South Pole Diaries 1995    

   


11th February 1995

From Michael Ashley.....

Dear Reader,

This is the last installment of the ``South Pole Diary''. My apologies for the delay in getting it to you.

As you will remember, the previous entry left John and Michael still at McMurdo, using their remaining US dollars to buy Cadbury's chocolate from the Kiwis in a struggle for survival...

The last plane flew out of the South Pole this morning. The remaining 28 people (hi Jamie!) will stay until at least November. The only physical contact with the winter-overs is via an airdrop (by its very nature a one-way thing) scheduled for mid-year. Last year's airdrop was only partially successful: one pallet was lost about 10km from the dome, and a search this summer was not fruitful.

Breakfast at McMurdo is served from 5:30 to 7:30am. The pre-moulded buckwheat pancakes (where each hole and irregularity matches the template pancake in the factory back in Detroit) tasted like dust. The frozen yoghurt machine disgorged a luke-warm runny liquid into my waiting ice-cream cone. Not an auspicious start to the day.

We gathered with the other 48 passengers (reduced from 52 due to the fact that the person with the broken leg needed more space) at 8:30am, for the Terra bus trip to Pegasus. ``Ivan'' the Terra bus is not lightning quick (one passenger with a handheld GPS system measured its speed at 4 knots going up a slight incline), but has the advantage of being warm, comfortable, and able to cover almost any terrain.

Upon arrival at Pegasus we received a safety speech from the co-pilot. In the event of depressurisation of the aircraft you need to locate an oxygen hood (they don't drop from the ceiling, and they aren't under the seats, apparently they are in a green bag somewhere ...) which you put over your head - oxygen is emitted by an exothermic chemical reaction, you have to be careful not to burn yourself. If you need first aid, there is a comprehensive kit in a green bag. In the event that the aircraft makes a crash landing on the ice somewhere, the crew will throw each pair of passengers a green bag containing sufficient food and materials to keep two people alive for 5 days in Antarctica. In the event of a sea landing, there is a green bag containing a dry-suit. These green bags are very reassuring things to have around. There are apparently several escape hatches in the top of the airframe, but I couldn't see any amongst the maze of hydraulics, electrical wiring, and green bags.

By 10am, after the usual jokes about in-flight movies and cabin service, we were loaded into the Hercules, and the engines (well, three of them...) were sequentially started up. After 40 minutes the three engines were stopped and we were sent back to the Terra bus - it turned out that the 4th engine's starter motor wasn't working, and a 2 hour delay was forecast. Three hours later we return, and this time were successful in taking off. The 7.5 hour flight was very crowded, people were lying all over the cargo and wherever they could find a space. Going to the ``bathroom'' involved clambering over a sea of legs and bodies, until you reach a funnel at the back of the aircraft. (Aside: the funnel is known as a `U'-tube. I would like to stress that when I spoke earlier of John and me using a `U'-tube to find the local horizontal for aligning the dewar, I was using the word in its scientific sense). There is some provision for women, but the facilities would certainly not meet with EEO approval.

The aircraft was freezing - we needed our Antarctic gear to keep warm - but even the special ``bunny boots'' were unable to keep our feet from becoming painfully cold by the end of the trip. Lunch/dinner consisted of a sandwich, a biscuit, and a drink. Unfortunately, I had left mine on the Terra bus. John thoughtfully donated his Oreos to me.

Landing in Christchurch shortly after 9pm, we were whisked through customs, and then out to the CDC (Clothing Distribution Centre) where we returned our Antarctic gear. The CDC people gave us a US Antarctic Program patch (this policy has cut down on the number of patches souveniered from the parkas) and we got to keep our dog-tags. By 10:30pm we were at the Windsor Private Hotel (recommended - very friendly and very reasonably priced), and ready to go in search of some food. The Dux de Lux was our choice, and we arrive to find many familiar faces from the South Pole base.

We later learn that the weather in McMurdo had deteriorated to ``Condition 1'' - the worst category, at which point you have to stay in whatever building you are currently in. The people who missed the three scheduled flights today will be staying for an indeterminate time.

Christchurch is a very pleasant city in the summer time. One wouldn't want to winter-over here though. By chance we had arrived in the middle of the Festival Of Romance and the annual Food and Wine show in beautiful Hagley Park. We took the opportunity to try out the new Christchurch tram system, which had only begun operation 8 days previously and uses original trams from the early part of the century. After an enjoyable morning we head out to the airport and catch a Boeing 747 to Sydney. Most of our US colleagues are spending at least a few days exploring New Zealand before returning home.

Back in Australia we are reunited with our families. John hears of his daughter Miranda's first weeks at School: the first week she told the class of her imaginary magic cat, the next week she told them that her Daddy was at the South Pole. Hmm...

We are eager to login to a South Pole computer (aspen.spole.gov) and check on the operation of IRPS. Strangely, aspen is not responding properly, and I can't get through. An e-mail from Jamie confirms that aspen is sick, and he instructs the IRPS communication software to talk to another computer. The next day I am able to make contact, and it is with great anticipation that I retrieve the log file recording the operation of the liquid nitrogen filling system - it has filled the outer can four times and the inner can twice. There is much rejoicing. The dewar vacuum is holding well, and the various temperature sensors report that IRPS is looking after itself as expected. The next task is to download a set of macros that IRPS will run hourly to report on its health and status. As sunset approaches over the next few weeks we will command IRPS to take a series of spectral scans to record the changing flux from the sky. By April it will be dark, and we will verify and extend the observations that we made last year.

All in all, our South Pole excursion has been very successful on many fronts: our scientific goals were met, we cemented relationships with CARA colleagues, and on a personal level we had the adventure of a lifetime. I hope that you have enjoyed reading about it, if you missed an installment you can peruse the diary (and Michael Burton's diary of last year) on the World Wide Webb at http://newt.phys.unsw.edu.au (and then look for the JACARA home page). I will send out a few messages during the year to inform you of significant events (e.g., IRPS gets good data, IRPS explodes, the video is available, and so on).

Finally, we would like to thank the US Antarctic Program for its generous support (the cost of maintaining one person at the South Pole base is estimated at US\$3,000 per day), and our CARA colleagues Bob Loewenstein, Jeff Peterson, Mark Hereld, Jamie Lloyd, Tony Stark, Adair Lane, Bernie Rauscher, Tom Bania and Nancy Lars-Odalen for their friendship and assistance. John Briggs' efforts at the Pole last year paved the way for our present successful venture. Elizabeth Moy, back in Yerkes, was very helpful in assisting us with last minute equipment purchases. We would particularly like to say a special thank you to Bob Pernic who provided invaluable help to us and whose boundless energy and enthusiasm keeps the whole CARA presence at the South Pole running smoothly.

We left the ice with the strong feeling that the future of astrophysics in Antarctica looks bright indeed.

Michael Ashley (with contributions from John Storey)