Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 29 July 2002: Showering near the North Pole; one last look around

By SpaceRef Editor
July 29, 2002
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Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2002/SpaceRef

Water pump at the Haughton River

The wash area

The shower

Urine tank

One of two latrine tents

The incinerator we use to burn human waste

Rob Birch (in suit) examining geophone hardware

The greenouse at midnight

Devon Island puts on a display on my last night

The Fortress at midnight

An inuksuit atop The Fortress

A large ‘erratic’ boulder north of Base Camp

Keith in front of the erratic boulder

I took a shower today – my fourth since arriving here. So long as you can wash your hands and face – and make use of the “wipes” that everyone is advised to bring, not showering everyday is not a big deal. Given that it is cold, it takes a lot of work to build up a sweat. Either that or work in a hot greenhouse.

The shower is a bit more advanced than in previous years. Each season a new feature is added – but I suspect that it will always be a work in progress. Water from the Haughton River about a kilometer away is pumped up to Base Camp. A propane-powered water heater then manages to create quite a reasonable amount of hot water. There is no showerhead yet – just a garden hose with a spray nozzle. It works jut fine.

Given that resources aren’t infinite, people are urged to make the shower experience as efficient (i.e. short) as possible. Given that the shower stall itself is not heated, my preference has been to pick a day when the weather is as clement as possible.

Then, of course, there are the bathroom facilities. They are efficient, and you get used to them. But you certainly don’t miss them when you get back to civilization. There are two tents with an ersatz toilet. Everything is put into a plastic bag (“poo bags”) and burned, per environmental regulations, on a regular basis in a special incinerator up near the landing strip. Urine is collected in a large fuel drum. While females use a tin can, males step up on a stool and make their contribution directly into a funnel. These drums are then flown out for proper disposal back in Resolute.

We all take the protection of the pristine and fragile environment very seriously up here. I can honestly say I never say a piece of litter anywhere on the ground. When we completed the greenhouse we literally combed the ground to make certain that noting of artificial origin remained.

I chose today to dig into the small cache of clean clothes I had been saving for my last days here. While I had managed to wash some of the work clothes I needed over the past weeks (while I showered) it was an unaccustomed pleasure to put on clothes cleaned back in civilization (my home in Virginia).

I am certain that crews aboard the International Space Station look forward to similar small – but important pleasures. I have to wonder what it will be like on Mars. Will there be washing machines? One would hope so. Aboard Skylab, crews simply threw their dirty clothes into a waste chamber in the aft end of the space station. On the ISS, you can bring enough clothing with you – both personal and government issued – and then bring it back home – without the need for washing. Regardless of which mission scenario you favor, trips to Mars are going to require that people spend years away from home.

Just as having the right menu, the right music, and the right recreational reading material, having the right clothes – from home – helps crew settle into their long duration missions. All Shuttle crews have “crew preference” items that they are allowed to bring. Every mission has its collection of t-shirts flown by the crew for friends, where they went to school, and organizations they support. Indeed, on several Space Shuttle missions, I was able to get friends who were crew members to fly t-shirts with the emblems of the ASGSB (American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology) and the NASA Astrobiology Academy.

My stay in this amazing place is now coming to an end. As such, I have been giving thought to the places I have yet to see and things I have yet to do. I decided to walk over to the large bolder to the North of Base Camp that I have been looking at since I arrived here. It is only a kilometer away. Being that it is so close, I had been putting off a visit for three weeks.

On my way over, I stopped to watch Rob Stewart, a University of Calgary geophysicist, and his grad student, Rob Birch assemble an array of geophones – sensitive microphones – which they use to examine subsurface composition. I stopped at the small rise just above them to take some panorama shots.

I walked about half a kilometer to the boulder. Unlike the large ejecta block I had visited a few days before inside the crater, this rock was not left here after the impact event. Rather, it is an ‘erratic’ and was likely deposited here during glacial activity.

