The experiences of a small antarctic expedition team, being touted as a case for expanding the part of women in space and exploratory missions, may say as much about the need for thorough pre-mission screening, the importance of a balanced sexual ratio and the stress imposed by prolonged isolation and confinement.

After 15 months locked together with their schooner in antarctic ice, the group of six headed by Australian explorer-doctor David Lewis has become locked in a dispute over their respective performances during the adventure-ordeal. How much the presence or absence of a sexual relationship -- or, more broadly, a male-female relationship -- affected performance is also in contention.

Lewis, 66, whose account appears in November's National Geographic, and his second-in-command Marianne (Mimi) George, a 33-year-old University of Virginia anthropology graduate student, claim they and the other couple aboard (Gill Cracknell, 26, from England, and Jannik Schou, 31, from Denmark) were far more successful at maintaining morale and productivity than the remaining two men.

"There was a lot of mutual support in being with someone you were fond of," says Lewis, a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia.

Lewis and George say a group interaction study by George shows the other men -- Australians Norman Linton-Smith, 59, and Jamie Miller, 27 -- became increasingly demoralized, sleeping hours longer, cooperating less in research and survival tasks and not washing for five to six months.

The two men, however, vehemently reject both the personal criticism and the implication that their lack of a sexual outlet was to blame. The personal charges, they suggest, are the fruit of predictable on-board friction exacerbated by the crew's prolonged lack of outside contact.

"Jamie and I were pretty critical of David and Mimi at times," says Linton-Smith, speaking from his home 27 miles from Melbourne. "They seem to have taken it to heart. They're turning something quite normal in that situation into something quite abnormal."

Miller -- flown off the expedition site two months early at Lewis' command after challenging a crew member's authority -- concurs. "There was bound to be a certain amount of friction. I always thought Lewis overreacted. Basically, I think he threw me off in spite, because I questioned him."

So far as the lack of a sexual relationship, Miller says, "Initially I might have been a little upset . . . but it would not have created any friction." Linton-Smith says, however, he was resentful of what he says were indiscreet reminders that sexual relations were a privilege not enjoyed by all.

Pretty racy stuff for a scientific expedition -- especially one being presented to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as support for the selection of mixed-sex crews in space.

Explains George, in defending her contested conclusions from her group study: "What I think is valuable is not to avoid the complications that arise when there are mixed-sex groups. This is born out in military and other expedition experiences.After 15 months locked together with their schooner in antarctic ice, the group of six has become locked in a dispute over their respective performances during the adventure-ordeal.

"When women are there, many reports state the temperament of the group and integration of the group improves, the quality of the group interaction tends to be less rigid, less hostile. From my perspective, it's more real."

Despite the mutual finger-pointing and name calling, George says she and Lewis don't mean to embarrass anyone: "There was accomplishment by all six people, demonstrated courage on the part of all six. It was fantastic, an ultimate sort of experience, the pay-off from which just seems to grow."

Meanwhile, their colleagues tend to be agog at the public spectacle of the group's falling out.

Guy Guthridge, manager of the Polar Information Program at the National Science Foundation, admits he was surprised at the critical nature of Lewis' account in the Geographic. (Linton-Smith calls it "a real slur on me"; Miller says he considered and ruled out a lawsuit.)

Lewis, says Guthridge, "airs a lot of dirty linen. One thing that's not mentioned is that the leader of an expedition has the responsibility to correct a situation like that."

Says National Geographic associate editor Joseph Judge in defending the decision to run the piece: "We say they Miller and Linton-Smith dissent. We would never have published it without their input . . . When you have six people wintering over in the Antarctic, you're going to have six different explanations. Certainly it's from David's point of view. He was the commander . ."

Guthridge speculates that the small size of the group and its largely private, volunteer nature may have aggravated tensions among participants.

In comparison, he says, the 18-or-so annual participants in NSF's U.S. Antarctic Research Program at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (cut off to air travel from February until November) have so far managed to avoid "serious altercations." But whereas the NSF participants are salaried, the Lewis-George volunteers were not; each of the latter group had to put up $3,000 towards the venture and be free to make a commitment of up to two years.

