Status Report

Moving parts – South Pole machinist has varied career in crime-fighting, crafting high-tech pieces

By SpaceRef Editor
July 18, 2009
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Moving parts – South Pole machinist has varied career in crime-fighting, crafting high-tech pieces

It seems only appropriate that a guy with the first name of Steele would work as a machinist during the winter here at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station External U.S. government site.

But Steele Diggles’ ability to “carve” metal into specialized machinery parts for high-tech telescopes isn’t the only thing about his background that stands out in a community known for its unique, well-traveled personalities. The University of Chicago grantee has also had a career that could be featured on television’s popular Crime Scene Investigation (CSI).

The native Australian originally dreamed of being a chef, but scrapped the idea after apprenticing at a restaurant while still in high school. His shattered illusions about the food industry eventually nudged him toward another apprenticeship, this time in Fitting and Turning, a four-year stint in what in America is called the craft of Machining.

A machinist uses machine tools to make or modify parts, primarily metal, although they can be made of other materials such as plastic or wood. The process is something like carving, where the tools are used to cut away excess materials, leaving the desired shape. At Pole, Steele works mostly with brass and aluminum, mainly the latter due to its strength and weight.

At the four-year juncture of his machinist career, Diggles decided he wanted to get into college, so he entered the University of Technology, Sydney, and took a degree in Applied Chemistry in Forensic Science. He joined the Australian Federal Police as a forensic chemist, analyzing and recording drug-related crimes, and then as an armourer, a position that had him servicing and maintaining firearms. After three years, he moved into the arena of forensic firearm investigation.

Australia has seven territories that come under the jurisdiction of the federal police, but the continent’s law enforcement also consults with surrounding, smaller countries without enough resources to investigate larger crimes. In addition to working homegrown cases of bank robberies and illicit firearms manufacturing, Diggles was part of a team that deployed to East Timor in early 2008 to investigate the assassination attempt on Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president who was shot several times.

The team compared the strata on the bullets removed from Ramos-Horta to others, a move commonly seen on CSI. Steele says there is a computerized system to compare projectiles, but in order to hold up in court, an expert like himself must examine the evidence manually.

Diggles’ machinist background and his forensics expertise helped him forge a new professional path. But after two years, he began to crave a change. He casually began to peruse the Internet for fresh opportunities. What he found was a job advertisement that read, “Machinist to Run a Small Shop in a Remote High Altitude Environment.”

As mysterious as it sounded, it didn’t take him long to trace the employer – SCOARA — to its full-length name, the Science Coordination Office for Astrophysical Research Antarctica . He wanted in.

Steele arrived at South Pole in February 2009, shortly before the last flight of the summer left. Subsequently, he says he’s become enamored of the South Pole.

His job consists of making parts for research equipment, such as telescopes that endure temperatures down to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. With no air traffic in or out of Pole for about eight months, any parts that malfunction can’t be replaced from the local Home Depot. Diggles is truly the one person standing between progress or shutdown of the project.

Additionally, he is in charge of crafting the annual South Pole geographic marker, a real honor, since it is a completely unique metal sculpture that marks the ever-shifting point of 90 degrees south throughout the upcoming year. South Pole Station sits on a moving ice sheet, so the geographic pole moves about 10 meters per year.

It’s tradition that the marker is designed by current winter-overs in a competition; several ideas are submitted, and residents vote on their favorite.

“It’s nice for them to be able to leave their mark here,” says Diggles, whose own design won the competition.

The South Pole marker tradition began in 1959, with simple engraved copper indicators. In recent years, the pieces have become more ornate and imaginative, made mostly from brass due to the metal’s luster and ability to weather the environment. Most retired markers are displayed in a glass case at the station, save for one that disappeared some years ago, the victim of a theft that has never been solved. Instead, a memorial photo sits in its place.

Diggles will work on the one-of-a-kind marker as time allows in the machinist’s studio in MAPO, the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory, a building named after one of the first astrophysicists to work at the South Pole.

Located in the dark sector about a kilometer from the main station, the building existed before the South Pole Telescope was built, and has served as home to DASI, a telescope that has since been retired and dismantled, as well as AMANDA, the precursor to the current IceCube Neutrino Observatory project.

Diggles says he loves the South Pole and wants to return to winter again in the near future. “The Antarctic continent and the South Pole, in particular, here at the bottom of the Earth, is an amazing place to work and be able to support science.”

By Michèle Gentille, South Pole correspondent

SpaceRef staff editor.