Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal - 20-22 July 2007: The Persistence of Memory


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QuickTime VR panorama of HMPRS taken from the north central portion of base camp between the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse and the rest of the HMPRS
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QuickTime VR panorama of HMPRS taken from due north on Von Braun Planitia
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A stripped down mule arrives from Resolute Bay via helo
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Jesse examines his latest project
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Jesse puts the final touches on the reassembled Mule
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Inside the "Hub" or "Core" of HMPRS where Matt, Leroy, and I worked for a week
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Diesel generator on the road from Base Camp to the airstrip
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Pete Worden steps off of a Twin Otter on Devon Island
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Keith Cowing, sitting aboard a Twin Otter, prepares for the long journey home from Devon Island
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QuickTime video of our departure from Devon Island aboard a Twin Otter
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The dust kicked up by our departure from Devon Island floats over Base Camp
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Keith Cowing and Leroy Chiao enjoying the ride south in a Hawker Siddeley HS-748
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Matt Reyes huddling with his computer
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A familiar scene out the window
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Egypt's Lake Nasser, as photographed by Leroy Chiao from orbit
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Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) from "2001" - strikes me as a scotch drinker.
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Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider) from "2010" - I can see him with a martini.
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Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), a prototype of today's eco-warrior from the film "Silent Running" - a white wine drinker - for certain
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My luggage at the baggage claim at Dulles

20 July 2007

Friday was a day much like all of the others we experienced here on Devon Island. We awoke to a cool, brisk morning with bright sunshine and painfully blue skies. The walk down from Tent City - the small enclave west of base camp where everyone pitches their tents - to the main base camp was routine. Routine except for the fact that this would be the last time I make the trip (unless I return in the future).

Given the communications problems we've had, we had to change our plans and cancel our remaining live webcasts. We did manage to get two out and the students at the dozen or so Challenger centers who saw them seem to have had a great time participating. At this point the cause(s) of the comms problems are not certain - but it seems that the problems lie with people and systems back in the real world - not with us up here. Still, when it does to work, it does not work.

This left us with some extra time on our last days here. Our flight out (and back to Resolute Bay) is due in this evening around 5:00 pm. Coming in aboard the plane we will depart on is NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) Director Pete Worden. Pete is arriving for a week's survey of Devon Island and all of the research that goes on here. Much of what goes on here is the result of people at ARC or institutions affiliated with ARC. One of the main things he'll be observing are the twin K10 rovers that are being put through their paces.

After the morning's breakfast, Matt, Leroy and I started to pack up. As we did the abundance of fine powered clay dust became apparent. I had to beat several articles of clothing against the outside of the building to decrease what I'd be bringing in back with me. It helped - a bit. I also noticed that virtually every surface had a gritty feel to it. I can't wait to clean my electronics and optics when I get home.

Part of this packing process included making sure we swapped photos, videos, etc. We also had a series of farewell photos to take with our fellow HMP participants. One of the most unusual photos was taken of a bunch of us out behind base camp. The photo was taken by a K10 rover using its LIDAR. We all arrayed in a pie shaped formation in from of the rover, and at my suggestion, we all struck an inukshuk pose - arms out, legs wide.

When the K10 wizards processed the image later you could clearly see all of us - ghostly images superimposed on a Google Earth satellite image of base camp. LIDAR images can be eerie - the best way I can describe them is that they look like those Elvis paintings on black velvet - but they are 3D and can be zoomed into and out of.

All too soon we got word that the plane was in bound. Everything we still had out had was pushed into bags that seemed to be smaller than they were when we arrived.

Jesse came by with the new Kawasaki Mule (sort of an ATV truck) that had been airlifted in the other day from Resolute. Leroy and I threw our luggage into the trailer. Leroy got in the front seat while I sat in the truck's back bed. I quickly stood up when I discovered that the gravel was actually wet - it was destined for a stove installation at one of the communications tent. So, I held on and I stood up for the short ride. Although I was facing backwards I still got a face full of dust. But it was nice to watch the base camp recede as I left.

