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Astrolaw Attorney Tests the Legal Field in a Trial by Ice

April 18, 1985|DAVE LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

One thing Chuck Stovitz will always remember about last Christmas was the punch at the party. Especially the ice. It isn't always you get a drink cooled with ice that is 50,000 years old.

At the Antarctic, however, they only have ice for you. Especially for such a distinguished guest as an attorney, the first American civilian one to dwell in that part of the world, where even the penguins get goose pimples.

Stovitz wasn't there to settle property disputes among the seals but rather to take up residence in the interest of astrolaw--that relatively new field dealing with the practical problems of law in outer space.

Spending nearly six months at the bleakness of McMurdo Station was in many ways a parallel to living and working in a remote and hostile environment such as would be found in space.

And, having returned last month to the remote and hostile environment of his Venice home, the attorney has brought back some applications for astrolaw. To say nothing of memories of such things as the Antarctic outdoor wedding at which the bride wore a parka.

The temperature for the nuptials was 49 degrees below zero, which might explain why until then there had been no such occasion at that location.

The site was the South Pole, down the ice a way from where Stovitz had been living. He had flown there in January by C-130 aircraft to spend 10 days at the geodesic dome where the National Science Foundation runs a station.

"The wedding was an example of how the law might be called upon to determine the legal implications of an event in space," he said. "After all, in time there are going to be weddings and births and deaths in outer space."

Stovitz determined that--although never before done at the South Pole--such a ceremony would be legal. After he had secured permission from the civilian and military authorities, Randall Chambers and Pati Manuel of San Diego recited their vows before a chaplain, then took a 480-mile no-frills flight back to McMurdo. They had met while participating in an Antarctic program.

There were, of course, many experiences that had no legal ramifications, but that will certainly provide the Beverly Hills attorney with small talk during his next court recess.

The refrigerators didn't need ice makers. Where he was, the ice sheet measured three miles deep at its thickest point.

"The scientists were forever taking deep core samples," he said. "Ice that is that ancient and is put into a drink doesn't make it taste any different, but you do get sound effects--crackling sounds. As the ice melts, it pops like champagne."

But even food might cause legal problems.

"Fifteen nations, including the Soviet Union, maintain stations on the land mass of Antarctica," the lawyer explained. "The United States is cautious about asserting any jurisdiction there--and growing food is an historical indication of jurisdiction."

Frozen Food Diet

Therefore, the diet of the approximately 720 Americans on the scene was mostly frozen foods, often repetitive--as would be the case in outer space.

"You could eat as much as you wanted, except for the freshies. These were lettuce and tomatoes flown in from New Zealand, a welcome change and limited in supply."

For many, the cold climate caused a desire for sweets, and such items as chocolate bars got crave reviews. "Sweets became part of a barter system."

And with the humidity averaging only 3%, not only did skin crack easily, but thirst was ever-present. "I drank noticeably more water than at home," Stovitz said.

Furthermore, he went on, partly because there was little else in the way of diversion, the rate of alcoholic consumption was higher than in the homeland.

Of the 130 structures--mostly Quonset huts dating to the Korean War--three were saloons. Indeed, twice weekly there was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of that group's more unlikely settings.

For the 33-year-old single attorney, the daily thermometer reading was a little different than he had been used to seeing as a child in his native El Monte. The mean temperature was minus-18, it got as low as minus-49, and sometimes the wind blew at 60 m.p.h.

In Severe Weather

Condition One was designated during severe conditions, which restricted everyone to wherever he or she happened to be at the time--in a room, at a bar, wherever.

But although many were cold, few were frozen. What with thermal underwear, boots, gloves, parkas and so forth, everyone coped. Even at the Antarctic Survival School (run by the National Science Foundation), which Stovitz was selected to attend.

"We spent two days and one night in the field about 1 1/2 miles away from the station. We learned to rappel ice mountains, and had to build our own individual housing out of ice bricks.

"At night, you had to lie on the snow, surrounded by snow, and it was cold. I was unable to sleep."

Outside, at all times during the six months, sunglasses were worn to prevent snow-blindness in the constant sunlight.

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