Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 18 July 2007: Ancient Memorials for Modern Space Explorers

By SpaceRef Editor
August 8, 2007
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright 2007

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The location of the Challenger inukshuk before construction began
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Hauling rocks to the construction site
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Matt Reyes adjusts inukshuk structure
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Keith Cowing and Leroy Chiao building the inukshuk
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Jarloo Kiguktak and Leroy Chiao building the inukshuk
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Memorial inukshuk to the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger constructed on 18 July 2007
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Triple sealed container with memorial items, notes, patches, etc.
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Joseph Atchealak in front of the Challenger inukshuk
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Left to Right – the Challenger inukshuk construction crew: Matt Reyes, Keith Cowing, Star Amarualik, Leroy Chiao, Joseph Atchealak, Jesse Weaver, Ben Audaluk, Jarloo Kiguktak
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Joseph Atchealak holding a Challenger Center banner in front of the Challenger inukshuk
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QuickTime VR from the exact location of the Challenger inukshuk looking outward
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Twin inukshuks. On the left is the new Challenger Inukshuk on the right is the memorial to the Columbia crew and astronaut Michael Anderson which was erected in 2003.

Today was supposed to have been our third live webcast to Challenger Learning Centers across the U.S. However, just as we were testing the satellite link, it died. After some hours of trying to figure out what went wrong, I decided to switch my team’s attention to our other main task while on Devon Island.

In addition to doing our webcasts, the other main task we had was the building of a memorial inukshuk to the crew of Space Shuttle Challenger. An inukshuk is stone structure built by the Inuit to mark a specific location – for a variety of reasons. Some times they are marking a navigation point. Other times, a good place for hunting. Some times it is a doorway through which a shaman would pass as part of a religious ritual. Other times, who knows – they thought the place was worth marking.

Inukshuks can be found all over the Canadian arctic. Properly constructed they can last immense periods of time. The one reliable way to date them is to look at the lichen that eventually starts to cover an inukshuk’s upper surfaces. The lichen end up on these structures as the result of birds and the nutrients they leave behind in their droppings. It takes quite some time for these lichens to grow, so seeing an inukshuk with a good coating of lichen is a certain indicator of great antiquity.

Over the past years, the participants at the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) have adopted this Inuit tradition – specifically to honor individuals who have given their lives in the pursuit of space exploration. It is hard not to think of the Inuit and their culture since the HMP has made a pointed effort to be involved with – and relevant to – our hosts in this part of the world.

When you come up here to Devon Island, so very far away from life further south, you tend to think that anyone living here where it is dark for months on end would be somehow cut off from the life you live. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is satellite TV, telephones, the Internet, commerce, visitors, and music – everything we take for granted much further south. Yes, things are Spartan, to be sure, but people here are not truly isolated.

That said, I was somewhat startled to see young Joseph Atchealak, the son of Jarloo Kiguktak sitting with a laptop deftly typing away on a variety of applications. Yet the connectedness with the rest of the planet really struck the other day when we were all out on a traverse and Joseph asked to have a picture taken with his father and Leroy Chiao, the astronaut on our team. You could see it in Joseph’s face – this was an extraordinary honor for him.

Joseph and his family live in Grise Fiord (where his father is mayor) several hundred kilometers north of here. Indeed, Grise Fiord is the northernmost civilian community in North America. That is how far – how pervasive – the accomplishments of American – and other nation’s astronauts – are.

In 2003, shortly after the loss of Columbia, I came up with the idea of building an inukshuk to each of Columbia’s crew. The plan was enthusiastically endorsed by NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, the Head of the Space Shuttle and Space Station Program at the time, Bill Readdy, and Pascal Lee, the Principal Investigator of the HMP. As such I was rather upset when Bill Readdy, who would have comprised our fourth team member this year, had to cancel his participation at the last minute due to a medical issue.