Matt followed a few minutes later sitting on another ATV as a passenger and was covered in a fine dust coating like a frosted donut. By now the three of us all had a dusty coating over all of or stuff and our clothing. We all also had a classic arctic explorer's tan on our faces - an "inverse panda" look I called it. If you were wearing sunglasses (you have to) then the rest of your face - even with sunscreen - took the brunt of the fierce UV we get up here. Not only does it come directly at you from he sky, but it also reflects back up off of the bright ground, ice, and snow.

The local Inuit share the tanning pattern but it is much deeper. People my own age often look much older than I do. Even little Joseph had a tan that reflected his clothing - his neck, head, and hands below the wrist were a deep chestnut brown.

Dusty and tanned, we all waited to board the Twin Otter for the ride home. Right on schedule it dropped out of the sky onto the runway and kicked up a massive dust cloud. The plane stopped quickly, swung around and came back to where we were waiting.

NASA Ames Research Center Director Pete Worden jumped off. and despite a travel jam in Chicago, looked like he was eager to get started with his Devon Island tasks immediately. After the ceremonial farewell, where first timers got official HMP patches, we all boarded our Twin Otter. After a few minutes the engines came alive and we jumped up into the blue arctic sky.

While the trip to Devon Island last week turned into a sightseeing, picture taking frenzy, the flight out was mostly people leaning back in their seats or outright sleeping. I stayed awake - and took maybe one or two photos, using the time instead to drink in the marvelous yet desolate landscape that rolled away under me as we headed for Resolute Bay.

As we crossed Lancaster sound, the small stretch of water that separates Devon Island from Cornwallis Island (where Resolute Bay is) I thought back to the expeditions of previous centuries who saw these waters below as obstacles to be navigated and often conquered and equally often not. Giving one's life in such pursuits was not only unexpected, it was common.

And it was through such dogged determination that we eventually conquered the arctic. Or did we? While western explorers saw these places or the first time, they were not unfamiliar places to human eyes. The times when I have helped construct inukshuks or participate in naming places, I have often seen an Inuit person smile a little. If I ask they will be very polite about things, and agree that the name is appropriate. They will note that they don't really have a problem with others naming things - since these places really do not have names or have been named again and again over time with each appellation eventually lost to time.

What we are doing may seem like a permanent designation, but one day the names of those who visited this place and the things they named may be long forgotten. Hopefully places elsewhere - on other worlds - may bear names that resonate with Devon Island. All place naming is derivative in one way or another.

Yet curiously, if properly constructed, inukshuks can last centuries - even millennia. Some inukshuks mark places. Others note hunting areas, and others have religious connotations. And while the specific purpose for their construction - in our case to honor dead space travelers, may be lost, what will remain is the fact that some humans stopped here, for some important reason, to mark this place. As such, the importance will persist so long as there are people to visit these places.

We landed at what seemed to be an abandoned airstrip - i.e. Resolute Bay airport. No one was around. Not at all unusual. Dozens of buildings, some without roofs, many with 50's era military green paint (now flaking) flanked the runway. A few minutes later a guy in a pick up truck dropped off our now khaki coated luggage outside the terminal's main door. A few moments later the Co-op's van came to collect us and take us to showers and a warm meal.

21 July 2007

As was the case on Devon Island we worked late. The constant sunlight acting as a mental prompt that it was still early. All too soon it was time to get up. As we were eating breakfast we got a phone call urging us to get out to the airport. A weather front was moving in and First Air was going to try and get the flight out early if at all possible.

We heaved our luggage into the van and headed for the airport. The flight was packed full. Our Hawker Siddeley HS-748 turboprop (built in the late 1950's) was cramped but it did the trick. As we sped down the runway, I nudged Leroy Chiao to look at the windsock. We had cross winds that were a perfect 90 degrees to the runway. No matter. The plane just pushed its way aloft.

But being short is a help. Once we were airborne Leroy and I were able to get our Mac laptops out and actually get some work done.

