South Pole Diaries 1995    


25th January 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

Our plane is scheduled to leave for the Pole at 6:30pm, leaving the whole day for us to explore McMurdo. John and I are particularly interested in seeing the generators and water desalination plant, so we ask at The Chalet (the administrative headquarters of McMurdo) for advice. We are lucky to meet up with Lynn Simarski, a public relations manager employed by the NSF, who was due to get a guided tour of the station from Al Martin, the station manager. We tagged along.

First port of call was a satellite groundstation in a geodesic radome on a hill over-looking the town. The fully-steerable dish is 10m in diameter, with simultaneous X and S-band capability. The radome is about 30m in diameter, and consisted of aluminium triangles supporting a kevlar shell - able to withstand winds of over 120 knots. The dish, mounting, and control room are extremely impressive. A state-of-the-art HP workstation controls everything - a few clicks of a mouse are all that is necessary to set up a schedule to acquire and track satellites and record the data to AMPEX cartridges with 100 Gbytes storage capacity. As we watch, they track the COBE satellite, which is now apparently not being used for its original purpose of mapping the cosmic microwave background.

On the way back down from the radome we stop at the huge Vehicle Maintenance Facility - boasting the capability of performing any repair that a Caterpillar shop could do back-in-the-states. The smell of lathe cutting oil and freshly made popcorn fills the air. Half-a-dozen vehicles and engines are in various stages of repair. They take environmental considerations very seriously here, as they do everywhere in McMurdo - for example, glycol from radiators is recycled, and used oil-filters are crushed and have the oil removed from them. All waste (`retrograde' in the local terminology) is sorted and sent back-to-the-states. In fact, the incoming ship will take out more weight as retrograde than it brought in as cargo and fuel.

Then it was off to view the five large electricity generators, total capacity 3 MW. Mechanics keep a continuous eye on the machines, and rebuild them every 20,000 hours. The engines run on JP-8, a hybrid fuel able to be used by diesel engines and aircraft, thus reducing the need to store two different types of fuel.

Right next to the generator building is the water desalination plant. Salt water is drawn from the Ross Sea (just 100m from the plant), filtered, heated to above the freezing point of pure water, and then pressurised to 9,000psi prior to being injected into the reverse osmosis tubes. These tubes are 20cm in diameter, about 8m long, and consist of 20 or so spirals of a special membrane. Pure water comes out one end and concentrated brine comes out the other. The brine is used by tankers which wet down the roads in order to reduce dust.

Just four of the reverse osmosis tubes are sufficient to produce 80,000 gallons of water a day, which is more than enough for the needs of the base.

After lunch we visit the aquarium. This is basically a lab for marine biologists to study the extraordinary variety of life in the waters just off McMurdo. There are a dozen tanks filled with fish of various sizes (including two cod that are 1m long) and octopuses, star-fish, feathery things, blobs with vents and tentacles, and so on (can you tell that I'm not a marine biologist?).

Next stop is the hydroponics building - a small (10m x 10m) building crammed with lettuces, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and a other plants, all illuminated by powerful artificial-sun lamps. This place is a favourite for winter-overers who may have become a bit depressed with the cold and dark of the base in mid-winter: a couple of hours a day in with the plants is said to do wonders for morale.

We picked up the key to Discovery Hut at McMurdo's TV station. Discovery Hut was built by Scott sometime around 1909. It is a few hundred metres from the edge of McMurdo, and well worth a visit if you happen to be down this way. One of Scott's companions slipped from the nearby cliff and slid into the icy waters of Ross Sea, never to be seen again. A cross commemorates this event. The hut was used for several seasons, and people actually wintered-over in it. We certainly have it easy now.

By now we have seen most of the high-points of the station, and thank Al Martin for the generous donation of his time and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the base.

Returning to the Crary Science Center for some Internet activity, we find ourselves sitting at neighbouring computers, both logged into our computer in Sydney. I am surprised to get an e-mail message from John. This is yet more evidence that John is gradually disappearing into cyberspace, and I'm worried about him. I've heard it said that people at the South Pole may be in the same room, logged into computers at their home institutions, and then use the Internet ``talk'' facility to communicate.

I should mention that John has been exceedingly diligent with the video recording. We should have a very interesting record of our activities.

Dinner is at 5pm. Afterwards we pack our bags and meet at Building 140 for the trip to the airport at 6:30pm.

* 6:35pm leave for Willy Field (the airport)
* 7:00pm arrive at Willy Field to discover our LC-130 has an engine covered in scaffolding
* 7:30pm return to McMurdo, told to reassemble at 9:30pm
* 9:30pm the plane is now scheduled for 1:30am, so we retire for some sleep