Giant Antarctic Exploration Vehicle Becomes a Major Failure

The Antarctic Snow Vehicle (ASC) was built to facilitate transportation during the unsuccessful US Antarctic Service expedition (1939–1941).

The ASC was developed under the direction of Rear Admiral Richard Byrd, a famous American explorer. The second person in charge was Dr. Thomas Poulter.

Poulter returned from his 1934 Antarctic expedition with an idea for a colossal transport vehicle to explore the continent. He envisioned it as an unstoppable vehicle that could travel long distances across vast stretches of ice and snow, especially in harsh weather conditions.

On April 29, 1939, Poulter and the Armor Institute of Technology Research Foundation presented the plan to the authorities in Washington, D.C. The Foundation funded the ASC with an estimated $150,000. Construction began on August 8, 1939, and lasted 11 weeks.

Design of the Antarctic Snow Vehicle (ASC). Photo: Rare Historical Photos

Specially designed to cross crevices, the vehicle has long overhangs at both ends and retractable wheels. The vehicle is 17 meters long, 4.6 meters wide, weighs about 20 tons, and is suitable for 4-5 people to stay for a year with food, fuel and equipment.

In addition to the living area, the vehicle also has a science laboratory, a darkroom for photographic processing, an engine room, and a small machine room. Each wheel is 3 meters in diameter, weighs 318 kg, and is made of a special type of rubber that does not crack even in super cold conditions.

Each wheel can be driven independently by its own motor, allowing the ASC to travel over difficult terrain and cross cracks up to 4.5 m wide. The vehicle has an average speed of 10-13 mph, while its maximum speed is 30 mph. The upper deck is large enough to carry a small plane.

The driver and the owner will sit in a raised control room at the front of the vehicle. Below the control room, under a small walkway, is the engine room, the defrost system, and various generators, pumps, and winches. Just ahead of the front wheels is the engine room, which houses two 300-horsepower Cummins diesel engines.

The giant carriage drives through the streets before coming to rest in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1939. Photo: Rare Historical Photos
The giant carriage drives through the streets before coming to rest in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1939. Photo: Rare Historical Photos

On October 24, 1939, the ASC first fired up its engine at the Pullman Company, south of Chicago. From there, drivers took the new car on a tour of the Midwest. They tested it on the sand dunes along Lake Michigan, in northern Indiana, and then through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Along the way, roads were closed to traffic because the massive vehicle needed two lanes to move. This caused major congestion and attracted large crowds of spectators.

The ASC finally arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, and departed for Antarctica on November 15, 1939, aboard the USCGC North Star. The vehicle was scheduled to go to the South Pole and monitor the aurora borealis. But in early January 1940, when it arrived at Little America Base in Whale Bay, Antarctica, with the US Antarctic Service expedition, the vehicle encountered many problems.

The expedition had to build a wooden ramp to get the cart off the ship. During the descent, a wheel broke off the ramp. The expedition cheered as Poulter got the cart off the ramp, but then fell silent when it failed to move through the snow and ice.

The tires were large, smooth, unlined, designed for large swamp vehicles. Now they were sunk three feet into the snow, spinning freely and barely able to move the vehicle forward. The expedition had attached two spare tires to the front wheels and chains to the rear, but that didn’t help with the lack of traction.

They later discovered that the tires provided more traction when going in reverse. As a result, the longest journey the car made was 90 miles (148 km) - all in reverse. On January 24, 1940, Poulter returned to the United States, handing over part of the expedition to F. Alton Wade.

Abandoned ACS vehicle in Antarctica on December 22, 1940. Photo: Rare Historical Photos

Though fundamentally a failure, from its lack of traction to its underpowered engine, the vehicle was a solid base for full-time living and work. Engine coolant passed through the structure of the cabin, effectively heating the interior despite the frigid conditions. Scientists conducted seismic experiments, measured cosmic rays, and took ice core samples while living aboard.

Poulter wanted to return to Antarctica and equip the ACS with improved components, but with World War II drawing in, the US budget was diverted to the war effort. The vehicle was abandoned at Little America III on December 22, 1940. It was last found in 1958, when an international expedition “unearthed” it under 23 feet of snow, its interior still intact as the original expedition had left it.

Subsequent expeditions have found no trace of the ACS. It is likely that the vehicle is at the bottom of the Southern Ocean or buried deep under ice. Antarctica’s ice is constantly shifting, and the ice shelf is constantly advancing into the ocean.

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