Keith Cowing's Devon Island Journal - 23 July 2002: Farewells, birthdays, and bartering


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    As midnight approaches, the sun shines through the greenhouse

    The best light of the day comes just as it is time to sleep. The greenhouse and The Fortress at midnight.

    Ginger Howell cuts birthday cake

    HMP team members await their slice of cake
    Marc Boucher departed from Devon Island today for Resolute. The NASA Ames Airplane team left as well. Hopefully, Marc will catch his flight from Resolute to Ottawa Wednesday morning, and then fly from Ottawa to Victoria and arrive home on Thursday evening. Once he is back home he will be able to offload some of our collective website responsibilities from me.

    As we pulled Marc's tent down I was presented with the secret of his sleeping success: a 2 inch thick foam mattress he managed to appropriate for himself from the HMP supplies at the Polar Shelf storage facility in Resolute. He did this when he arrived with the first team members several weeks ago. I was already sleeping comfortably. Henceforth, with this additional padding, nights became downright luxurious. Note to self: next year make sure to get one of these.

    As the departing members of our team prepared to board, those who were making their first visit to Devon Island were awarded an official HMP patch. The crew closed the hatches, started up the engines, and turned to head down the runway. I sat on my ATV and watched as the plane prepared to take off. The plane jumped into the air and swung back around to the southwest to head off of the island. As is always the case, there was a contingent of the HMP team at the runway - and we waved farewell as the plane roared overhead.

    As I rode the ATV down the hill back to Base Camp, I gave thought to my experiences here thus far. There is a subjective time dilation effect at work now in my head. I have been here for two weeks. Curiously, I can throttle my mind's time frame of this experience to make time move slowly - or move fast. I can easily tell myself that I have been here for months - or a few days. The frames of reference are all different. There is no night to separate the days - and we've already had several groups of people arrive and then leave. On one hand I have adapted easily to life here. Yet on the other hand there are some things about this place that have led to a curious alteration in my perceptions.

    Quicktime panorama: Base Camp 21 July 2002. 270 degree pan. This was taken a few feet SW of Base Camp. R-L: The Fortress, Mess Tent, Office Tent, Greenhouse, Tent City, Latrine Tent.[Download]

    [Get Quicktime]

    The nature of this place is such that you make instant friends - and enjoy their company. When they leave, new folks arrive and the process starts all over again. Factor this in with a hectic schedule, out of kilter circadian rhythms and light cues, a new type of weather every day, and everything seems curiously distorted. But you get used to it. Indeed, I rather enjoy the experience.

    We celebrated two birthdays today - for dual Brians: Brian Crucian, from Wylie Laboratories and NASA Johnson Space Center, and Brian Glass, from NASA Ames Research Center. Marking birthdays in a remote location such as ours gives everyone a chance to stop what they are doing for a few minutes and have some fun. It also allows people to reconnect with their lives back in the real world.

    Ginger Howell, our camp cook managed to create a cake for the occasion. Brian Glass' sister Vicki, a paramedic from Atlanta (and ace greenhouse carpenter), had been here for a tour of duty a week ago and had left a surprise birthday package for Brian. Unfortunately, due to changes in flight schedules they missed each other by less than 24 hours as Vicki departed and Brian arrived.

    If you read through the letters that current ISS astronauts send home, you'll see that the marking of such occasions aboard current space missions serves a similarly important purpose. According to a recent letter from space by Expedition 5 crew member Peggy Whitson:

    "On the ground there is a group that provides psychological support to us before, during and after the mission. They are the ones that arrange for us to get news, photos, movies etc. We knew that Sergey would be having a birthday on orbit, so they arranged to send up "happy birthday" banners, kazoos, a singing candle, party hats and cupcakes on the Progress vehicle that arrived in June. I had stashed all of this away, and got it out to make Sergey's birthday on orbit unusual, if not special."

    As much as we try to maintain some sort of regular link with family and friends back home, some things are just plain different here.

    I noticed something odd today. It may not seem like much. I stuck my hand in my pocket looking for my wallet. I needed my Amex card to renew an Internet domain online. No luck. Momentary reflexive panic ensued. My thought process went something like this: "Oh no - I've lost my wallet. Wait a minute; my wallet is in my tent with my passport, house key, and cell phone. It has been there for two weeks. I haven't bought anything for several weeks. I won't need to pay for anything for another week. The domain can be renewed when I get home."

    Again, this may sound trivial, but it was rather weird to be in such a predicament - I don't think this has been the case for me in decades. There won't be any money on Mars - at least not for the first visitors.

    While there are a lot of transactions here, they are of a rather common sort: barter. Candy, sips of spirits, special gourmet foods - all are swapped. The intent, from my experience, was invariably for the donor of the item to be shared to initiate an offer to share something with the recipient.

    As mentioned earlier, birthdays are one of the largest sources of special foods and the distribution thereof. Indeed, Brian Glass would be stuffing me with birthday chocolate and sips of port late at night for a week after this.

    Given my experiences here, I can confidently predict that crews on Mars will bring things such as these with them so as to share them with others - not to use them for only their own enjoyment. Such occasions are very important: they allow all to share the uniqueness of this place - and their humanity in simultaneity.


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