B. J. Bluth, a sociologist on a year's grant to the NASA space station program office in Washington, says NASA plans to review the Lewis-George study cautiously with an eye to such variables.

"It's a case of one," she says, explaining her reluctance to generalize from the group's experience. "And especially in very small groups, the chemistry of interpersonal dynamics can be much more influential than in larger groups."

Planning for the expedition began months before the 65-foot Dick Smith Explorer set sail November 1982 from Sydney, Australia, with its crew of six aboard. Lewis and George set as their expedition goals: letting their boat become an ice-locked environmentally sensitive research base for a full nine-to-11-month antarctic winter; developing techniques of camping and travel on the antarctic sea-ice; conducting a group dynamics study and performing biological projects for numerous research organizations. The mission sponsor was the Oceanic Research Foundation, founded by Lewis in 1977.

Selecting a crew was harder. Says Lewis, who had chalked up four previous antarctic trips: "It was very difficult compared with other expeditions I've led to get people who could get away for two years the margin of safety allowed in case the boat's mooring did not thaw the first year , and we all had to pay for the expedition. We had 100 applicants. Very, very few were remotely suitable."

Cracknell, the British crew member, and Schou, the Dane, were chosen for their adaptability and general good nature, despite their relative lack of technical experience. For the last two crew members, Lewis placed credentials above other considerations -- a decision he now says he regrets.

Linton-Smith, who had 20 years experience with polar expeditions as the field equipment and clothing officer for the Antarctic Division of Australia's Commonwealth Department of Science, became engineer. Jamie Miller was chosen as ship zoologist.

Through another error, says Lewis, neither Miller nor Linton-Smith met the expedition's screening psychologist more than briefly.

Once iced-in on March 4, 1983, the shipmates were wholly dependent on one another for survival: Over the next nine months (with one exception) they would see no other people. Mundane housekeeping tasks became matters of survival. Keeping the stove ducts clean and unclogged, for example, was essential for a continued supply of food and drinking water.

A ripped tent, discovered as the group was rushing for shelter from an antarctic storm, she says, could have cost them their lives. "We ended up holding the tear all night, hoping it didn't get worse. We were worried about cold and death."

Lewis and George held Miller responsible for tearing and failing to mend the tent. Miller denies this. "What happened," he says, "was one time I did have trouble pitching a tent. I pitched the tent too tight. There was a very small tear. I repaired it the next day. It didn't risk anyone's life."

Bathing meant stripping down seven or eight layers of clothes and sponging off with melted ice in the minute or so before it would begin to freeze again. George says she and Lewis and the other couple managed it once or twice a week. There was no privacy.

The other men managed it less often.

"It's true," says Linton-Smith, "Jamie and I did not wash for quite a bit of time . . . Washing was expensive -- it uses fuel to melt the ice -- and it was not necessary. Body odors were not noticed in the cold. If I'd had a girlfriend, I'd have washed, just for putting up with each other in bed, but Jamie and I did not have partners, so no one was inconvenienced by our not washing, except on one occasion when the galley was very hot and I was making bread and sweating and David passed a remark. I washed then."

According to George, there had to be tolerance for unusual moodiness on everybody's part. "Full-blown temper tantrums were tolerated regularly, with nastiness, direct insults, not performing even token gestures. These would normally last up to three days."

During the entire venture, all the crew members kept individual journals and answered periodic questionnaires for use in George's group dynamics study. Those materials, says George, will be published only in her scientific report of the experiment, which she says could still be a couple of years off.

Meanwhile, the effect of sexual pairing on such an expedition is still being debated.

"To a certain degree," says Lewis, "sex is a red herring." Those who managed best, he suggests, were the kind of people who enjoyed meeting new challenges, rather than those who came with set expectations.

"By far the best men in the expedition," he notes in the Geographic article, "were the women."