Tuesday, 7 January 2003
Where a pile of crates and boxes and panels sat this morning, an assembled AASTINO sits tonight.
This represents a major milestone. Putting the AASTINO together was always going to be a tough challenge. Estimates of how long it would take ranged from "a few days" to "it might not even be possible in the time available". We knew that until we actually got it assembled, we'd all be a bit nervous. So, soon after breakfast we laid out the floor panels on top of the sled and got to work.
The AASTINO is based on the famous bright red "Apple" huts used by the Australian Antarctic program. We modified ours to make it (slightly) easier to assemble, and added some additional strengthened sections in the middle so that we can put our instruments on the roof. We also had it built in a deep green colour with gold trim, in a symbolic tribute to the original AASTO. It actually looks more like a giant kiwi fruit than an apple, and some people on the station here have taken to calling it "The Kiwi".
There are eight floor panels and sixteen wall panels, held together with about 250 1/4-inch (6 mm) diameter bolts. This means 250 bolts, 250 nuts and 500 washers, each of which is too small to be picked up with a gloved hand. Fortunately the weather was not to bad, about -30 C, with a 7 knot (14 km/hr) wind. We worked a panel at a time, retreating into the Astrophysics Tent to thaw ourselves out after each panel was erected. For each panel the first step was to place a line of silicone sealant where the panel met the floor. The sealant was kept inside the tent in between times, with the spare tubes sitting on top of a computer monitor to warm them up. Next, one person would hold the panel in place, a second would use the "persuader" (a tool that started life as a large screwdriver but has been bent and sharpened to a point to suit its current role) to line up the bolt holes, while a third would fit the nut, bolt and washers with bare hands or, at most, fingerless gloves. We could have used a fourth person to do the swearing for us, but with no such help available we had to do it all ourselves.
During the course of the day we each quietly invented at least six different ways that you could devise an easy-to-erect fibreglass shelter for Antarctica. If there is ever a second AASTINO, it will snap together like a breeze in a matter of minutes.
By lunchtime we had about a third of it done, but were ourselves frozen to the core. After lunch we put on just about every piece of warm clothing we could find in our kit bags and returned to the fray.
Tony took a time lapse video of the whole construction, while I tried to capture some of the significant highlights. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that we remembered to lift into the AASTINO, before fitting the final panels, all the bulky items like the fuel tanks that don't fit through the door. We were helped here by Von and Rich - two US atmospheric scientists - who arrived on their skidoo just at the right moment to lend us some muscle (the fuel tanks weigh around 200 kg a piece). Von and Rich had come out to the Astrophysics Tent to launch a weather balloon, but thought better of it when they recalculated the time of the next satellite pass.
At half past seven this evening we finally tightened the last of the bolts and collapsed in a heap. We were cold and exhausted, with aching muscles and numb fingers. All we could think about was getting properly warm again, and getting fed. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the skidoo refused to move, belching forth acrid blue smoke by way of apology. A burnt-out centrifugal clutch was easy to diagnose but less easy to fix on the spot - leaving us to glumly face the stark reality that our skidoo had become, for all intents and purposes, a skidon't. There was nothing for it but to trudge the kilometre or so back to the station. Hardly an epic trek, to be sure, but through soft snow and clad in the full heavy clothing kit, it was something we didn't really need. It was like finishing a marathon only to be told we now had to climb up ten flights of stairs.
Not much else happened today. We're enjoying the luxury of hot showers, and outstanding food. Astute readers will have noticed that these diaries have suddenly gone quiet on the subject of food. Food features strongly in Antarctic life. First of all, you get very hungry, and food matters. Secondly, mealtimes are a welcome break from the cold, and a chance to socialise and unwind. Thirdly, Antarctic bases (with a couple of notable exceptions) serve really good food. However, the acknowledged master chef on the frozen continent is Dome C's very own Jean-Louis. I have held off attempting to describe his masterpieces until my altitude-affected brain recovers at least some of its vocabulary. In a day or two I'll give it go, but for now please rest assured that we are being most well looked after.