Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 24 Jul 2002: EVAs, movies – and ‘being here’

By SpaceRef Editor
July 24, 2002
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2002/SpaceRef

Arrival in Pete Conrad Valley

Jaret Matthews makes initial suit checks

Jaret callibrating heads up display

Jaret heads up the side of the valley to a rock outcropping

Jaret uses digital camera on geologist’s staff to image rockface

Keith enjoying the cold, crappy weather

This afternoon several of us went out on a short excursion just outside of Base Camp. The purpose was to do a field test of some of the advanced communication hardware that spacesuit manufacturer Hamilton Sunstrand has brought up to Devon Island. The hardware was located in the upper torso of a concept Mars spacesuit Hamilton Sunstrand has developed. This research is being supported this year by a generous grant from the National Space Society.

If you follow the ATV road that leads west out of camp (through “Tent City” where all of our personal tents are) you encounter a canyon that leads off in a southwesterly direction. This is “Pete Conrad Valley” – named after astronaut Pete Conrad who died far too young in a motorcycle accident several summers ago.

Pete Conrad was the third person to walk on the moon. Some of the more memorable images from his Apollo 12 mission included his inspection of the Surveyor 3 lander that had landed several years previous to the Apollo 12 mission. Conrad and his partner Alan Bean managed to land only a few hundred meters from Surveyor’s landing site. This was quite a feat of pinpoint landing – especially given that this was only the second manned landing.

Later in life Conrad would emerge as somewhat of an underground hero of the alternate access to space crowd when he served as pilot by remote control of McDonnell-Douglas’ DC-X experimental test bed. A reporter friend of mine once told me how he went looking for Conrad to do an interview. Several people said “over there” and then ” over there”. He soon came across a short guy wearing a baseball cap in a hangar filled with old parts fooling around with a laptop and joysticks used to pilot the DC-X. It was Pete Conrad. This is the sort of person you want to send to Mars.

The weather was awful. Cold and wet. None of us was going to be spending a long time on this. Despite the crappy conditions, Ron Sidgreaves and Harold Hansen from Hamilton Sunstrand managed to get Jaret Matthews into the suit and attached the audio and computer interfaces.

The valley we were in was perhaps 30 meters deep. The sides were steep but not difficult to walk up. Although the wet conditions made the scree (loose rock) a bit of a hazard even if you weren’t wearing a space helmet, careful attention to the slippery terrian made access to the sides of the valley straightforward. Nonetheless, Jaret was able to interface with the suit and go through a series of simulated field exercises.

Jaret is an interesting fellow. I first met him several years ago when he was a student at Purdue University. He had arranged for me to moderate a debate between a UFO enthusiast and veteran space author Jim Oberg. As you may have guessed we had a lot of fun that evening – at the expense of the UFO guy.
Jaret has since graduated from Purdue and is now between degrees and will be at the International Space University (ISU) this fall.

This year, as in the past, Jaret has been laboring with a 6-wheeled ATV he provided to HMP at his own expense. This year he managed to get some wireless control mechanisms operating such that he could operate the vehicle in a ‘drive by wire’ fashion over a network connection. Jaret also proved invaluable help to the CSA team as they partially disassembled – and then reassembled their larger Argo ATV for transit to Devon Island aboard a Twin Otter.

One project that has gotten a hold of Jaret’s free time of late is “Under African Skies”, a project of Cosmos Education. Indeed, before coming up to Devon Island, Jaret had just gotten back a matter of days before from a trip to Africa where he and several other friends traversed across Africa by land from Nairobi, Kenya to Johannesburg, South Africa. During the course of their trip they made multiple stops at schools in villages where they sought to bring an understanding of astronomy and space travel to as many as they could meet.

Jaret is typical of the sort of people that I have met here on Devon Island. A mixture of globetrotting, multiple projects and areas of expertise and interest, yet a clear focus on learning how to explore Mars – and a willingness to go to the end of the Earth (here) in person to help make this happen. As is the case with many folks here, there was some self-financing involved for Jaret to get up here. For a student to be this devoted to something like this is inspiring.