Over the next year or so, inukshuks were established to all of Columbia’s crew. The most prominent of these inukshuks, one dedicated to astronaut Michael Anderson, can be seen on the northern horizon from the HMP Research Station. Although its intent was to honor one person, its size, and prominent location have allowed its significance to expand so as to also represent all of Columbia’s crew. The full story of that inukshuk’s construction is documented here and in William Fox’s excellent book “Driving on Mars“.

Earlier in the week Leroy, Matt, myself, Pascal, Joseph and Jarloo went out on an ATV traverse around Haughton Crater. At one point we stopped at Trinity Lake. Above this small, azure blue body of water, on a rise that overlooks a vast plain within the crater, is the inukshuk built to honor Kalpana Chawla.

Leroy and I hiked up to this inukshuk while others explored the surrounding terrain. When we arrived I noticed that the top rocks of the inukshuk had fallen off of the inukshuk – or had been knocked off. I placed them back in their original positions and steadied a few others at the same time.

We both paused to look silently out at the impressive vista that lay before this inukshuk. It is vast and just draws you in. I don’t know exactly what prompted me to break the silence, but I said to Leroy “this is a good place”. He agreed.

Earlier in the day we had also stopped at the inukshuk that is visible from HMP base camp – the one honoring Michael Anderson. The trip to this location is rather short – perhaps 4 kilometers. By ATV it is only a few minutes across the large plain that has been named “Von Braun Planitia”.

Standing back at base camp, using binoculars – and the naked eye – it was clear to me that the place to build a memorial to Columbia’s sister ship Challenger was on a small rise of nearly identical size to the right (as viewed from base camp).

Now, as we walked over to that empty rise perhaps 100 meters from the Anderson inukshuk it was clear that this would be an excellent location indeed. Once again I said to Leroy “this is a good place”. I don’t know if I was subconsciously parroting back something a Native American said in some TV show or speaking spontaneously. Either way my words were well chosen. This was indeed a good place – as are all inukshuk locations.

When we were here in 2003 we picked the small hill with the most rocks. This time we’d have to do a little hauling. Luckily the rocks around the Anderson inukshuk were abundant and it was a simple matter of using a hand truck – or simply carrying them. At one point the Inuit kids had a contest of sorts to find the best head for the inukshuk.

The base for this inukshuk – as was the case for its twin nearby – was a piece of a coral reef hundreds of millions of years old. Fossils were to be seen everywhere. Perfectly flat, it would make a good staring point.

As we built the structure, I used the Anderson inukshuk as a guide. While we were putting stones in place, Jarloo and I sort of assumed the role of main stone placers. I have done a lot of stonework over the years – as anyone who visits my house can attest to.

As we placed the stones, I commented on learning how to build these inukshuks from another Inuit, Joe Amaraulik. Jarloo smiled and said that he had never built one quite this big and that this was a new experience for him. This was interesting, I guess I assumed in my naivete that all Inuit built inukshuks. Here I was teaching a prominent Inuit how to build one – passing information handed to me previously by another Inuit. I had certainly not expected that to happen.

There is something evocative about inukshuks. In many ways they are the easiest way I can think of to build a marker that either looks human or does not look artificial. Once you’ve built one, you more or less know how to build another.

Indeed, many inukshuks are built much more simply – more minimalistic than the ones we have been building on Devon Island. Some of the most dramatic are composed of a small collection of carefully chosen stones.

In 2003, several months after we built the Anderson inukshuk I was sorting through several tons of rock I had just had dumped in my driveway. I was doing some path and wall construction so I needed to sort through the delivery for the right rocks needed for specific applications.

At one point I ran out of room so I started to stack the rocks according to shape/size. If you recall the mashed potatoes scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” then you know where I am heading.

After a few minutes I noticed that I had subconsciously built more than half of an inukshuk in my driveway. So I finished it, took a picture, and sent it off to some fellow Devon Island veterans. Suffice it to say they thought it was funny – and odd that I would do such a thing.

