Medical Evacuation From South Pole Scientific Base Is Daunting Task

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The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2006.John Brecher / NBC News file

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By Elisha Fieldstadt
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A complicated mission was underway Sunday to evacuate a sick member of a research crew based at the South Pole.

The unidentified crew member requires "a level of medical care that is unavailable at the station," according to the National Science Foundation, which runs the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.

"After comprehensive consultation with outside medical professionals, agency officials decided that a medical situation at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station warrants returning a member of the station's winter crew to a hospital," the National Science Foundation said, adding that the patient's name would not be released.

The rescue mission will be difficult, and while preparations began last Tuesday, the earliest a plane might land at the station is Sunday, said Peter West, the Polar Outreach Program Manager for the NSF.

Two Twin Otter aircraft took off from Calgary and landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, on Sunday, West said. From there, both propeller-driven planes will fly to the Antarctic Peninsula, about 1,500 miles from the South Pole, where one aircraft will remain in case a search and rescue operation is necessary.

"It currently is mid-winter in Antarctica. Normally, flights in and out of Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are not planned between February and October due to the extreme cold and darkness," a National Science Foundation statement said.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2006.John Brecher / NBC News file

The company tapped to execute the evacuation, Kenn Borek Air, Ltd., has completed two similar missions.

The plane headed to the South Pole will have to land in complete darkness — and on snow — according to the NSF statement.

The mission will be completed with the assistance of several nations, the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center and the University of Texas Medical Branch, according to the National Science Foundation.

The crew member being rescued is one of 48 at Amundsen-Scott, where scientists monitor the atmosphere, research the early history of the universe and observe particle produced by cosmic phenomena, according to the National Science Foundation.