What Happened To The Antarctic Snow Cruiser?

Sunday, September 19, 2021

In 1940, a team of American explorers set out to chart one of the last unexplored corners of the planet, traveling thousands of kilometers to reach the South Pole, through parts of Antarctica no human had ever seen before.

A place so remote and inhospitable, many earlier attempts to explore it had either failed or ended in tragedy. But unlike earlier attempts, the Americans will explore Antarctica with the ultimate exploration machine. A 37-ton mobile base that will sustain a small team of explorers while they live, work and sleep in isolation for an entire year.

This is the Antarctic Snow Cruiser. Designed to push through the harshest conditions on the planet. And it’ll end up as one of history’s greatest engineering legends. Before 1939, only two expedition teams had ever set foot on the South Pole. And only one of them made it back out alive. Because temperatures in Antarctica can fall below -80 degrees Celsius. Winds of two or even three hundred kilometers an hour are not unheard of. And with over14 a million square kilometers of icefields and polar mountains, it’s an environment unfit for human life.

But underneath the frozen landscape lies the potential for enormous riches, including vast oil and mineral reserves. And by 1939, the World’s powers had begun claiming huge portions of it for themselves. But missing from this map of Antarctic claims was the United States. While American explorers had made inroads into the continent, these were privately-funded expeditions. To make their own claim on Antarctica, the United States would need a larger and more official presence.

So in 1939, U.S. President Roosevelt launched the United States Antarctic Service Expedition. In the fall of that year, two ships, carrying one hundred and twenty-five men, would set sail for Antarctica in the largest American expedition to date. Their mission would be to explore previously unknown regions of the continent and to establish two new field bases on either side of Antarctica. The expedition would bring a host of exploration equipment, but the centerpiece would be the antarctic Snow Cruiser. Nothing like it had ever been built before. The size of a small building, and would even carry its own aircraft along with five explorers who would live and work onboard it for up to a year. The Snow Cruiser would have a special role.

Its crew would travel thousands of kilometers to reach the South Pole. From there, they’d continue Eastwards to the newly established American field base. In effect laying the groundwork for an American claim on the continent. News of the expedition made the headlines, but it was the Antarctic Snow Cruiser and it's a daring mission that would capture the world's imagination. Designed by Chicago's Armour Institute of Technology, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel. To traverse the rough polar landscape, engineers give it enormous ten-foot-tall rubber wheels, which would help absorb the shock of the unforgiving frozen terrain.

When faced with a seemingly impassable ice crevasse, the Cruiser would hydraulically retract its wheels and use its large front and rear overhangs to slide over gaps. Allowing it to cross-ice crevices up to four and a half meters wide. To travel reliability for months on end, the Cruiser would feature an innovative diesel-electric hybrid drivetrain. Instead of driving the Cruiser directly, diesel engines would supply power to electric motors inside each wheel hub.

This space-saving design would do away with the need for complex driveshafts and gearboxes, promising to be more reliable. To combat frigid temperatures, coolant from the engines would circulate throughout the cabin to heat interior spaces, and in extreme weather, coolant could also heat the Cruiser’shydraulically retracted wheels. The Antarctic Snow Cruiser would carry enough fuel, food, and supplies to last an entire year. And feature spaces for its five explorers to live, sleep and work. It would even carry its own biplane to conduct aerial surveys and photograph hundreds of kilometers of Antarctic territory. With the Snow Cruiser, the Americans would explore more of Antarctica in just a few months than all previous expeditions combined. When the Cruiser rolled out its assembly plant on October 24, 1939, huge crowds formed to greet it.

But things were about to unravel. Although research and design of the Snow Cruiser started in 1937, it wasn't until the spring of 1939 that a decision was made to use it in the upcoming expedition. That left just six months to finish design and construction, forcing engineers to work around the clock. And the Cruiser rolled out of its assembly plant in Chicago just weeks before it had to be loaded onto expedition ships waiting in Boston, leaving little time to test the machine's capabilities.

Instead, the Cruiser would be driven 1,600 kilometers all the way from Chicago to Boston in a shakedown trip to work out any issues. With all the excitement and press, the cross-country trip would become a national sensation. But it would also prove to be more difficult than anyone anticipated. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, just a few days into the journey, progress was halted by of all things, heavy rains. Which made roads too slippery to continue. Soon after, the Cruiser lost control and careened into a ditch, where crews spent the next three days trying to get it unstuck. It was an embarrassing start for a supposedly unstoppable machine, designed to handle the most difficult terrain on earth. A hydraulic line failure and a small fender bender further delayed progress. But worst of all was the realization of just how painfully slow the Cruiser was.

It should have been able to travel at speeds of up to 48 kilometers per hour. But it struggled to reach even a fraction of that. The problem was, each of its electric wheel hub motors produced just 75 horsepower. It meant that altogether the 37-ton Cruiser had just 8 horsepower per ton to motivate forward. And wherever the slow-moving machine went, it backed up traffic. Outside of Boston, it caused the world’s worst traffic jam. Backing up 70,000 cars. But on November 12, the cruiser finally arrived in Boston with just 2 days to spare. The drive was supposed to have taken 8 days. Instead, it took nearly 3 weeks. The Cruiser struggled so much on smooth paved highways, many questioned whether it was really ready for the expedition. But with so much excitement and publicity, there was no turning back. On November 15, 1939, the most ambitious American expedition left for Antarctica. But for the Snow Cruiser, things were about to turn from bad to ugly.

The mishaps would continue as soon as the Cruiser landed in Antarctica. Because the machine's real problems, were only just beginning having been built in only 11 weeks over a single midwestern summer, the Antarctic SnowCruiser would see snow for the very first time in January of 1940. And immediately it looked out of its element. While the Cruiser had proven itself on highways, on tough uneven terrain, the machine was hopelessly underpowered. But the real problem was the tires. Designed to absorb impacts and to be virtually indestructible, they were also..perfectly smooth. And in the Antarctic snow, they spun hopelessly. Meaning a machine built to conquer mountain ranges, could barely move an inch the decision to use smooth tires is perplexing in hindsight. But with such a tight development timeline, engineers had to make do with an already existing tire design specifically built for swamp buggies.

Cutting threads into the tires might have been possible. But designers figured they’d just fill up with ice and snow anyway. Not that they had time to test the theory in actual ice or snow. In a desperate effort to solve traction problems, crews attached chains to the tires and even doubled up the front wheels with spares. But it made little difference. After weeks of struggling, it was obvious that part of the problem was the machine’sunequal weight distribution. Driving the Cruiser backward actually turned out to be the most effective way to get it moving. So that’s what they did. On its longest trek, the Cruiser managed to travel backward for 148 kilometers in a loop around the landing base. But driving in reverse severely limited the Cruiser’s speed. And there was no way it could make it all the way to the south pole in reverse. The expedition team eventually admitted defeat and permanently parked the Cruiser for use as a stationary laboratory.

The expedition would continue without the Cruiser, but it would also have to end early. With the Second World War looming, the entire project was abandoned and the expedition team returned home. After the War, the world had changed and conquest and colonization of distant lands had fallen out of favor. The abandoned Snow Cruiser was last spotted in 1958 after it was dug out from under several meters of snow. Today, the machine’s whereabouts are unknown. It’s either still buried under sheets of ice, or has since broken off on an ice flow and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. In the end, the Antarctic Snow Cruiser had clearly been rushed into service and the result was a machine that had been over-designed and under-tested. Extreme optimism had seemingly been its design philosophy.


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