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In the twilight of the austral winter at the South Pole, the temperature was -70° F. Blowing snow and strong winds had delayed the rescue mission of an ailing American worker for days. In September, it is usually too cold for most airplanes to safely land and take off. But this was an emergency, and Patrick Hovey (BSME ’91) was standing by in case something went wrong.

Over the winter, the howling wind had whipped the ice into sheets that covered the skiway at the Pole. Machine operators had worked for days to groom the surface. The Twin Otter aircraft would make a 10-hour trip from Rothera, the British survey station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The plane could be on ice as long as it was kept warm.

For Hovey, one of 58 men and women spending the winter at the Pole, the mission was all in a day’s work. An employee of Raytheon Polar Services Co., Hovey is the winter season site engineer for a ten-year, $150 million project to construct a new 65,000 square-foot science station at the geographical South Pole. The new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which will house more than 100 scientists and staff, will replace the geodesic dome that long has been an icon of the most remote outpost on earth.

“The work this winter has been hectic and nonstop,” he said. “I’ve had to deal with a multitude of issues including a sinking station, a heating system that doesn’t always want to heat, and infiltration issues resulting in -30° to -40°F temps in the subfloor of the building. But the work has been interesting and time has flown by. It’s amazing to think I haven’t seen the sun in almost six months.

During the winter, construction is limited to the interior of the new station. The structure, located atop 10,500 feet of ice on the polar plateau, is elevated about 10 feet above the ice to deter the drifting snow that typically buries structures within a few years. The design of the leading edge of the building, which faces the prevailing winds, involved wind tunnel experiments to obtain a profile that would accelerate the wind beneath the structure and deposit drifting snow on the leeward side. The entire structure is designed to be jacked up the height of one floor level twice during its lifetime by adding 12-foot sections to the top of the 36-inch support columns.

Hovey, 35, provides field engineering support and troubleshoots problems in the newly opened wing, where the winter-over crew lives. On any given day, he might conduct a station settlement survey, take temperature readings in the subfloor, calibrate the chlorine monitor in the water treatment plant, redline construction drawings, resolve a DDC issue with one of the air-handling units or fan coils, or clean the toilets and mop the floors.

“Thankfully we haven’t had any major engineering crises this winter,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time getting to understand the power generation and heat recovery systems, and learning the quirks of each particular generator. I also had to be a quick study on the HVAC systems. When the outside temperature dropped to the -80s and -90s, we realized the valve on the pre-heating coil of the main air-handling unit was not keeping a stable temperature. I burned a lot of midnight oil trying to get these temps to stabilize.”

Hovey, who spent most of his childhood in Bellevue, Neb., is an avid mountaineer and photographer who has traveled the world. After graduation, he worked as an engineer in Houston before answering a newspaper ad for a job in Algeria, North Africa.

“The interviewer spent most of the time explaining the risks and dangers involved in working there,” Hovey said. “He handed me a stack of newspaper clippings and said he was going for coffee and would be back in half an hour. The clippings were all about massacres of locals and some expatriates who had been caught up in the civil war going on there. I’ll admit I had second thoughts, but the fact that I would get to see the world was too enticing.”

After that stint, he took some time off and went to New Zealand. He started thinking about Antarctica after he saw the Antarctic exhibit at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. Through what he called a “string of odd coincidences,” Hovey found himself back in Christchurch less than a year later, preparing to head south.

It’s not only the travel that draws him to field work. “Field engineering, particularly in remote areas, requires a certain degree of ingenuity, autonomy and problem solving ability,” he said. “I like to problem-solve and I like the fact that each day is a different problem.

“One task I had to learn this winter, that I never expected I’d do with a mechanical engineering degree, was surveying. One of my responsibilities is to monitor the settlement of the station. Every month, I establish elevations at a dozen points around the station. The designers are interested in the overall sinking of the station (which has only been about two inches this winter) as well as the differential settlement. If the differential settlement is too great, jacking and shimming of the selected columns becomes necessary.”

To prepare for the job at the Pole, Hovey spent a few months at Raytheon’s Denver headquarters. His training included time at the Fire School at the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy in Denver. The crew also went through a three-day Outward Bound course as a team-building exercise. “As a final screen, we were all required to have a thorough physical and dental exam as well as a psychological exam,” Hovey said. “This was to make sure that everybody coming down here is of sound mind and body. Mid-winter is not the time to realize that the Pole is not your bag.”

The scientists and staff who winter-over at the Pole are an eclectic group, Hovey said. “There are people from all walks of life. Obviously, when you get together a Harvard graduate scientist with a hippie forklift driver, there are some clashes in paradigms. But there’s always some common ground to be found—especially if the forklift driver is a Berkeley graduate.”

Outside of work, Pole life is anything but boring. Many scientists give lectures on their research. Other members of the community teach classes in music, martial arts and other subjects. The station has a library, workout gym, basketball court, a band room and a large selection of tapes and DVDs. They keep in touch with the outside world through the Internet and an Iridium phone. And no one goes hungry. Meals are served buffet style and there is plenty of variety, including vegetarian fare. They enjoy delicacies such as crab and lobster as well as ethnic dishes cooked by their fellow Polies. “It’s a good social time,” Hovey said. “We’ll put on some music to match the ethnic dish and enjoy a few bottles of wine while we cook.”

In a time-honored tradition, Polies partake in weekly slushie parties—making drinks with leftover ice from the cores the scientists take for their experiments. “It’s kind of a kick to realize you’re having a drink made with ice that was deposited on the continent in the Middle Ages,” Hovey said. They also eagerly await the day when it breaks -100°F. “This isn’t that significant except that it allows one the opportunity to join the prestigious 300 club,” he said. To become a club member, you sit in a 200° sauna, and then run outside to the geographical pole and back to the sauna—in the nude. “I was crazy enough to do it the first time and stupid enough to do it a second,” he said.

To test his new-found bravery for the cold, Hovey also camped outside in a tent in temperatures that dipped to -91°F. He stayed warm by using two synthetic sleeping bags stuffed into one another with a tiny hole for fresh air. “It was actually a comfortable night,” he said, “although I broke one of the cardinal rules of cold weather camping and left my rubber bunny boots outside my bag during the night. By morning they were frozen rock solid and I spent about a half an hour thawing them out in my bag just enough to get my feet in them and scurry back to the station.”

The antics provide comic relief during eight months of isolation, including four months of total darkness. “What they say about the psychological aspects of wintering is accurate,” Hovey said. “I have found myself more than once staring blankly into space. I’ve also had fits of total forgetfulness—things that you would never think you would forget, like how old you are or what someone’s name is here on station. But we’ve only had a few episodes of people ‘blowing up,’ and those episodes were short-lived.

“Many people have asked if it gets depressing to be in the dark all the time. I never found that to be the case,” he said. Because many science experiments are light-sensitive, the station’s windows are covered in the winter, and temperatures are comfortable inside.

“You really have to get outside to experience the winter here,” Hovey said. “It’s so dark that we have flaglines out to the remote facilities so you can find your way. You can walk a short distance outside and be in complete darkness with a fishbowl of stars above your head and pink and green auroras dancing on the horizon. You won’t hear anything except the sound of one of the flags flapping.”

And maybe that’s what he will remember years from now. Or maybe it will be the sight of the sun in the early morning, the two-minute showers, or the thunderous crunch of the ice under his feet. “If I weren’t on ice down here, I’d like to be on an icy mountain somewhere,” he said. “But I’ve always had a fascination for Antarctica. This was my personal ‘last frontier.’”