Posted on August 24, 2009
Just when I was beginning to wonder why I’d renewed the domain for this blog…
T-minus 10 days until I head out to NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies (D-RATS). I’ll be helping with a 14-day mission on the Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, testing the Lunar Electric Rover, which looks like this:
Check out the website for the 2009 Desert RATS field season. You’ll find links to the D-RATS Youtube channel, Twitter page, blog, and Flickr page.
Posted on July 20, 2009
I’ve just returned from Pavilion Lake (you can read updates from the entire research team here), coming full-circle after an adventure-filled year. Soon I’ll share with you more about my most recent time at Pavilion Lake, but first:
Today marks 40 years since the Apollo 11 lunar landing and mankind’s first footsteps outside of Earth.
Compared to many other creatures on Earth, we are fairly limited in our natural range of habitat. We can’t fly, we can’t breathe underwater, we don’t do so well in extreme temperatures. We are exceptional, though, in that we create technologies which allow us to explore elements beyond the land—technologies like rockets and boats.
In November, I sailed on a tall ship named after Robert C. Seamans (who, incidentally, was an important figure at NASA in the 1960s, and sat behind President Kennedy at his famous Rice University speech). What I grew to love about sailing on board the SSV Seamans was becoming a part of this technology that harnesses natural forces. We set the sails. We engage the engine. I have been asked a few times why people still bother with tall ships when technology has progressed so far beyond sails. We sail for the challenge, for the thrill, the accomplishment, or maybe simply because we want to go somewhere.
In any case, the ocean is there and we have something that floats. We went to the Moon for similar reasons in the 1960s. We have yet to go back. Some say we lack the technology. We lack the motivation. We haven’t been able to muster that spirit again. Should you meet the people with whom I’ve worked during the last year, I think you will see that our spirit for challenge, adventure, and intellectual gain still exists.
At night on the SSV Seamans, I couldn’t help but look up at the stars. I delighted, too, in celestial navigation, an art which, these days, is more easily done with GPS units. That we can derive a point on the surface of our planet from a few pinpricks in the sky is impressive, I thought. But that we understand what those pinpricks are and where we are in relation to them is profound.
Few things in sailing are as important as knowing where you came from, where you are, and where you are going—and this of course presents an easy metaphor for any human endeavor. There is nothing more thrilling than knowing where you want to wind up, and pointing your bow into the dark sky separating you from that goal.
Posted on December 26, 2008
With so much left to say about my time at sea, it’s hard to believe that I’ve been home for a month already, and that I’m leaving so soon for Antarctica. I fly out on December 27th, and will arrive 26 hours later in Punta Arenas, Chile. From there, it’s another four or five days by ship across the Drake Passage before I reach the Antarctic.
This time last year I was just beginning the first of my adventures, and I’m about to embark on my last–for a little while, anyway. Thank you to all those who have shared these experiences with me. Stay tuned for stories from the deep, deep, deep south…
Posted on December 16, 2008
Some high-definition footage I shot in the Arctic will be part of an episode of the PBS series NOVA, to be aired nationally at 8pm on December 30th, two weeks from today. You can read more here:
You will also be able to watch the episode online anytime after it airs on December 30th.
Posted on September 4, 2008
I am officially at Woods Hole now, which I guess means it’s time to bid farewell to the Arctic as far as blog posts go.
We left Axel Heiberg on one of the windiest days I’ve ever seen. Upper Camp, where we had been staying further north on the island, was experiencing some nasty cloudy weather, so we took a gamble and hiked a few miles south, in the hopes that the plane would have a better chance of landing there. The clouds may have actually been better, given the incredible gusts ripping through Lower Camp, and unpredictably changing directions every few minutes. If I unzipped my jacket and held its edges out like sails, the wind literally lifted me off my feet.
I’d secretly been hoping it wouldn’t be able to land, but in some crazy feat of expert piloting, the twin-otter managed to touch down at Lower Camp, after circling a few times to gauge the wind.
We were splashed with jet fuel as the pilots tried to fill up the twin-otter’s tank in the blustering wind. In between gusts, I overheard the pilot say, “Young pilots think they’re going to live forever. Me? I’ve already lived forever.”
I wasn’t sure what exactly that implied for the flight ahead of us, but I guessed correctly that it was going to be a bumpy ride. As we strapped down our cargo and began to buckle ourselves in, the co-pilot turned around and warned us:
Make sure you buckle those tight. I mean … TIGHT.
