Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 26 August 2003: Home +30

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2003
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NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

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One of many TV appearances. After a month in the arctic wearing work clothes it is rather odd to sit in a TV studio wearing a tie.
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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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6:30 AM – Columbia Accident Investigation Board press reading room (under embargo). The world’s press corps gets an advance look at the CAIB’s final report.
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Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse on a foggy, cold day

I was gone a month. I’ve been back for a month. Last year, the return to civilization from Devon Island – Mars on Earth – was quite an unexpected shock. This time, readaptation was less of an unknown – hence swifter. Yet it was occasionally a bit bizarre. I just finished my second stint on live TV at CNN in a couple of days – the third time in the past month. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) released its final report today. As such, the interview requests came pouring in – just as they did just after the accident. To my relief, the requests were fewer and easier to handle than was the deluge (over 200) of requests in February.

Today has already been extra-long since I was more or less locked up (under embargo) in the CAIB’s reading room at the FAA since 6:00 AM with a copy of their final report. This required me to be on a 5:30 AM Metro train – far earlier than I ever get up. Add in torrential rain, jumping from one TV studio to another, and the nature of the news being made, and things are suitably bizarre.

I am rather used to being in front of a camera – whether it is live TV at a studio in Washington DC, a TV crew in my living room, or a webcam in the arctic. Yet my appearance on CNN a month ago was, to say the least, a bit of a cultural collision. Miles may be used to this sort of existence but I am not.

I had only been home two days when CNN asked me to go on air. Actually, Miles O’Brien (who has also visited Devon Island) set me up for the initial appearance. I was still unpacking my things and readjusting my brain to a green humid environment – and large numbers of people. I normally don’t go out of my way for make-up but this time I needed it. As a result of being outside in unusually warm weather I have quite the arctic suntan – and a red nose to go with it. Had they not subdued the redness I would have looked like a circus clown.

The interview went fine – as have dozens and dozens before. Yet something was a bit jarring – the kind of jarring I like – you know when you catch yourself in an unusual situation (live international TV) which is unusual in and of itself – and you juxtapose it with events so recent and far away that the dirt is still under your nails (so to speak).

Having just spent a month in front of a quasi-live webcam in a noisy tent near the North Pole – for a second time, all of these things are becoming curiously routine. On one hand this is kind of cool. On the other, sadly, the novelty has now begun to wear off more than I’d like it to. Damn. I really miss that novelty.

Last year’s trip to Devon Island was a remarkable adventure to an unknown and mysterious place. This year’s trip, while almost as long and varied in experiences to the same amazing place, was a return to terra cognita. A twist on Tom Wolfe’s admonition that ‘you can never go home again”. While I had returned to this place, it was the same. I was different.

This was my second mission to an alien place. Astronauts have to face this too in the course of their careers. Before I left, I asked astronaut Bill Readdy. Readdy has flown in space 3 times. I asked him what it was like to go back into space a second – and a third time. He told me “the saddest part of any mission for me is those moments that follow the euphoria of having accomplished what you set out to, having experienced (again) the sights, sounds, feeling and weightlessness which all combine into the magic of spaceflight. The thought that you might never return to experience it again hurts extremely.”

I have been to Devon Island twice. I don’t know if I will ever be here again. As such, I need to drink in every last moment before I leave – perhaps for the last time. Last year I swore that I would return. This year I did just that. Now I must face the prospect of never seeing this place – or touching the greenhouse that all of us spent so much time, effort, money, and sheer determination, to construct in this most improbable location.

In a way, I suppose, traveling to such a remote and potentially hostile place embodies the old saying that the journey is far more important than the destination. Yet the destination is place where you pause and reflect upon the most memorable thoughts about the journey.

As is the case with space travel, I am certain climbers who have summited Everest, or climbed a big wall in Yosemite, or have dived to the depths of the ocean experience much the same thing. In some cases, the time spent at the destination is measured in square feet – and minutes – perhaps hours. I have been lavished with a total of 7 weeks thus far.

It was improbable enough that I went there once. Twice was just gravy. Again, the experience of being there is fleeting in terms of the actual hours, days, and weeks spent here. Yet one’s mind is always recording, sampling, savoring, digesting places like this for play back over the course of a lifetime.

The people who first trod on this island did so in search food and shelter. Later, people would load up ships and sail these waters and traverse these lands – and then disappear. After that, oil and mineral surveyors passed through. Now we are here – in an attempt to learn how to work on Mars. Yet we are all explorers in one way or another.

While my tasks on Devon Island focused on building a greenhouse and going out on traverses, I have to ask myself if I was truly “exploring”. The answer is an easy one: yes. While others have posted journal entries during previous seasons, no one has done such an extensive job of relaying experiences as have I and my business partner Marc Boucher.

As we built the greenhouse we did something, to my knowledge, that no one ahs ever built a greenhouse in such a hostile location and then outfitted it such that it can be operated like a spacecraft. The idea started in my head. Many others helped me make it happen. Together we explored new territory – both physically and technically – that no one has trod before. In so doing we explored territory – physical and operational – that no one had explored before.

Just being here is exploring as well. While this Island is the largest uninhabited island on Earth, it has been visited for millennia. Given its isolation and harsh climate, I doubt that every square centimeter has been trod upon by human feet. As such, you explore virgin territory by virtue of just wandering a few kilometers out of base camp.