There is something very primal about building a stone edifice in a geographic location that sets itself apart from the terrain. Its almost if you were completing what someone else had started.

Building the Anderson inukshuk in 2003 was an experience that riveted itself into my psyche – the place, the people, and the purpose – all combined to make one of those moments you just cannot forget. On that day it was cold and snowy so we did not loiter too much – and focused on piling the rocks, saying a few words, and leaving.

Today, we were blessed with yet another stunning day – as has been the case throughout our stay. The clear blue arctic sky was broken only by immense high altitude clouds that only served to enhance the sheer grandeur of the place.

In less than an hour, we were done.

As was the case with all other inukshuks, we were placing some materials in a watertight container that pertained to those we sought to honor. In this case, I had brought the crew’s official NASA biographies, their mission patch, a description of their mission, and a group photo. As I placed these items in the box I explained all of them to the Inuit students and others who had helped build the inukshuk.

I also tossed in a patch from the Explorers Club that Leroy and I were representing. I then pulled out a bag with several other items – of special value – family mementos of the commander of Challenger.

A week prior to my departure I got a call from June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger’s commander Dick Scobee. Bill Readdy is on the Challenger Center for Space Science Education’s board. June is the Founding Chairman. She was thrilled with what we were doing and asked if we’d like to place a few mementos in the inukshuk. She then described what she was sending.

A day or so later a package arrived. As I opened it I told my wife, with a bit of a tear in my eye, “this is history”. I had been sent one of the few items Dick Scobee had left in his briefcase when he took off for his last mission: a business card and a mission lapel pin. I am certain that his family has so little in the way of such items. As such I was really honored that the family had chosen this inukshuk we planned to build on Devon Island, as the place where such precious items would rest.

I explained these items as well as I placed them in the inukshuk – and read the card that June Scobee Rogers had included – in it she said: “Looks like we share similar missions – inspiring, exploring, learning”. [Video]

I placed that card in the container, sealed it up and placed it at the base of the inukshuk. Most of the Inuit kids remembered the loss of Columbia. None of them remembered the loss of Challenger since it had happened a decade or more before their birth. So, I explained each and every item to them – and passed the business card and lapel pin around for them to see.

Then it was time for photos. Before we took a group photo I wanted to get some photos of the inukshuk by itself. As it happened, spunky little Joseph Atchealak was standing in frame. Some amazing images resulted. So I just handed him the Challenger Center banner we were carrying and asked him to pose in front of the inukshuk. He did a splendid job. At one point the wind was strong enough that it pressed the banner against Joseph such that he could let go and spread his arms – just like the inukshuk.

We then posed together as a group using my camera’s timer. In addition to the Challenger banner we also pulled out the numbered flag we had been carrying from the Explorers club. This flag had been to wild places all over the Earth since 1960. Antarctica, the arctic, jungles, even NASA’s underwater NEEMO 9 mission.

After we took the photos it was time to head back to base camp. As we headed out Pascal Lee radioed that he and Christian Otto, our camp doctor, were headed out. With some time to kill until they arrived, we all just sat around. I used the time to go over to the Anderson inukshuk and complete some unfinished business.

When I was last here I took some small stones with me from the base of the inukshuk. I gave one to Sean O’Keefe and another was presented by Bill Readdy to the family of Michael Anderson at the dedication of a statue in his honor. Another small stone stayed with me as I traveled several times to Kennedy Space Center.

As I put he stone back at the base of Michael Anderson’s inukshuk I noted that this rock had been back to the place where Anderson had left this planet and had now been returned here – completing an improbable journey of its own.

Pascal and Christian arrived and were immediately taken a back at the two twin inukshuks that now greeted them. Pascal told us that people in base camp had been watching us through binoculars. Matt Deans from NASA Ames Research Center even got some photos. After we shot some more photos we all headed back to the ATVs and drove back to Base Camp.