At one point as I looked out the window I saw something familiar. It was the way that the sunlight was glinting off of rivers below us and the color of the surrounding terrain. But why was it familiar? It only took me a minute or so and then I realized that the familiarity originated with the image on my laptop I used as wallpaper - a photo of Egypt taken from Space. Leroy took it while he was aboard the International Space Station. I took some photos of the land below, showed them to Leroy and pointed to my laptop. He smiled and got the message.

Other than that, the trip south was now familiar and was uneventful. As we arrived at Ottawa our dusty luggage began to emerge from the carousel. As we pushed our overloaded carts out for a taxi we got ugly stares from the taxi drivers.

As I stood and waited one thing caught my eye: bright red/purple petunias. For the past week the only colors we often saw - even in Iqualuit - were people's clothing or possessions. On my previous two trips, I had been on Devon Island for a month. This time it was only a week. I had been away long enough to notice things but not long enough to find them odd.

After my first trip home - which was later in the day, I was startled by the concept of darkness. This time, as the taxi headed to the hotel at 8:20 pm EDT, I caught myself wondering why it was so late - since the sun was at a point in the sky you'd expect at 2:00 am on Devon Island. Then it hit me: I am in Ottawa.

After getting cleaned up Leroy, Matt, and I went out to meet up with other HMP folks at the Mercury Lounge. As we walked through the night we all got reacquainted with darkness. We soon met up with our friends and made our way into the bar. Of course, with my 50-year-old ears I cannot really understand human speech in an environment like this. So I sipped my martinis (two of them) slowly. Each one is named after a planet. I stared with Pluto (to make a point) and moved onto Neptune.

At one point I looked at the drink menu. The club is run by an International Space University graduate - hence the space theme. In addition to planet-themed drinks, there were also several named after individuals from Sci-Fi movies. Indeed, to my pleasant surprise, there was "Freeman Lowell" drink (from the film "Silent Running" I mentioned here) and also a "Heywood Floyd" drink. (I was not certain if it was crafted to emulate the actor William Sylvestor who portrayed Floyd in from "2001 A Space Odyssey" or Roy Scheider who played the part in the sequel "2010: The Year We Make Contact". None the less, I was in good company.

After a few hours of loud music, Leroy and I decided to call it an early night. We stopped at a McDonalds so Leroy could fuel up. As I sat there waiting for him to be served, all of Ottawa's youth seemed to walk into the place. I guess something had just let out. Leroy just stood there patiently.

I got to thinking ... here is a space traveler and he is jut as patient as anyone else might be (perhaps a little extra patient) as he waits for his burger and fries. I am the only person in the room who knows that he once commanded the International Space station since you'd certainly have no way to tell that from his behavior or appearance. What would people say if they suddenly discovered who was in their midst? Would they believe it? Would they even care if they knew who he was?

All in all, it has been a strange 24 hours as we jumped from a remote arctic island, sun burnt and coated in dust to downtown Ottawa where we were waiting for fast food after an hour or too in a bar with a lightshow and loud (but very good) music. Contrast that to Leroy's trip home in a Soyuz from ISS where he found himself going from space to the steppes of Kazakhstan in a matter of hours. Leroy chuckled when I mentioned the analogy.

The juxtaposition in such instances is fleeting - but it is fun to experience nonetheless. And although it fades, a little bit of it always stays with you - although it is fun to refresh the experience on a regular basis! In the end it just serves to heighten the lingering impression one gets when traveling to such a unique and remote place as Devon Island or outer space - something far too many people get to experience.

22 July 2007

The next morning I made my way - alone - to the Ottawa airport. After getting hit up (again) for heavy luggage charge, I waited for my flight. Soon enough I was on the plane and asleep within minutes. I awoke again as we were dropping our gear at Dulles. Shortly thereafter I was home.

I had hoped to immediately begin the typing of my diaries when I got home - but a visit from my business partner Marc Boucher on short notice and then the drunken astronaut hoopla more or less drained my week of free time.

Suffice it to say, I was already adapted to the real world by the time I got home. Not so the first time I did this - or the second time, for that matter. This time, I missed that jarring readaptation since it only served to underscore where I had been and what I had done. Taking a day or two to be half here and half there was fun.

