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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.

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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.

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``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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