International Geophysical Year

The worldwide scientific community had designated 1958 as the International Geophysical Year, a period of intense study of the planet. Chapman's principle job was to observe the Aurora Australis - delicate, luminous curtains that light up the night sky in Antarctica. One of the objectives was to take simultaneous photos of the aurora, using a camera mounted on a theodolite at Mawson, and another one at a camp beside an Emperor penguin rookery at Taylor Glacier, some eighty kilometres to the west. The display is typically at an altitude of around one hundred kilometres, and the two photos formed a stereo pair that would allow researchers to plot its position in space. These studies required that Chapman spend most of the Antarctic winter at Taylor. There was always one other man with him, ''but I was a resident and my companion was always a tourist taking a vacation from the hurly-burly metropolis of Mawson -population twenty-nine, all male!''

Chapman was twenty-three, and he found life at Taylor an exercise in self-reliance, and a formative experience. ''If an emergency arose when the weather was fine, a de Havilland Beaver aircraft from Mawson could be there in less than an hour. But the weather was appalling much of the time, especially in the depths of winter. The temperature was often below —40 degrees Celsius, the wind above 100 knots, and the visibility zero in blowing snow so cold and dry that it would sandblast any exposed skin in seconds. In any case, for several weeks around midwinter, there was too little daylight for flying.''

The first hut intended for Taylor blew away in a blizzard, so they lived in one made from a packing crate, two-and-a-half by two metres in area, and two metres high. Their toilet was a tide crack where the sea-ice met the land; and the weather soon taught them to be quick about it. Most of their food was in cans, stored in a stack of wooden crates that blew away one night. The crates all broke open but they managed to recover many of the cans, which were spread out for miles across the sea-ice. ''All the labels had come off, so thereafter, dinner was always a surprise.''

The first satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched on 4 October 1957, shortly before Chapman went to Antarctica. While he was there, America's first satellite, Explorer 1, discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts, showing that the aurora is caused by high energy particles from the solar wind that are trapped in the Earth's magnetic field. ''By early 1959, when the Thala Dan relieved the expedition, the aurora was understood by physicists everywhere - except for those who had been out of touch because they were busy studying it in Antarctica!''

The space age was now definitely under way, and Chapman knew it was time to move to the United States. Engineers and scientists were in great demand as competition between America and the Soviet Union in space intensified, and he had no trouble getting a job offer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That put him on the first-preference list for a US immigrant visa, but getting one would still take time, because the Australian quota was then only fifty per year.

In December 1959, Chapman married Pamela Gatenby from Herberton, Queensland. They sailed the next day on a journey that took them eventually to Montreal, Canada, where he found a job as an engineer working in flight simulators for Canadian Aviation Electronics Ltd. The main attraction of Montreal was that he could run down to MIT every few months, to make sure he would still have a job there when his immigrant visa finally came through.

At long last, in April 1961, Phil and Pamela moved to Boston with their first child, Peter Hume Chapman, who had been born on 20 November 1960. At MIT, Chapman became a staff physicist in the Experimental Astronomy Laboratory of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

This was a momentous time in space flight. On 12 April came Yuri Gagarin's historic first flight, followed just three weeks later by Alan Shepard's sub-orbital ballistic mission. President John Kennedy followed that with a stirring speech in which he committed his nation to the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth before the decade was out. It was an incredible undertaking, and MIT was heavily involved.

The Experimental Astronomy Laboratory was an offshoot of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory, which was responsible for building the inertial guidance system that would take Apollo to the Moon. It was one of the best possible places to begin a career in the new field of astronautics. Phil's office colleague was Rusty Schweickart, who later became one of the third intake of astronauts and flew in Earth orbit on Apollo 9. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the Moon, and Dave Scott, commander of Apollo 15, had both earned degrees through that laboratory.

In 1963, Chapman and his wife travelled to Washington DC, where the Australian Ambassador invested him with the British Polar Medal for services in Antarctica. His job allowed him to take courses at MIT, which led to a Master of Science degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1964, and a doctorate under the joint auspices of the Departments of Physics and of Aeronautics and Astronautics in 1967. His doctoral dissertation was entitled Theoretical Foundations of Gravitational Experiments in Space. By this time, the space race between the United States and Russia was at its peak. Russia had not only sent the first man into space, but also the first woman, and the first three-man crew. In 1965 Alexey Leonov had become the first person to "walk" in space, outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft.

But 1967 would become a tragic year for space exploration. On 27 January, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee suffered a horrifying death when the interior of their Apollo capsule caught fire during a training exercise on Launch Pad 39B. In April, Russia's experimental Soyuz 1 spacecraft crash-landed following in-flight problems and a parachute failure. The sole cosmonaut on board, Colonel Vladimir Komarov, was killed instantly when his capsule slammed into the ground at high speed and exploded into flames.

Soon after receiving his doctorate, Chapman applied for American citizenship, which he realised was a requirement for any astronaut applicant. He completed the necessary paperwork, and on 8 May 1967, became a citizen of the United States. By this time, as he had hoped, NASA had announced that it was looking for a second group of scientist-astronauts, and Phil mailed in his resume. "I was fortunate to know several astronauts, who had told me a lot about the programme. There is also no doubt that my year in Antarctica was a great advantage, because it suggested that I could survive in isolation and under stress. I met all the requirements, but I also knew there were 1,100 applicants." NASA wanted only the best, and only one in every one hundred applicants would make the grade.

The selection process quickly sorted out the dedicated applicants from those who took the whole exercise with less enthusiasm. The selection panel questioned them endlessly about their qualifications, and why they wanted to join the astronaut corps. Because they were not pilots, or had limited flying experience, the applicants were taken on dizzying flights aboard jet trainers, to test their reaction to heavy G-loads and unusual attitudes. They were also told that, as NASA astronauts, they would be required to learn to fly those same jets themselves.

At the time, NASA was undergoing a profound re-examination of its policies and procedures, trying to ensure that preventable accidents such as the Apollo fire never happened again. Chapman was quite aware of the risks involved in space flight, but he was also confident that the country's best scientific and engineering brains were working on solutions. In any case, exploration demanded that people resolve to press ahead, despite losses that might occur along the way. It was something he accepted, and then set aside.

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