When we returned and looked out at the horizon the view was stunning. Not only did there now seem to be some symmetry on the horizon, but late in the day with the sun moving north these two rises looked for all the world like so-called “Twin Peaks” that stand above the landscape at the Mars Pathfinder landing site.

To me this had an additional significance. After Columbia landed at Edwards Air Force Base after the STS-4 mission on 12 July 1982, Challenger was rolled out on the tarmac atop a 747 such that both shuttles were seen together. I was there. The crowd went crazy. Now, a quarter century later – almost exactly to the day – both ships now lost, their memorials sit side by side on the horizon of a remote research base where people figure out how to live and work on the Moon and Mars.

Building memorials to lost comrades is as old as humanity. Humans have been looking at special places and building evocative monuments – often of great complexity and utility back to the era of Stonehenge – and perhaps earlier. So there was something primal – transcendent – about building these ancient structures to honor people whose job entailed trips above the sky.

In remote places – such as high peaks and at the poles, explorers in the past several centuries have traditions that call for – indeed, almost demand – that fallen comrades be honored with a stone structure – sometimes referred to as a “cairn”. In the Himalayas you will find many built to honor climbers who were lost during climbs. I came across several in my rock climbing days in honor of climbers who died on a particular climb.

Often times, team members will return to these places – sometimes many years hence – to place bronze plaques to make the cairn – or memorial – more permanent. Other times, the makeshift markers that were originally put in place made from things such as hammered camping dishes or fuel cans – are left as markers. Their aging and weathering seen as part of the natural processes that shape these special places that exert such a draw upon people.

People visiting these markers often leave notes or mementos of their own. It has been said that Inuit visitors to inukshuks would often place small stones of their own into the structure as if to confer and affirm the special nature of the place – and the inukshuk.

I have had the great fortune to visit Devon Island three times. I am not certain if I will ever get that chance again. That said, I feel I have completed a circle of sorts – not only did I come back to complete the horizon, so to speak, I helped to balance something in some people’s minds.

All too often these two shuttle crews are compared for the wrong reasons: what went wrong with their spacecraft and who was to blame. It is this that lingers – and manages to find its way appended to almost every story about NASA wherein some new problem has arisen.

What always seems to suffer as a result as we look back is who these people were – what they were doing, why they did it, and what legacy they leave behind for us to utilize – and build upon. Hopefully we will recall that they confronted danger with determination – and that courage can find its way into the minds of future generations – as it clearly did with at least one young Inuit boy who lives less than a thousand miles from the North Pole.

As for these stone inukshuks, you may ask what value a bunch of piled rocks, mission patches, and printed items have. Of those people around the world who have followed these activities on Devon Island and have learned of these inukshuks – some have drawn inspiration. Those of us who visit here can draw inspiration from visiting them – and see them on the horizon every day as we go about our work.

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An inukshuk on Mars?

To the friends and families of these lost space travelers, these inukshuks offer a silent thank you – one amplified by the austere remoteness of this place – a remoteness you have to spend a lot of effort to visit. Right now, space travel is just like that. Hopefully that will change one day.

Lots of people speculate these days (often to score a transient political point) about what nation the next person to stand on the moon will be from – or what flag or logo the first person to stand on Mars will wear on their spacesuit.

Who knows. Perhaps one of those future explorers will be an Inuit.

Hmmm … inukshuks on Mars ….


Upon arriving home, I learned from Bill Readdy that there was going to be an event at the Challenger Center facility in Alexandria Virginia during the STS-118 shuttle mission which would fly Barbara Morgan, the back up for Challenger crewmember and teacher, Christa McAuliffe. I will be bringing the banner Joseph held- and we all signed, a collection of small rocks from the base of the inukshuk, pictures – and I hope, some words that will be fitting. I also intend to wear my boots – which I have made a point of not cleaning since I left Devon Island. You can still see the grey dust on them.

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

SpaceRef staff editor.