Collectively, we are pursuing a variety of scientific, engineering , operational, experiential, and cultural frontiers – exploring along the way. And these exploits tend to draw a certain type of people. While I would be remiss in mentioning the vast diversity of backgrounds that our team members have, there are certain characteristics that resonate with those who come back for additional visits. To be succinct, being on Devon Island is like being given a chance to perch on the edge of a frontier. There aren’t that many left on the surface of this planet, so this one is extra special.

I’d hop in a Shuttle in a heartbeat. I’d have flown the day after Columbia was lost should the chance have appeared. Of course since this is rather improbable, I have to satisfy myself with terrestrial adventures.

Missed Opportunities

One frustration I often experience is that the whole notion of exploration often evaporates from what NASA does. During the Apollo days, people were attempting something that had resonated through human minds since the dawn of time – to touch – and trod upon – the Moon. The process of getting there and then walking around was exploration with a capital E. We then turned our backs on this capability and decided to just circle the Earth for several decades. This was almost as if no one followed Columbus after he completed his series of voyages to the New World.

I wrote an article several years back titled “Lets stop going in circles and go somewhere“. In it I voiced my personal, long-standing frustration at seeing minimal progress in the course of my lifetime – and how frustrated I was that all of the things that seemed inevitable in the 1960s suddenly stopped when we grew bored after a paltry 5 human visits to the surface of the Moon.

NASA held a teleconference press opportunity with the Expedition 8 Crew the other day. Commander Michael Foale and Flight Engineer Alexander Kaleri spent an hour answering questions from Houston to reporters located around the U.S. By the time I would have a chance to ask a question, other reporters would already have asked all of the obvious questions relating to their mission, the recent accident, etc.

I was interested in a somewhat broader question. I asked Astronaut Foale the following:

“I have question for you regarding the use of the word “expedition” – a word that is used to describe each crew that goes to the ISS. You have a background which includes a lot of wild things – including diving on ancient sea wrecks – something that would fit the traditional use of the word “expedition”. Right now many people are questioning the need for a space station. Having spent time on Mir , and soon, aboard the ISS, in what ways is living and working on the ISS similar to what is traditionally called an “expedition” – and in what ways is it different? Specifically, an “expedition” often involves going somewhere. How do square the use of these terms to describe the ISS which simply orbits the Earth and doesn’t actually go anywhere? Or are you actually preparing to go somewhere?”

Foale replied, “Well Keith, I should tell you first of all the reason why we call our flights expeditions is that we actually borrowed the word from the Russians. We realized that they were referring to their Mir missions as “expeditions”. As we Americans tried to understand what that meant in terms of spaceflight, we realized that there were huge parallels between staying in a small place, far, far away and very remote from any kind of human support or help and that it was very much akin to Antarctica or Devon Island where I know you have been recently, or indeed, on Everest or any other kind of expeditionary circumstances.”

“So, I am not going to quibble with the use of the word, but it certainly means that if we want to go onboard the ISS and spend 6 or 7 months working, as you say, in an environment that doesn’t make you “go anywhere”, in that I am just floating from this side of the room to that side, and I get to know that small space very well. Am I exploring? No. But I am certainly exploring when I look out of the window and look down at the Earth and see the Himalayas go by, and I see Tierra del Fuego go by, and I see Spain, and Britain, and the United States. And I can see an awful amount that makes me feel like I am the greatest tourist – the greatest wanderer. Indeed, I am seeing a panorama that will beat any other view seen in any other circumstance when you are exploring on Earth. So, the sensations for a human being are extraordinary and I would never say that I was not an explorer in this context.”

“You touch on a point – and I think your point is that we need to go somewhere beyond Earth orbit. And indeed, that is what the space station should be about – and I think, is about. And as we get over our tragedy this year with the Space Shuttle, as we work and build a stronger partnership for the International Space Station, we will – as a partnership I believe – plan to leave Earth orbit and go somewhere.”

“Certainly the work we’re doing today is a step in that direction. If we step back from it we wouldn’t be going anywhere that quickly. I do love expeditions on Earth. I would love to go to Devon Island where you’ve been – or Antarctica – and I still feel that what we are doing on the Space Station is right in that category.”

I was rather surprised to hear Foale (whom I do not know) mention Devon Island – and my experiences – twice. While my intent in attending this media event was certainly not to focus on me or my exploits, I guess it is inevitable that they affect my questions to readers of my website such that they appear in responses to my questions. Coming from Foale, who has had quite a terrestrial batch of experiences – to say nothing of those in space – his words drove certain points home with me.

In the aftermath of Columbia, the fifth time humans have died preparing for, embarking upon, or returning from a space mission – and one of many, many more where lives were put at risk, we come again to the core tenet of why humans fly in space. Yes, robots can do a lot – but only so much. And yes, humans can do things that robot can’t – but that is not the prime reason we have flown humans in space – nor should it be,. We fly humans in space because it is in our nature to go to improbable places, and some great risk to life and limb, to see the wonders that lie out there with our own eyes. In so doing, those explorers see things with eyes for all of us who must stay behind.

Last year I went to a marvelous place and was personally enraptured by the experience. This year, I did so again, yet the experience was somewhat routine. Last year I came home with personal experiences that I was bubbling to convey. This year I came home, chastened and inspired by the Columbia accident – and somewhat angry.

Angry at what we could have done, had we not walked away from human exploration of space after Apollo. To be certain, learning to live – permanently – in space is interesting. But it is only a means toward a greater end. I want to see that end re-established once again. We had such a beacon during Apollo and it shone so bright that we did things bold – and improbable.

It is time we ventured forth to do bold and improbable things once again.

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SpaceRef staff editor.