Sure enough, it wasn’t long after the twin-otter took off from the tundra that we hit some serious turbulence. We were actually weightless at one point, with all our jackets, cameras, and cargo floating right at eye-level. I was videotaping the view out the window when it happened. Unfortunately, I didn’t think fast enough to catch the floating stuff on camera, but it’s a fun video to watch nonetheless:
I get so wistful watching that landscape disappear below the plane. I can’t wait to go back. I’m addicted to the Arctic.
Posted on August 12, 2008
One of the most interesting features on Axel Heiberg is the existence of perennial springs. They come in a variety of forms. Some look like little streams flowing down the side of the hill, others look like ponds bubbling up like tiny jacuzzis, still others look like seeps coming up from below. Some of them leave deposits that form shapes like pipes over the springs.
But don’t let the bubbling jacuzzi effect fool you–these springs are not hot. Not even close. Intriguingly, the temperatures vary from spring to spring, despite their proximity to one another. Most are around 4 degrees Celsius. The really neat thing is that these springs flow year round, despite a mean annual temperature of minus 15 degrees. And they come up at a constant temperature and flow rate, despite air temperatures which, over the seasons, change drastically from above freezing to 40 below.
The springs also reek of that delicious rotten egg smell, like a giant fart. Thank you, sulfur.
The grayish stuff you see in the pictures above is a film of sulfur-reducing bacteria. The white stuff is gypsum, a type of salt.
Posted on July 20, 2008
July 20, 2008: today marks 39 years since we first landed on the moon. We have not been back since 1972, and will not go again until at least 2018.
As a high school senior in 2006, I remember watching Mireya Mayor’s speech at the Intel ISEF. Mayor is an ex-Miami Dolphins cheerleader, now a primatologist and National Geographic correspondent. Her speech was geared towards young scientists, telling them that if you want to go somewhere, it takes a little persistence but you’ll find a way to make it happen.
Listening to her tales of discovery in the jungles of Madagascar was perhaps the first time I felt compelled to someday head into the wilderness, to go places where not many others can go. Since then, I’ve found the world of astrobiology. I’ve become obsessed with studying life where we once thought there could be none. I want to go to the ends of the Earth. These are my frontiers.
We as humans are still young scientists, but we are good at going places where not many others can go. We have talked about new frontiers in space, but have yet to get there.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein said that. Good news: it’s true. There’s a big universe out there, humans, so dream big. But imagination won’t always get us where we want to go without the guts and global support to act on it. Let’s go somewhere.
Posted on July 15, 2008
The lovely Masha, whom I met at Pavilion Lake, recently pointed out in an email that the Apollo lunar missions totally could’ve used a better name. Why would you name the lunar program after the god of light and archery? Why not at least name it Artemis?
The Apollo Program was named by Abe Silverstein. According to a New York Times article, there was “No specific reason for it … It was just an attractive name.”
And according to the book Apollo, Silverstein also stated, “I was naming the spacecraft like I’d name my baby.”
Whatever that means.
Anyway, I’ve done some cursory research on the names of lunar deities from a number of cultures. I think it would be sweet if we named our next moon mission after one of these gods:
…and my personal favorite, from Aztec mythology:
Yeah. NASA will definitely go for that.
Posted on July 14, 2008
Go figure my last day at Pavilion Lake was gloomy. For a while, the rain actually turned to snow, making this two years in a row that I’ve seen snow in July.
Next up: Axel Heiberg Island in the High Arctic. In the meantime, here is a grab-bag of images and stories from Pavilion Lake…
* * *
Astronaut Goes Down Instead of Up
Here’s Mike Gernhardt, from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, about to pilot the DeepWorker sub. Mike is involved in the rover design for our next moon mission. Yes folks, we are going back. Keep your pants on until 2018. On another note: you can get an idea from this picture of just how small these subs are. When Nuytco was designing them, they got a business class airplane seat, and literally built the sub around that. What’s so amazing about Nuytco is that they make subs which can go down to 2000 feet or deeper, but keep them small enough to fit in a pickup. Another cool thing: you actually drive these suckers with your feet. No steering wheel.
* * *
It looks less impressive than it really was. This thing had to be assembled right on the lake, and it was designed especially for our project. Nuytco typically launch their subs from enormous vessels, which can support cranes or mechanical pulley systems. We needed something big enough to launch two submersibles, but small enough that it could be transported to the lake on the back of a truck … which meant that the subs had to be lowered on a chain into the water on by hand!
