Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: 6 July 2003: Getting in the Groove

By SpaceRef Editor
July 9, 2003
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NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

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Mandatory shotgun training (polar bears), Keith (foreground) gets advice from Base Camp manager John Schutt
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Keith drilling mounting holes in greenhouse for propane mounting supports
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Food inventory
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Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse – newly installed propane tanks and exhaust fans
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Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse – newly installed air inlets
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9 PM Local time looking out to the northwest of Base Camp
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“George” the lone HMP seagull sits atop the mess tent at midnight

For the fourth day in a row we’ve had stunning weather – people only pull on a sweater or fleece in the evening. Otherwise, it is t-shirt weather for most of the day.

Work continued on getting the base camp in working order. Several folks continued an inventory of the food cache that has accumulated here at base camp and placed things we’ll need inside the pantry tent. We brought some additional food in already – and more will come in on subsequent flights.

I finished the propane tank attachment system on the north side of the greenhouse and, with the help of Keegan Boyd, made some support platforms to hold some of the propane tanks. Eventually we’ll have up to twelve 200-pound tanks installed which will allow the greenhouse to operate for several months after we’ve all left, and as the sun begins to get lower on the horizon.

Last year, our focus was getting the greenhouse built – and then to make some initial characterizations of its performance. This year we are going to augment the basic structure such that it is capable of automated operations. Indeed, we are treating this greenhouse as if it were a spacecraft sitting on the ground with an eye towards how we’d want to operate it if it were on the surface of Mars.

While this greenhouse is, to be certain, a greenhouse located on Earth, the operations philosophy – and the challenges of operating something so far away that you simply cannot just go and fix things – forces a certain similarity in how you’d go about thinking of how to operate a greenhouse on Mars. You have to get things right and be doubly – event triply certain that you have thought everything out and tested things repeatedly. Moreover, as is the case with something sitting on Mars (or aboard most any spacecraft for that matter), you are likely to be constrained with regard to communications and power – thus forcing even more frugality and ingenuity into the equation.

Why would you want to operate a greenhouse on Mars remotely? Various scenarios come to mind. Perhaps the greenhouse is launched to Mars ahead of a human crew and designed to begin operations autonomously – with some limited help from Earth. Perhaps it is a greenhouse erected by a human crew that needs to maintain some level of operations while the crew is off exploring another part of Mars. Or perhaps the need lies in operations conducted between crew visits – with the need to not only maintain operations, but also, the possible need to shut down and then reactivate the greenhouse in expectation of an arriving or returning crew.

Whatever the mission scenario you favor, operating a sophisticated environmental support system, with humans very distant from the hardware, is a challenge. Trying to get one to work in the harshest, most out of the way, Mars-like place you can find on Earth is one way to really make sure you have the right idea for what to do on Mars.

With our base camp power system operational, and our water pump up and running, we’re now able to use the washroom and take showers. The only remaining major component of base camp life yet to be established is our communications system. Parts of the communication system arrived this evening. Everyone pitched in to ferry the gear up to the top of Maynard Hill where the satellite dish will be installed. This hill is located to the south and overlooks base camp.

In a few days I will be up there installing one of my company’s webcams. This webcam will look out at a windsock and then out to area above and around our airstrip. The pilots who fly into Devon Island use this information as they plan their flights.

Another team member has arrived at base camp – also by air: a lone seagull. There always seems to be a lone seagull at base camp – and those that use a name, call him “George”. We had one lone seagull visit us last year too. No one knows if it is the same one a last year – but they can be creatures of habit. The seagull tends to hang out behind the mess tent or atop the large stone outcropping we call “The Fortress” that lies about 1 km away between base camp and the end of the airstrip.

It is not unheard of for seagulls to make to the center of the island – but there is normally not much for them to eat. While we don’t feed the seagull, it apparently manages to find enough food to make the trip inland worthwhile. This is also known to happen around human camps in Antarctica.

By now the routine of life on Devon Island has thoroughly returned. We are all working from 8:00 AM to as late or 10:00 or 11:00 PM every day – with time out for meals and status meetings. The perpetual daylight seems to have an energizing effect – one that gives you a subconscious urging to just get more things out of the way. The constant illumination takes some getting used to. While I don’t have much problem getting to sleep, when I wake up and see the bright light my brain tells me that it is morning – until I look at the alarm clock. This takes a little getting used to.

This constant daylight is perhaps the most un-Mars like aspect of working on Devon Island. To be certain, any comprehensive human exploration of Mars is going to eventually include visits to Mars’ polar regions. However, most scenarios that I am familiar with point to initial landings and bases far closer to the equator where Mars’ nearly Earth-like day is likely to provide a very familiar day/night experience. None the less, the odd lighting only serves to provide all of us here with just one more thing to feed the impression of being on another world.

Given the balmy temperatures, we’re all taking advantage of this weather to its fullest. I already have a tan unlike any I have had for years – and I have only been here for 4 full days. Soon enough, however, we’ll get the harsh, cold, wet, and uncomfortable weather that this part of our planet is famous for dishing out and we’ll see this fast pace slow quite a bit.

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SpaceRef staff editor.