Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 20 July 2003: Going Home

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2003
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

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My home (once again) for three weeks
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The Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse after Summer 2003 upgrades.
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Keith standing atop “House Rock”, a large boulder located to the north of base camp
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Keith, sunburnt, with cold sores, suffering from dysentery, after a week under an intense arctic sun – with a little Ernest Hemingway grey stubble thrown in.
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Webcam image inside Science Tent 22:26 local time, 18 Jul 2003. Keith is on the left. Pascal Lee is on the right. Reddish tint is due to the color of the tent.
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Star Trek “Enterprise” logo placed inside greenhouse during summer 2002. Doing just fine a year later.
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The Fortress at midnight
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Keith’s sole arctic invention: boot warmers, placed on a laptop computer, can keep hands surprisingly warm.
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This view features a “barn door tracker” device assembled by astronaut Donald R. Pettit, Expedition 6 NASA ISS science officer, while onboard the ISS. The device is based on the fine gimbal movements in the IMAX camera mount for the Destiny laboratory window. A drill turns a screw, which moves the camera and its spotting scope.

While I have adapted (as I did last year) and could exist here for many weeks more, this year I really want to go home. Last year, this was a totally alien and exhilarating adventure from start to finish. I was here for a month last year and would have jumped at the chance to stay another month (my wife had other ideas, of course).

This year, the novelty was not here in comparable fashion – even if the grandeur and otherworldly nature of this was still ever present. Last year I was in charge of a construction project. This year I minimally oversaw others who know much more about their tasks than I do – and a science manager – a principal investigator – oversees all of the details in science that I oversaw as greenhouse assembly architect. In a word, I was not as busy.

Having Internet access here allows me to interact with the rest of the world in a fashion little different than the way I do back home. Of course, cold temperatures, and occasionally balky communications gear can make accessing thee Internet a bit more tedious and less reliable, but given the generally robust nature of our comm system, it ain’t much different than the real world. Of course, we all have to work to make the system operate.

Being one of the first into Base Camp this year I had the chance to help erect the satellite dish. Others have the chore of taking an ATV up to the top of the hill where the comm system is on a daily basis to make sure there is enough fuel in the generator that provides electricity to run things.

Again, my interactions with everyone back home remain more or less unchanged. However, being the editor of NASA Watch I have also had some rather curious email exchanges. When I say ‘curious’ I don’t mean to suggest that they are out of the ordinary. Rather that getting them here makes them – different. I am not going to go into any detail other than to say it was rather curious to be sitting here in a tent in a remote arctic desert next to a meteor impact crater between to have someone interject a wholly political topic by email. Instantaneously I am transported back “inside the beltway”. Weird. I jump into that mode without hesitation many times a day, add my thoughts, and click ‘send’. Then I would sit here for a second and realize just where the heck I am.

But I was not home. I am here, in a remote research base, where polar bears roam, and an ultra-thin veneer of technology is all that separates me from the same isolation that early polar explorers experienced over the centuries. Last year I was somewhat numbed by the novel collision of all of these things. This year, those things were expected. As such, they were more a series of hurdles to be endured. In a word, this year was certainly fun, for the most part, but somewhat tedious – more than I had expected.

As was the case last year, my wife and I used instant messenger for a couple’s expected trivialities. “The cat threw up here.” “I paid this bill.” “You look like you’ve lost weight.” “It rained again. I miss you.” “Can’t wait to get home.” “I crave Mango salsa and tandori chicken.” And so on.

To my right are several radios and a satellite phone. There is an Iridium phone in the next tent. Although these systems are all reserved for official use, in an emergency, I could easily dial my wife up and chat. I could have also used Internet telephone or Mac’s iChat to talk. But I didn’t. the Instant Messaging worked just fine. On a longer stay I would have probably found one way or another to call my wife. When I get back to Resolute that will be one of the very first things I do.

This year the software allowed me to paste in pictures I had just taken (“want to see my cold sores and sunburn?” I asked my wife) as well as a webcam which focused on me every moment I was in here. Since I am oblivious to TV cameras I just went about things as I would if there was no camera – just as I did last year. As such, my wife could see if I was busy, snoozing at my computer, cold, hot, yapping, busy, etc. Not much different in a way from peeking into my office at home. Is suspect that this mode of communication will be what crews on Mars will engage in with friends and family back home. Much less bandwidth is used, the exchanges are short (you don’t forget what you asked), and the conversation can continue even if there are long pauses between query and reply.

Note to self: reliable communication makes physical location irrelevant.

The Smallest Things

Last night I got a scare. Rain started to pelt the Science Tent. For the most part the tent is leak proof but after a few years the tent has managed to accrue its own set of holes. One hole was right over my computer. Splat and a drop got into the keyboard. One key stopped working. Of all the keys to be wiped out it was the letter “V”. I am a Mac user and that is the key along with another that you use to paste things. I pulled the keyboard out (extracting a piece of Huskie fur in the process) and dried things out as best I could. No joy. Oh well. I limped along. Later, the key started to work again (sigh).

This may not sound like much, but this was a major impediment to how I use this particular computer. I got to thinking: “new keyboard … how to get one”. What would I do on Mars? That answer is simple – I’d get another keyboard from somewhere else. But what if there was not one I could use. Could I reprogram another key to be V? Could I disassemble the keyboard, find a solvent that would get the water out? Curiously, I had this same problem – albeit a non-recoverable one – about 1 hour after Columbia disintegrated. I was posting stories furiously and I spilled a cup of coffee on my keyboard. I soon had a dead keyboard. Where to buy one? Long story short I got one nearby, raced home, installed the drivers, and I was ready for a press conference.

You need to use the tools at hand when things like this happen in a remote environment such as Devon Island. The undeniable reliability of your remoteness causes you to think of things that would not occur to you if you had some external source to rely upon. We had to do a lot of this on the spot thinking last year and again this year when we were assembling and outfitting the greenhouse.

When you are far away, the drive to a local electronics store just will not be an option. Nor will standard repair options. The more I think about it – based mostly on this trip – the more I realize that Mars explorers will need to be as comfortable with tinkering and repairing – if not more so, than the science officers and regular crew aboard the ISS. Expedition 6 Science Officer Don Petit and his ability to make things up out of things that are floating around is a perfect example of the skill mix that will be required.

Indeed, watching episodes of “McGuiver” would be useful as well.

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