Now, although the gap is four years since my last visit, such an improbable trip is now apparently routine.

Hmmm... that in and of itself is almost as interesting ...


About Devon Island, The Haughton-Mars Project, and the Mars Institute

The Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) is an international interdisciplinary field research project centered on the scientific study of the Haughton impact structure and surrounding terrain, Devon Island, high arctic, viewed as a terrestrial analog for Mars. The rocky polar desert setting, geologic features and biological attributes of the site offer unique insights into the possible evolution of Mars - in particular the history of water and of past climates on Mars, the effects of impacts on Earth and on other planets, and the possibilities and limits of life in extreme environments. In parallel with its science program, the HMP supports an exploration program aimed at developing new technologies, strategies, humans factors experience, and field-based operational know-how key to planning the future exploration of the Moon, Mars and other planets by robots and humans. The HMP managed jointly by the Mars Instituteand by the SETI Institute.

Keith Cowing's 2007 Devon Island Journals

10 July 2007: Back to the Arctic
11 July 2007: Heading North
12 July 2007: Dropping Onto Devon Island
13 July 2007: Teaching About Roses on Mars
14 July 2007: Using an iPhone on Mars
15 July 2007: Surreal Landscapes and Late Evening Thoughts
16-17 July 2007: Webcasts, Robots, Astronauts, and Dogs
18 July 2007: Ancient Memorials for Modern Space Explorers
19 July 2007: Sheer Audacity
20-22 July 2007: The Persistence of Memory
27 July 2007: Polar Deserts and Global TV

Keith Cowing's 2003 Devon Island Journals

17 Jun 2003: Preface: Moving from Green to Grey
3 Jul 2003: Waiting in Resolute
3-5 July 2003: Arrival and Getting to Work
6 July 2003: Getting in the Groove
7 July 2003: Part 1: Being here - and being there.
7 July 2003: Part 2: Getting Out of Base Camp
8 July 2003: Infrastructure
9 July 2003: Re-connected; Planting Seeds
17 July 2003: Rover Arrival
18 July 2003: Wind
19 July 2003: Illness, Good Food, and Morale
20 July 2003: Arctic Memorials and Starship Yearnings
20 July 2003: Going Home
21 July 2003: Departure - and One Last Dedication
24 July 2003: 24 July 2003: Homeward Bound - In Slow Motion
26 August 2003: Home +30

Keith Cowing's 2002 Devon Island Journals

8 Jul 2002: Arrival
9 Jul 2002: Getting acquainted - and down to work
10 Jul 2002: Mars carpentry
11 Jul 2002: Lexan Kites, shotguns, and Driver's Ed
12 Jul 2002: Building and exploring
13-15 Jul 2002: Building a Mars greenhouse on Earth
16 Jul 2002: Sealing Greenhouses on Earth - and Mars; 6 Wheeled Rovers
17 Jul 2002: Greenhouse Dedication, Fishing, and Mystery Food
18 Jul 2002: Giving Blood, Eternal Light, and an Evening Commute
19 Jul 2002: The Hottest Place on Devon Island, T-shirts, a Star Trek hello
20 Jul 2002: Mars Airplanes and Communicating With Earth
21 Jul 2002: Visiting ministers, missing 'green', and crater tours
22 Jul 2002: The hottest place on Devon Island
23 Jul 2002: Farewells, Birthdays, and Bartering
24 Jul 2002: EVAs, movies - and 'being here'
25 Jul 2002: Russian TV, webcam privacy, and being on Mars for a few minutes
26 Jul 2002: Cold Feet, Chocolate, and Home Cooking
27 Jul 2002: Anchors and anemometers
28 Jul 2002: Drilling into permafrost; leaving footprints for eternity
29 Jul 2002: Showering near the North Pole; one last look around
30 Jul 2002: Departure and arrival
31 Jul 2002: Culture shock and flight delays
1 Aug 2002: Departure into darkness
2 Aug 2002: Green overdose; home at last
2 Sep 2002: Home +30

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