HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – In 2008, Tia Ferguson ventured into a world virtually unknown. It was the year she traveled with a team to the South Pole to retrieve a NASA experimental package.

The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) alumna, Ferguson spent a month in Antarctica assisting in the recovery of a science experiment dropped from a balloon near the South Pole. As an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), she had been working on mechanical designs for balloon, telescope, satellite, rocket and ground experiments.

“I’ve always been involved with scientists throughout my career,” Ferguson said. “I was in project management, and I wanted to go back into tech. Basically, I did everything, the concept, the design, contracting the machine shop, the integration and testing, and even operating. Getting the gondola to launch, from cradle to grave.”

Ferguson flew from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Ross Island, Antarctica, on a C-17 military aircraft (Courtesy NASA).

NASA requested Ferguson’s help because she had prior experience with recovering balloon science experiments: NASA’s Deep Space Test Bed, in New Mexico, a package she designed a few years prior.

“One of our payloads in New Mexico was a student initiative to build science experiments on our test flight, and UAH won one of those,” she says. “So I worked with UAH to develop an experiment that flew on the gondola. It was one of their senior design projects that year.”

The majority of Ferguson’s stay in Antarctica was spent at McMurdo Station, a science research facility operated by the National Science Foundation. The station is located on Ros Island just off the continent’s eastern coast.

“It was more industrial than I expected,” Ferguson explained. “The smell of diesel, no earthly smells, only machine smells. It was also warmer. The temperature hovered around the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit, while the temperature at the pole was much colder, close to -40F with a wind chill factor of -80F.”

While she did not assist in the design of the Antarctica package, Ferguson was just as excited to be part of the team. The balloon circled the continent for two weeks before falling back to Earth on a parachute. The experiment, called Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC), studied cosmic rays and particles traveling at nearly the speed of light.

Antarctica is the best environment to do this experiment because of the unique wind patterns that develop during the summer, which cause the balloons to circle the continent for several weeks. The balloons can ascend as high as 130,000 feet. This allows the experiments to make observations about space matter in Earth’s atmosphere.

ATIC scientists had no idea where the experiment would land after being released. Due to the extreme weather conditions, team members attended snow school to prepare. After their training, the team made their way to the South Pole to wait for the experiment.

“They know where it [the experiment] is,” Ferguson stated. “But the only controlling factor is when they cut it loose to land. Ours was one of the very few experiments that circled inward and landed near the central area around the South Pole. So that was really cool. I didn’t expect to get to go to the South Pole, but I was able to!

“We took medicine for the altitude, and they gave us a week to acclimate before jumping into lifting and hauling. The frozen water around your eyelashes was a real problem. At the end of the day, you had all this ice caked on like icicles and it made it hard to even blink.”

UAH engineering alumna, Tia Ferguson, in Antarctica, 2008 (Courtesy NASA).

Ferguson says that it took two days to recover the experiment and that it weighed roughly 3,000 pounds.

Currently, Ferguson is the Director of the Space Systems Department at MSFC.

“We have about 600 government and contractor engineers who are focused really on all aspects of what NASA is doing involving space,” she says. “Our engineers wrote the software for SLS [Space Launch System] in house, life support systems for ISS [International Space Station] and we are doing insight for human landing software and avionics. We just launched a telescope that studies high energy x-ray polarization of black holes and other interests in the galaxy. The telescope is commonly known as IXPE for Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer. We are launching a solar sail on the SLS rocket that will travel to an asteroid, known as NEAScout. I’m in an executive position now, so I get to manage a lot of really smart people doing interesting things.”

Ferguson recounts how she felt returning to New Zealand after her month-long trip to an almost completely untouched continent. She is excited about the future, and what it has in store for her.