Thursday, January 11, 2007

No matter where you're going, Dux de Lux is always on the way

So, our flight to Antarctica was delayed another day. On the day that it was supposed to leave, we all reported in the morning with our luggage and our cold weather gear. For flights to and within Antarctica, passengers are required to be wearing most of their cold-weather gear. So we changed into our long underwear, overalls, and parkas, just to find out that our flight would be delayed another few hours. This obviously meant that we had to catch a bus back into town to go kill the time at the Dux de Lux, the bar/cafe that serves as the locus of leisure for "polies" spending time in Christchurch. Nobody really complained. It was a beautiful day and there was a street fair right outside the bar.

Because of the delays in flights to Antarctica for the past few days, our flight was completely full, with over 130 passengers. When we arrived back at the Antarctic Center and put all our gear back on again, it was a chaotic scene with parkas, "bunny boots", and orange bags everywhere. Most of the passengers on the flight were part of the USAP program, with a handful of New Zealanders bound for Scott Station, near McMurdo. You can tell the Kiwis from the Americans by the colors of their parkas, boots, and gear bags, which are in a palette of tropical blues and greens to contrast with our bright reds and oranges. It takes some skill to figure out how to move around while wearing all of your ECW gear, especially the enormous boots. Plus, you take up about twice the amount of space that you're used to.

The airplane bound for McMurdo from Christchurch was a C-17: an enormous cargo plane carrying many crates full of scientific gear as well as all of the passengers. All of the guts of the plane -- cables, controls, switches, and so forth -- are visible on the inside. Naturally, all of the physicists spent half of the flight staring at all of the parts and talking about how they were put together or what they were for. Some details were familiar: on the optics cryostat for the SPT, we use "military connectors" to connect the wiring inside the cryostat to the cables outside the cryostat. It was especially funny to see these in their natural habitat, so to speak. It is impressive to look around such a vast vessel as a C17 and think about all of the time and effort it must take to put something like that together.
There are no windows in the C17, except for a few little ones on the doors to the front and rear. It was a cloudy day anyway, so it wasn't possible to tell that the landscape below was anything unusual. The plane is also very loud. You have to wear earplugs or good headphones, and it's not easy to hold a conversation. Several of my Berkeley colleagues had visited a military surplus store in Christchurch and picked up some very goofy french military ear protection gear, modeled below by Berkeley postdoc Brad Benson.

Late in the flight, we all had a chance to step into the cockpit for a view out the front windows. Professor Bill Holzapfel from Berkeley has been carrying around a "Flat Stanley" for a young friend of his, so I took it with me to the cockpit. The pilots got a kick out of it and made sure that I got my picture taken holding the little guy.

For me, excitement really kicked in when I took some time to walk back to the back of the plane and look around the cargo area. To my surprise, we were flying along with a bunch of the crates that I had personally packed back in Chicago, and I immediately found myself inspecting them and counting them and wondering where they'd been since I last saw them. Somehow at that point it sunk in how much I cared about seeing this project succeed, and how exciting it was to be headed to the South Pole to put the last parts of the telescope together and make it work.



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