United States expeditions to Antarctica have occurred almost since the beginning of the nation. Among the notable ones, in 1820 Nathaniel B. Palmer, a Connecticut sealer, saw the Antarctic Peninsula from his 14-meter sloop Hero. John Davis made the first known landing on Antarctica, at Hughes Bay, in 1821. James Eights, a scientist, provided remarkably advanced natural history reports after accompanying sealers to the South Shetlands in 1829-1831. Charles Wilkes headed a Navy expedition that in 1839-1840 explored and mapped 2,400 kilometers of the coast of Wilkes Land and established that Antarctica is a continent. Carl B. Eielson piloted the first airplane flown in Antarctica, in 1928.
Richard E. Byrd introduced large-scale mechanization of antarctic exploration in two expeditions, in 1928-1930 and 1933-1935, that included extensive exploration by airplane and the first flight over the South Pole. Lincoln Ellsworth flew across Antarctica in 1935 and discovered the American Highland in 1938-1939.
The Government established two antarctic stations in 1939-1941 that were intended to begin a continuing antarctic service (World War II ended this plan). In 1946-1947 the Navy's Operation Highjump, the largest expedition ever made to Antarctica, used 13 ships, several helicopters and airplanes, and 4,700 men; it performed extensive aerial photography for mapping. A smaller Navy expedition, Operation Windmill, followed in 1947-1948. Finn Ronne's expedition in 1948 established a wintering station and explored and mapped at the base of the Antarctic Peninsula.
The International Geophysical Year, 1 July 1957 to 31 December 1958, was a great cooperative endeavor by the world's scientists to improve their understanding of the earth and its environment. Much of the field activity took place in Antarctica, where 12 nations established some 60 research stations.
The United States established six research stations: Little America, Hallett, South Pole, and Byrd (described in section III), plus Wilkes (on the coast of Wilkes Land, East Antarctica) and Ellsworth (on the Filchner Ice Shelf). Naval Air Facility, McMurdo Sound (now McMurdo Station), was set up as a logistics base from which to supply South Pole. Studies were directed toward geophysics and upper atmosphere physics and included simultaneous observations at all parts of the globe. In addition, long scientific traverses were made to collect data in glaciology, seismology, gravimetry, and meteor- ology. Geological and biological samples were collected, although these disciplines were not formally part of the IGY.
The results of research performed during the IGY were so interesting scientifically that the United States and the other IGY nations decided to continue their antarctic work. The National Science Foundation (NSF) was given responsibility for the U.S. research effort and in 1959 established the U.S. Antarctic Research Program (USARP). Mapping, biology, and ocean sciences were added to the already active disciplines of geology and geophysics, glaciology, meteorology, and upper atmosphere physics. An NSF contractor (currently Antarctic Support Associates, Englewood, Colorado) and the Naval Support Force Antarctica, identified by the unit name Operation Deep Freeze, support the scientific effort. The Air Force, the Coast Guard, and the Army also provide logistics.
After 1971, when the National Science Foundation was assigned overall responsibility for U.S. activities in Antarctica, the term U.S. Antarctic Program came into use to designate both the United States Antarctic Research Program and all operational activities, including Operation Deep Freeze, that support the research program and other features of the U.S. presence in Antarctica.
Since the beginning of USARP, research has been balanced among the scientific disciplines so that an understanding of Antarctica's natural features and processes can be developed along a broad front. Results of U.S. antarctic research performed since the IGY have had a great part in developing an understanding of Antarctica, its role in global processes, its distinctive needs for environmental preservation, and its resource potential and have placed the United States in a position of scientific and diplomatic leadership in Antarctica.