When the heavy-duty icebreaker Polar Star pulls away from the Coast Guard pier in Seattle this month, it will mark the first time the 36-year-old ship has left port in more than six years. With rebuilt engines, a revamped propeller system, and three new cranes, the Polar Star is emerging from a $60 million renovation intended to extend its operational life by seven to 10 years.
Several months will be devoted to sea trials. Then, next fall, the ship will embark for the annual resupply of Antarctica's McMurdo science station, a job that has been outsourced to leased Russian and Swedish ships for the past six years. Until a few years ago, the U.S. had two icebreakers capable of tackling such thick ice: the Polar Star and its sister ship, the Polar Sea. Both were commissioned in the 1970s, with an expected life span of 30 years. In 2006 budget cuts forced the Polar Star into a soft retirement. Then, in 2010, the Polar Sea suffered a catastrophic engine failure. The crippled ship was laid up in Seattle, its parts soon cannibalized as Polar Star replacements and spares. Today the Polar Sea is in "inactive" status, most likely destined for the scrap yard.( Collapse )