Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 27 July 2007: Polar Deserts and Global TV

By SpaceRef Editor
August 10, 2007
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright 2007

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Keith Cowing on CNN Pipleline – one of six TV interviews done on 27 July 2007 in conjunction with a recently released NASA report alleging alcohol abuse by astronauts just prior to flight.
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Keith Cowing, sitting aboard a Twin Otter, prepares for the long journey home from Devon Island – exactly one week earlier – to the hour
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July 2003: One of many TV appearances done in conjunction with the CAIB report. After a month in the arctic wearing work clothes it was rather odd to sit in a TV studio wearing a tie.

3:00 pm EDT 27 July 2007

I am sitting in a Lincoln Towne Car limo headed home from downtown Washington, DC after spending half a day doing TV interviews at CNN and Fox. A week ago – almost to the minute – I was riding aboard an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) toward a dusty landing strip on Devon Island, less than a thousand miles from the North Pole.

The last week has been somewhat of a blur. With my business partner in town from Canada for a surprise trip (I found out about it while I was still up north) to hold some meetings – and all of this drunk astronaut nonsense – I have had no time to finish up my Devon Island journals – much less get any real work done.

This is not the first time a trip from remote Devon Island has collided with the modern world of telecommunications. In 2003, I had only been home when, as I wrote at the time: “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.”

This year I did not have a red nose, but I did have a nice tan. The make-up people did not need to do much work on me (not that it ever really helps, in my opinion).

Alas, in 2003, the interview (and many others that followed) had to do with a more serious topic: the Columbia Accident Investigation Board’s activities. Flash forward 4 years and I find myself (as do all other space talking heads) commenting on allegations of drunken astronauts, sabotaged space station computers, and bizarre astronaut love triangles.

I have done TV (usually on short notice) hundreds of times by now. As such, the routine of sitting in the chair with an earpiece in front of a camera and bright lights – with no one else in the room – talking to someone thousands of miles a way – while millions of people listen in – is rather familiar.

But that doesn’t mean I am not always thinking about where I am, what I am doing, and where it is I am supposed to fit in the bigger picture. What is different this time is that I just returned from my third mission (if you will) to a place not unlike another planet. And for the second time I have been immediately thrown into the global commons of news and other nonsense before I have had a chance to readapt to the world I live in.

Now, don’t think that this juxtaposition upsets me. Oh no – quite the contrary: it is a rare chance for anyone to experience such extremes and I savor the fleeting experience immensely – however jarring, annoying, and exciting it may be – simultaneously.

I used my iPhone to pull up something I wrote back in 2003 – an epilog I wrote regarding my second trip to Devon Island. It still resonates with me today:

“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 has 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.”

This year I built upon these previous experiences and accomplishments. I managed to bring several friends along with me to experience these things as well – and to help me expand upon the task of communicating these adventures with a broader audience.

I do not know if I will return to Devon Island. Yet something tells me that this is not the last time I will find myself in such a remote and exhilarating place – with such amazing people – all engaged in such an exciting, ongoing adventure.

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.