Pupils' Flags Warm Spirit Of South Pole Scientist

Ellicott City Man Takes Markers To Antarctica

February 19, 1992|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff writer

Dehydrated food, layers of clothing and hot chocolate kept NASA scientist Peter Wasilewski warm and happy during his sixth trip to Antarctica.

And then there was his five-member team, his trusty snowmobile and the flags -- 18 of them from Japanese and American elementary schools, including Swansfield Elementary and Glenelg Country School.

The flags were his buddies, colorful markers to help others find him in the snow and reminders of the school children who accompanied him in spirit on his exploration.

Wasilewski, an Ellicott City geophysicist, returned this month after spending seven weeks at the South Pole -- it was summertime there -- studying and collecting meteorites for NASA.

Thirty years ago, he was among the first scientists to trek to Antarctica to explore uncharted terrain. He had just graduated from George Washington University and had turned down a contract to play football with the Baltimore Colts.

"Traveling in Antarctica sounded more exciting than playing football," he said.

His firsttrip involved a 1,000-mile trek from Jones Mountain to the base of the Antarctic Peninsula. He returned four years later on a reconnaissance geological field study, after which the U.S. Mapping Agency nameda mountain in his honor.

In preparing for the recent trip, Wasilewski sent letters to the 18 schools asking that pupils mail him a flag to take on the trip. That way, they could join him symbolically anddevelop curiosity about Antarctica.

"Flags are something childrencan identify with," he said.

Wasilewski tied the flags onto 4-foot bamboo sticks attached to his snowmobile. Among the flags he took were those from Leola Elementary in South Dakota, Port Jefferson Elementary in New York and Kasukabe Elementary in Tokyo.

He plans to visit all of the elementary schools that sent him flags to talk to the school children about Antarctica.

Few children -- let alone adultsand teachers -- know much about it, he said.

"First of all, Antarctica is down, not up. People usually say how was it up there, but it's down there. It's at the bottom," he said.

Wasilewski is taking that effort a step further by writing a science adventure book -- called "Antarctica for Children" -- to teach students about the South Pole. Three years ago, he decided to embark on scholastic writing because of all the dismal news about the quality of education in America.

Wasilewski said Antarctica in his book would be the reference point for students to learn about such concepts as solar energy, geography, mathematics and space technology. He hopes to finish the book thisyear.

"Antarctica is a place of superlatives," Wasilewski said. "It's the highest, coldest, windiest, loneliest place. You have polar bears and Eskimos at the North Pole, but you have nothing at the South Pole. Nothing survives in the wintertime except silly men."

Summertime in Antarctica is a place where the sun never sets and darknessnever comes, where the temperature averages 10 to 20 degrees below freezing every day. It's a place where winds howl and ice crystals glisten, where blizzards hide the horizon. The wind blew so hard one flag tore away.

"There was an incredible array of beauty," he said. "The texture of the ice was overwhelming."

Wasilewski worked 10 to 12 hours outside a day, traveling on snowmobiles to look for meteorites and to study the magnetism of rocks. His shelter -- a two-man tent-- didn't shield him from the weather much. In the morning, it felt as cold inside as it was outside. Not until he and his tent mate lighted the portable gas stove would it get warmer.

Going to the bathroom was as interesting an experience as any.

"People had differenttheories," he said. "Some go as fast as they can, some take their time. Me, I put on as little clothing as possible to go as quickly as possible."

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