In order to be able to communicate with the suit Jaret (and all others who wear it) had to go through a two hour training session with the suit’s voice recognition system – while wearing the torso and helmet. This training involved sitting in the Comm Tent and reading selections from a standard text. In this case it was “Treasure Island” and “Growing up Digital”. Although they were inside the suit during the test their voices could be hear throughout the tent. After a while we had heard the same stories several times.

Jaret was a true trooper but eventually his gloves offered his hands no protection and his fingers froze up. Mine were not far behind. This is a problem that Space Shuttle crews often encountered until a new type of heated EVA glove was first used on STS-69. The gloves on the suit Jaret was wearing were not meant to do much more than approximate the experience of having bulky gloves while operating the communication gear. As such they did not really offer much insulation against cold.

After it became clear that Jaret’s hands were in need of a good thaw we pulled him out of the suit and headed back to camp. We were all drenched.

Quicktime panorama: On Rise North of Base Camp 29 July 2002. 180 degree pan. Closer view taken 1 km North of Base Camp. R-L: Entrance to Pete Conrad Valley, Tent City, Base Camp (geophone placement in foreground), The Fortress, Landing Strip [Download]

[Get Quicktime]

As is often the case here, this evening was set aide for catching up on work and using Instant Messenger to talk with family at home (my wife and I more less left a constant link open 18 hours a day). We also had a lecture.

Several times a week we have lectures. This season ranged from an overview of space medicine to the formation of impact craters. Tonight, Jaret gave a talk about his experiences in Africa.

We also watch movies. Blessed by a large DVD collection brought up by Victor Rundquist (and others), we had a wide selection of everything from drama and SciFi to dumb comedies and musicals. Tonight’s film was “Moulin Rouge”. I had been meaning to see this when it was playing in a big theatre and was happy that it was tonight’s choice. About a dozen of us stuck around for the whole thing and laughed a lot.

After a day of cold weather and hard work, simple pleasures like watching a movie can be very therapeutic. In the case of this movie, it was so utterly detached from the experience on this island it was like a quick trip home – even if the world it portrayed was fantastical and surreal.

This is one of the most curious – and most human aspects of this place. We are all located in a city of tents on a remote island less than a thousand miles from the North Pole. Help – in the form of medical attention (anything our camp MD cannot handle) – is hours away – at best should conditions work out right. While we do get flights in from nearby Resolute on a regular basis we are very much on our own. Bad weather (common) can leave us isolated for days at a time.

We rely upon several propane heaters (not here in previous years) and two electrical generator (one large diesel and a smaller gasoline one) for power and communications. There is some redundancy but not enough to be utterly independent. My point: however comfortable we are here, we are still in one of the most remote, hazardous locations on Earth.

Despite this isolation, we are very connected. With Internet access and satellite telephones many aspects of our lives actually go one in a fashion not unlike they way they do at home. We are at once distant yet close from the rest of the world. Over the years, this place has managed to attract the little touches that people bring to make a place “home” – for that is how we feel about this place.

People readily chip in to help others on their projects either without being asked – or at the drop of a hat when they are asked. Limited resources such as ATVs (always in demand); bandwidth (limited during field tests), poo bags (always a topic of conversation here, it seems), as well as tasks like dishes, and other routine maintenance, are all coordinated in a fashion that requires little prodding. People just automatically configure to work together.

Everyone is here to do a task – and they all stick to them. Time is precious here and every moment needs to be carefully utilized. As such no one really takes a day off per se. However, when there is a break in ones schedule people can be seen lounging about in front of the heater in the main tent (as I am right now) reading or checking email. Going out on traverses with science teams is a must and an effort is made to be certain that everyone gets a chance to get out of field camp to experience this amazing place.

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SpaceRef staff editor.