Quicktime panorama: Base Camp 29 July 2002. 360 degree pan. Taken 1 km North of Base Camp. R-L von Braun Planitia, large erratic boulder, Tent City, Base Camp (geophone placement in foreground), The Fortress [Download]

[Get Quicktime]

I stopped to take some more panoramic shots. Again, knowing that my time on the island was now measured in hours, I paused to reflect back on my stay here. As I have done so many times before, I imagined myself standing on Mars. The terrain makes such a flight of fancy rather easy to pull off.

I was still within sight of Base Camp. But the remaining 95% of the terrain was free of any signs of human presence. Alone with nothing but a faint light wind, this place presented an awesome vista. And then I felt it. Like a later day John Carter I had managed to transport myself to Mars. The experience lasted for only a few minutes, but I was able to suspend reality for a window of time.

Quicktime panorama: Base Camp at Midnight 29 July 2002. 180 degree pan. R-L; Tent City, Base Camp, The Fortress, [Download]

[Get Quicktime]

All too quickly my little mind game collapsed in on itself and I was firmly back on Earth. I snapped some more photos – including a few self-portraits – and then headed back to Base Camp. I paused to look back. I wondered whether this was a once in a lifetime experience – or whether I’d visit this place again some day. With that answer uncertain, I made sure to mentally record as much as I could – just in case this was a one-time visit.

Just before dinner, I decided to go up to the top of The Fortress, the large rock formation adjacent to Base Camp, and get some photos. The Fortress looms above Base Camp – yet despite its presence, I have yet to climb it. The former rock climber in me is yearning to make an ascent. Alas, the climb is mostly a scramble up perhaps 20 meters or so. However modest this increase in elevation, one does get a nice panoramic view of Base Camp and its surroundings form the summit.

Quicktime panorama: Fortress and Base Camp at Midnight 29 July 2002. 270 degree pan. R-L The Fortress, von Braun Planitia (with fog rolling in), Base Camp, Maynard Hill. [Download]

[Get Quicktime]

There is one feature atop the Fortress that is visible from afar – and it is the product of human hands: an inuksuit. This is a stone sculpture or rock cairn that the Inuit use to mark locations on an otherwise expansive and bleak landscape. Rocks are arranged so as to create the silhouette of a standing human against the sky. Recently, a second, smaller inuksuit was built to accompany a larger one built several years back. When humans aren’t up here, it is quite common to see Base Camp’s seagull mascot (who eats dog food) sitting atop one of the inuksuit..

After dinner I took some additional photos – to be stitched together by my computer as QuickTime panoramas – of other locations around Base Camp. When I get back home I intend to create a “Virtual HMP” of sorts online that will allow people to get a better idea of how Base Camp is laid out – and what facilities we have here.

Later, it was time again for someone to test out the communication capabilities of Hamilton Sunstrand’s concept Mars Spacesuit torso. This time it was Rob Birch. The intent here is not to simulate a spacesuit, but rather how one would interact with information systems while wearing a spacesuit. The lighting was stunning allowing me to get multiple shots – all of them among the best I have taken here.

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]

There is something about watching someone in a spacesuit helmet walking around in a place like this. Although it is only a partial spacesuit – and one designed to test electronics – not life support – the illusion is quite captivating.

In order to show my family what it is like here I decided to grab my video camera and shoot a vide tour of Base Camp. I proceeded walk all over Base Camp so as to film everything – everything from the bathroom facilities to a group of team members watching a movie. Alas, regardless of the photos and video I shoot, these will serve only as pale imitations of what it has been like to be here.

After midnight I was provided with one parting gift: some of the most stunning and dramatic lighting of the entire trip. Before I turned in for the night, I had managed to shoot several hundred photos.

As I recall thinking upon my arrival: this is not Mars – but it is close enough for me. While I certainly hope to come back here in years to come, this experience in and of itself is one to be remembered for a lifetime. Hence my penchant for capturing all that I can – and reflecting on whatever personal importance it has for me. These are things to be played and viewed again and again. They are also experiences that must be shared.

This is my last night here – my last night on Mars.

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SpaceRef staff editor.