When researchers announced last week that they had detected gravitational waves from an instant after the big bang, team members doffed their hats to electrical engineer Steffen Richter, who has wintered at the South Pole for the past 3 years to help operate the telescope that made it all possible, known as BICEP. Richter, 42, has spent several additional winters at the South Pole starting in 1997, when he first traveled there to work on another instrument, AMANDA, which laid the groundwork for the IceCube neutrino detection experiment. He shared his experience working at the bottom of the world in a conversation with ScienceInsider. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What do you remember of your first trip to the South Pole?
S.R.: It was very exciting. We had a really small crew over the winter—just 28 people. I remember getting all these medical tests before I could begin working. Being there is the closest thing there is to being an astronaut.