Antarctic `Kludging' Keeps Wheels Turning

Technicians at Palmer maintain the station's equipment with improvised parts and Rube Goldberg-style machinery repairs

LONG before recycling became politically correct in the United States and Europe, it was practiced religiously here in Antarctica. Not the bottle-and-can variety, but what Antarctic veterans call ``kludging'' (pronounced KLOOJ-ING).

Almost every day, the technicians have an opportunity to demonstrate what kludging is all about.

First thing one morning, that is exactly what is required. When staff members at Palmer Station awoke, they found that the walk-in refrigerator fan had stopped. After some investigation, technician Rich Skane determines that the bearings are worn out.

Mr. Skane is doing his best. ``I don't have a replacement,'' he says. ``I found several other fans, but they all turn the wrong way.''

``By-the-book fixes are difficult [here],'' says Gerry Ness, supervisor of facilities services for Palmer Station. ``The best maintenance people are the jacks-of-all-trades. We need people who can improvise.''

Considering that it will take months for an exact part to get here from the US, ``you find a part that is close to the one you need, and you mill it, and bang it into the shape you want,'' Skane says. ``It means grabbing what you can and sticking it together with duct tape so that it works. It's a Rube Goldberg device. It's not very pretty.''

This time of year, space is at a premium at Palmer. A summertime load of about 40 scientists jam every square inch of the station.

``You can't possibly stock a spare part for everything here,'' Mr. Ness says. When a part is needed, he places an order by electronic mail. The manufacturer sends the part to a staging area in California, where it is prepared for shipment to South America. Once it gets to Punta Arenas, Chile, where the National Science Foundation (NSF) maintains a warehouse, it can be months before the part is brought down to Palmer by the main resupply ship, the Polar Duke.

``The Polar Duke's schedule is anything but routine, because it is dictated by science projects being carried out on the ship,'' Ness says.

``If the part is something critical - having to do with the main life-support systems, power, or water - that can be frustrating,'' he acknowledges.

But ``the sole purpose for operations [logistical and technical people] being there is to support the scientific research going on on the continent,'' says Erick Chiang, manager of the polar-operations section for NSF.

All electricity, steam, and water used by the station are manufactured on the site, which is surrounded by water on three sides and a glacier on the other. For most of the year, water is made by a desalination plant and used sparingly. In the summer, however, runoff from the glacier eases the shortage.

Heat is not optional in Antarctica. Yet the boiler in Palmer's second-largest building has been a problem for most of this season. In a creative solution to compensate, Ness says, ``We are now capturing more of the waste heat from the [electricity] generator. We also have an electric boiler, which has provided some incremental heat.'' Every season, some critical part breaks, Ness says. ``You have to learn to adapt down here, you improvise, you kludge.''

Earlier this spring, when the harbor froze for a third time, technicians came up with a novel way for science to continue. The ice kept scientists from getting out in their small rubber Zodiacs to take water samples and measurements. ``So we made them a floating pier out of inner tubes from the crane and lashed it to the rocks,'' Ness says. ``Scientists could then walk out to take water samples.''

``We get used to inconveniences you don't think of in the US where you can drive down to a True Value hardware store,'' Skane says.

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