Status Report

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2003

By SpaceRef Editor
October 16, 2003
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Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal: Summer 2003
Devon Island

I live in a world of green. This year was especially so with all the rain we had been getting in Virginia this Spring and Summer

This all changed as I ventured north once again to the Canadian high arctic where green is a rarity and rock and snow are the norm.

The place I lived in for nearly a month was chosen for its similarities to Mars. Those who visit the place call it “Mars on Earth” – the NASA Haughton Mars Project – Devon Island, Haughton Crater.

Unlike last year, this was my second ‘mission’. I have already endured the long flights and the hardships, and learned what to do – and not to do – what to bring and what to leave behind. As such, this year would be less of an unknown adventure – but, an adventure, none the less it was.

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.

This year, the novelty was not here in comparable fashion – even if the grandeur and otherworldly nature of this was still ever present. Last year I was in charge of a construction project – a greenhouse. This year I minimally oversaw others who know much more about their tasks than I do – and a science manager – a principal investigator – oversees all of the details in science that I oversaw as greenhouse assembly architect. In a word, I was not as busy.

Before I left, I asked Astronaut Bill Readdy (who has flown in space 3 times) 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.”

After I returned, during a press conference with the International Space Station Expedition 8 crew, astronaut Mike Foale responded to a question I had asked. I asked how NASA could describe each ISS crew as being an “expedition” given that the popular defintion of the term involved going somewhere – whereas the ISS simply orbits the Earth.

Foale replied: 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.”

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, both 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.

Herein lie my journals from my very small part (I hope) in preparing the way for those would follow – and explore other worlds – in person.

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



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