiosity. I discovered some bizarre facts that govern the Seventh Continent. “Antarctica is so cold and desolate that only a few scientists abide there, in special shelters, for scientific purposes”. That sentence surprised me – little did I know that 18 years later I would be chosen to join this strange band of people.

I heard about the Medical Research post at the European Concordia station for the first time when I was 23. Being excited about human spaceflight since my early childhood, I had subscribed to the European Space Agency’s mailing list after Greece joined ESA in 2005. One morning, as I was checking my emails, I read the peculiar title Wanted: Doctors that are not afraid of the dark. I was close to graduating from the Department of Medicine in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and I considered applying. I remember discussing it with my close friend, George, and briefly mentioning it to my mother, who cannot recall the incident however. Almost three years later, in May 2013, I answered another call for Concordia, this time titled Doctor needed for mission to white space.

“It is cold, dark, dangerous and lonely but the views and experience are unforgettable. ESA is looking for a medical doctor to run experiments at the Concordia research base in Antarctica.”

I applied with much excitement, but little expectation. The first surprise was when I was called for an interview with two more finalists in Paris. I started to believe.

The 24th of June was quite an interesting day for me. Similar to a lighter version of an astronaut selection, we begun with a full medical examination, followed by a psychological assessment. It was a funny moment to discover that my blood type is actually 0- and not 0+ as I was always told. A small arrhythmia during the stress test filled me with anxiety though. I was greatly relieved to be informed that the result was normal and I was granted fit-for-Antarctic-service status. It would have been terrible to fail due to an irregular heartbeat after drinking too much coffee in the morning! After the psychological tests, we concluded the day with an interview with ESA and IPEV – the French polar institute. My colleagues who applied for the Concordia post were pleasant people and similarly qualified. I returned home full of aspirations, but believing I was the outsider in the contest.

European Astronaut Centre. Credits: ESA-S.Corvaja

European Astronaut Centre. Credits: ESA-S.Corvaja

One month later, while working late for my internship project at the European Astronaut Centre, I received an email, notifying me that I had been selected for the post. It came as a shock! I remember walking to the office across the hall in a daze where my colleagues Patrick, Andre and Alex comforted me. I decided to miss a planned party that night – I ran a half-Marathon instead (!) – in an attempt to clear my mind. For the first time I was considering what a year living in Antarctica would mean – exhilarating, yes, but on the other hand it would mean spending 365 days away from family, friends and society. One year without seeing my girlfriend face-to-face, no dancing in bars, greeting people in the street or playing football. Not to mention I would miss The Hobbit, Part 2, on the big screen!

I had to make a decision – and a big decision too. I was often distracted as my friends at Cologne, Thanos, Anna and Dina will remember. My nights seemed longer in the small attic where I lived: I would close my eyes but daydream about the strong and weak points of going to the Antarctic before sleeping.

I consulted many friends and listened to their advice. My family helped a lot too, at times raising doubts I had not considered and at times being very supportive. Both were important. My morale over the next weeks would range from sky-high (oh, the excitement!) to an all-time low, not stemming from fear, but rather from the difficulty of making a life-changing decision.

To have the strength to go was only matched in my mind by having the strength to deny the opportunity. So, the eternal question arose again and again: "Why?".

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This questioned puzzled me for quite a while. But in the end, with the help of the people close to me, I found out the whys that lingered deep inside and I think that helped me greatly. Indeed at times when I think of it, a whole year seems a daunting task. Then again, now I know why I want to go.

It will be a unique experience. One that I cannot afford to miss. More than that, it is a personal challenge that can help me become more complete and truly discover myself, after being tested to the limit. We go to Concordia because we believe the rewards will multiple. Because it is the closest thing to simulating a space mission. Because it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

For me, the most important reason to go, however, is science. I believe in the science that is being conducted there. I believe in the tangible benefits that will arise from this science. And I believe our team will do a great effort to provide valuable results.

I am confident that, despite impending hardships, I will not regret the choice, but like my predecessors I will be glad I took the bold decision to go when I was lingering on indecision.

In the end, as the ESA call for applications states: “If you have a year to spare starting from November, a medical degree and a healthy sense of responsibility and adventure, apply for this unique experience at the end of the world. Aside from doing your part for science and the benefit of humankind, you are promised some of the best views in the world.” That is, if you have those three things. Well, I did…

Adrianos Golemis ҉

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