Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal 7 July 2003: Part 1: Being here – and being there.

By SpaceRef Editor
July 9, 2003
Filed under , , ,

Click on Image for larger view. Images Copyright
NASA HMP-2003/SpaceRef

HMP image

(L to R) Trish, Oz, and Pascal adjusting the satellite dish located atop Maynard Hill overlooking Base Camp
HMP image

Webcams awaiting unpacking
HMP image

HMP Base Camp Manager John Schutt

Yet another flawless day in the arctic. Blue skies, perfect temperature, and no wind. When the bad weather does hit, the impact is going to be rather profound!

This morning Pascal Lee, Trish Garner, Gordon “Oz” Osinski, Stephen Braham, and I went to the top of Maynard Hill to help Steve do the final physical alignment on our 2 meter satellite dish since we’re using a different satellite this year. Luckily, the stone-ballasted antenna mount was already aligned more or less perfectly with where it needs to be for the new satellite. After some adjustments with wrenches (while three of us held the dish in place) the dish was ready to be connected with its support systems. Soon we hope to have the system all up and running and regain Internet connectivity to the rest of the world. Up until now our connection to he real world was either via an Iridium phone or by messages passed on CDs to the pilots of the planes that fly in to deliver people and supplies.

When you stand atop Maynard Hill you not only get a spectacular vista, you also get a nice approximation of Martian terrain. The surface at your feet is strewn with rocks that have an uncanny similarity to those that have been seen in Mars lander photos – and they stretch out to infinity in all directions. The hills beyond look a lot like those seen in Mars Pathfinder images. A yellow-orange tint is all you need to complete the illusion.

One of the tasks I have this year is to set up 4 webcams. SpaceRef has been donating webcams to HMP operations since 1999. The idea being that pictures can often convey information about a place that words fall short in doing. Webcams also provide a bit of vicarious participation in the distant, remote things we do by virtue of being “live ” – or “almost-live” depending on how often we refresh the images. As we set up these cameras, we try and position them – and move them around – such that web visitors can peek over our shoulders as we go through our daily tasks.

In the past someone else has set the webcams up. This year, I have a large part of the task of making sure that the webcams are installed – and that they work. Of course, Stephen Braham from Simon Frazer University who oversees all of our communications and networks systems here will perform the true wizardry.

Nonetheless, I will have to play with computers to get things working. My business partner Marc Boucher provided all of the documentation in exquisite detail. Since I am primarily a Mac user – and Windows and Linux systems are involved – I am going to have to do some studying. My instructions arrived in the form of a CD inside a “Pelican case” with all of the webcam gear.

This sort of ‘distance learning’ is not unusual in space exploration. Aboard the International Space Station, it is not at all uncommon for the crew to have instructions uplinked to them (or flown up in a Progress, Soyuz, or Shuttle on CD) for procedures they haven’t performed before – or at least, haven’t done so in a long time. It is to be expected that the same will be the case for crews on Mars. You can prepare in advance for things, but you will always encounter situations where the information you need is not at your fingertips – or on a CD ROM.

What will be interesting is the extent to which mars crews will be able to surf the Internet – or whatever it morphs into by the time we get around to going to Mars. While real time web surfing, as we know it will not be possible from Mars, it is certain that some sort of web surfing will be a necessity – and that crews will see it as a requirement. After all, crews on the ISS can now surf the web.

Information on the Internet is something I deal with on a daily basis as I make a living. I have planned in advance to be offline for quite some period of time here on Devon Island in a contingency mode such that my work is covered back home. Nonetheless, it is a little odd not to be able to just sit down and “find it on the web”. On the other hand it is rather liberating to sit in this amazing place and just drink it all in.

Last night, after dinner, HMP Principal Investigator Pascal Lee and I sat outside for a few minutes in the generous arctic sun. Pascal said, “Do you realize where we are?” He has an endearing way of saying this – and I always pause to consider what he is saying when he pops out these thought provoking comments. To be certain, there are many remote places on this planet – some more remote than this. Antarctica has all manner of research projects underway, so this is not the only cold, isolated place where people and technology find themselves.

Devon Island is a unique place inasmuch as we are all here, in one way or another, because we believe strongly in the human exploration of other worlds – the Moon, Mars – and beyond. Even though the disciplines represented here are many, and the national background of the participants wide, we all have this one thing that binds us all together. That common motivation, combined with the expeditionary conditions, and all of the high tech gear, combine to provide a rather unique and exciting experience. If you use your mind’s eye to squint at what you and those around you are doing, it is not at all that hard to imagine that you are on Mars. Again, a reddish tint and spacesuits are all you need to complete the picture.

At one point or another others who make significant contributions frequent this base camp. That is what makes the place so exciting.

Sitting two meters to my right in the tent I am working in is John Schutt, our base camp manager, who is also a veteran Antarctic meteorite hunter. Back in 1984, John was leading a field party of 6 on snowmobiles in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica. On this one particular day John and his comrades were out doing some reconnaissance of an area they had yet to methodically examine for meteorites. At one point they came across a rock with a somewhat unusual color. Given the location they found it in (a large expanse of ice), the odds that it was anything but a meteorite were rather low.

When the rock was examined in a lab it was found to indeed be of meteoritic origin. Years later, after its interior was examined, it was reclassified as having come from Mars. It was also found to be incredibly ancient. In 1996, some years after its reclassification, a research team at NASA Johnson Space Center announced that they had found evidence within this rock of what they claim is fossils of previous Martian life. The meteorite itself is, of course, ALH84001.

Regardless of where you weigh in on the issue of whether fossils were indeed found, the discovery did send a jolt of electric enthusiasm through the astrobiology and Mars exploration communities – one whose effect can still be felt today. Data from spacecraft currently in orbit around Mars have only bolstered the view among many that conditions favorable to life may not just be a phenomenon of the Martian past.

The frustrating thing for me, with all the hats I wear on a daily basis – here and back home – is that I have seen all of the pieces that need to mesh to cause a human mission to Mars to happen. Here, I see first hand what it is like to do science, build and operate complex things, and think on your feet for long periods of time in a potentially hostile and extreme environment. Back home, with my regular forays into Washington DC, I see the political rivers and tributaries that can carry an idea close to realization as well – and, as indifferently – away from happening for reasons that are often baffling, petty, shortsighted.

The same political system (plus 40 years of cynicism) that allowed humans to go to the Moon from scratch in the 1960’s makes the prospect of even returning to the Moon, much less of moving to Mars seem more distant than ever. Yet, while much still needs to be learned, we are probably much better prepared to go to Mars now than we were in 1961 when President Kennedy challenged America (and for that matter, all of humanity) to go to the Moon.

It is an odd experience to sit here, where I am, and write these words – thinking these thoughts, with the reality of what is going on just outside my tent flap. I see the substance – as well as the spirit of planetary exploration in its raw, basic state. How to convey this to a wider audience is my challenge.

Related Links



SpaceRef staff editor.