For the past month, we’ve been living in an enormous machine, transported and sustained by massive, magical contraptions that hum and whir in the mysterious caverns beneath our feet. These areas – everything below main deck – are prohibited to us normal folk. Only initiates in that reclusive society, The Engineers, are permitted to pass through those hatches and enter the tunnels that plumb the depths of this steel mountain. They emerge at mealtimes with hands and faces freshly scrubbed, all traces of magic removed before rejoining the realm of mere mortals. Oh, they’re friendly enough and great fun to talk to, but where they actually work? Off limits and mysterious.
Except yesterday, when Richard Johnson, 2nd Assistant Engineer (and obvious stand-in for Gandalf’s jollier brother) gave a handful of us a tour.
Down the first flight of steps was the control room, full of big analog gauges, warning signs, massive circuit breakers and computers that believe it’s still 1993 so they don’t have to deal with Y2K. The control room has windows out into the generator area, filled with four truck-sized generators capable of putting out 4.5 megawatts for the ship’s various electrical needs. It’s loud enough there that, once we step through the door, the tour mostly consists of pointing and nodding. That area? It’s the machine shop. Those large, silver ducted things? They do something, but none of us can hear, and Richard knows it’s futile to try to explain over the noise.
Then down another flight of stairs to Level 2, where the really big machines are: four diesel engines putting out a combined 13,000 horsepower through honking big shafts that drive a pair of propellers over 13 feet in diameter.
Richard tells us, once we’re back in the relative quiet of the control room, that the ship holds about 425,000 gallons of diesel when full, and makes about 0.3 miles per gallon in cruise. Of course, that’s in cruise. One day, he says, they burned 6000 gallons just to get 12 miles of ice (that’s 0.002 mpg – one gallon for every 10 feet – for those of you without a calculator). So while we’re doing important work for scientific conservation, it’s not without a measured and closely watched cost.
We get to ask more questions – hours between engine overhauls (50,000) and capacity of the freshwater generators (book says 15,000 gallons per day; in practice they get more like 5000) – and then it’s time to ascend to the surface and resume life among the mortals, our lives enriched by a deeper understanding of the magic going on below our feet.
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