Bottom of the World: The Dome at the Amundsen-Scott base, where Aussie scientist Rodney Marks died in 2000.
Credit: Brien Barnett / National Science Foundation

South Pole astronomers have the coldest commute on the planet. The observatory where they work is a full kilometer from the main station, in an area officially known as the Dark Sector. Like most base astronomers, Marks would bundle up and make the round-trip on foot every day.

He worked for the Smithsonian program called AST/RO (Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory) and spent most of his time collecting data on how to further improve viewing conditions using an enormous infrared telescope. His work was highly regarded, and he was making profound breakthroughs in the way we view the cosmos from Earth. On Tuesdays, he held an astronomy class for his fellow Polies, sometimes taking everyone outside and introducing them to a night sky he knew intimately. Colleagues described him as having a combination of wildness, imagination, and dedicated self-discipline that makes for great science.

It was during the walk home from the observatory one Thursday night in May that Marks first sensed there was something wrong with him. At about 6:30 he and Sonja arrived in the galley, where he ate a light meal and drank a can of beer. He mentioned to her that he wasn't feeling well and that he was having trouble seeing clearly. By 9:30 he had retired to the room they shared and fell asleep. That night in the galley was the last time most of the winter crew would ever see Marks alive. He would spend the next 21 hours fighting for his life.

Schneider's blog entry for friends and family back home, written the following night, after he had spent nearly an hour trying to save his closest friend on base, would read: "We did everything we could, but Rodney did not come back. He had friends around him at the end. We have no idea what happened."

While Schneider and others tried to douse the embers of the day's events at the bar, Marks's remains were placed in a body bag and stored in a service area known as the fuel arches, connected to the main station through one of the tunnels. The ambient temperatures there were plenty cold to preserve the corpse, but his friends felt he deserved a more dignified resting place. Like the explorers that came before them, they considered their work heroic, and Marks was one of the best South Pole scientists they'd ever known.

The station carpenters found and milled an old stash of heavy oak for a casket, and the machinist crafted the metal fittings. Schneider and one of the cooks upholstered the interior with an old tablecloth, and Sonja made a maple plaque with a brass inlay of Marks's favorite constellation, Scorpio. Once finished, they placed his body in the casket, then used a traditional wooden Nansen sled to haul it out to the geographic South Pole for a quiet ceremony. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the entire crew gathered under an ink-black sky as someone read a statement from Marks's mother and friends said a few words. Marks was then lowered five feet deep into the ice.