* * *
(No, there are not aliens in Pavilion Lake.) Pictured here is one of the “artichokes” … a microbialite from pretty deep in the lake. Microbialites are carbonate structures. They’re surprisingly delicate. Up close, you can see tiny pores and individual, sand-like grains. Some of the structures crumble like dirt if you pinch them between your fingers. So beautiful and still totally mysterious.
* * *
Here I am getting interviewed. Why anybody would possibly want to capture my thoughts on film is beyond me, but it nevertheless happened. The white sail-looking thing is supposed to diffuse light, which apparently makes your face look better. We nicknamed the light diffusing device “The CHUMP,” which stands for Can’t Hold Up Myself Properly.
* * *
McKay Has Better Things to Say
Chris McKay’s interview was undoubtedly more valuable than my own. McKay is kind of the granddaddy champion of astrobiology. He’s hugely involved in Mars exploration (including being a co-investigator for the Phoenix Lander).
* * *
Here’s a photo of some of the barge crew, Nuytco guys, divers, sub pilots, and a few of the ladies who tried their hand at hauling chain. Front and center is Jeff “the Human Crane” Heaton. Check out those arms. One day, he lifted a sub out of the water with one hand. Rumor has it, he can do it with a single pinkie finger.
* * *
My New Best Friend
Here’s me with astronaut Mike, wearing his flight suit. I got a personalized tour of all the pockets. His chapstick goes in a pocket on his thigh, and pens go on the upper arm. “And this is where I keep my cash,” he said, pulling a fold of one-dollar bills out of a pocket near his shin. Why you would need cash in outer space beats me.
* * *
Dale and Drysuit
At Pavilion Lake, most folks SCUBA dive using a drysuit. In a drysuit, you can wear layers of warm clothing underneath and remain quite dry and toasty. Pavilion Lake is around 4 degrees Celsius at the bottom, so staying warm is key. (I tried diving wearing a wetsuit. I do not recommend it.) Interestingly, you can’t pee in the water when you’re wearing a drysuit, because you’d just wind up wetting your pants. Some people have specialized pee valves put into their drysuits. Sporting the drysuit in this photo is Dale Andersen, who has been diving below 20 feet of ice in Antarctic lakes for 30 years, and once survived an Antarctic blizzard in nothing but a sleeping bag … a severely cool dude. His drysuit does not have a pee valve. I asked.
* * *
The Other Sub
In addition to the piloted subs, we also have an autonomous sub called Gavia, which looks a lot like a golden torpedo. When programmed, Gavia can fly missions on her own, taking pictures and collecting data as she goes. Sometimes Gavia gets stuck in the mud, and Alex (pictured above) has to go diving to rescue her. The proper verb is “Gaviating.”
* * *
Back in Vancouver, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Vancouver Aquarium, thanks to a couple Pavilion Lake folks who work there as SCUBA divers. I never expected that getting to pet dolphins could be the low point of a month, but it certainly was. I miss Pavilion Lake terribly, and I’m already looking forward to going back next summer. I’ve never been so changed by one experience or group of people.
* * *
I’m trying now to shift my thoughts towards what’s next, but to say it’s surreal would be an understatement. In ten days, I’ll head up to the Arctic on a twin-otter plane. I’m dreaming of glaciers, musk ox, icebergs, and long underwear.
Posted on July 6, 2008
It’s weirdly calm now. The submersibles left on July 3rd (and along with them, the whole crew from Nuytco). Some new folks arrived last night, ushering in “Science Week” here at Pavilion Lake. The focus has shifted from subs to SCUBA diving and water sampling.
I miss the DeepWorkers. They were the heart and soul of this place for the first two weeks, and everyone’s energy was completely dedicated to them. It almost feels like a completely different project. And now that it’s over: I realize that I haven’t actually divulged much about what was going on, so here’s a quick rundown:
Our days started around 7am—the sub pilots finishing the details of their upcoming dives, the Nuytco guys testing the hydraulics on the subs, me frantically labeling tapes, etc. There were four dives each day—two in the morning, two in the afternoon.
The subs had to be lowered into the water by hand, using pulleys and chains. Thank heavens for Jeff from Nuytco, proud owner of a pair of Incredible Hulk arms. The subs would stay underwater for around two hours, flying contours of the lake and getting high-definition video of different microbialite morphologies.
I’ve been in charge of the data and video footage that came off the subs. Each hour of video is worth more than I want to think about, so I feel like a mother bird sitting on about 90 cassette-shaped eggs. My little babies. I will bite if you come near them.
So I guess the subs aren’t quite gone from my life. We’ve got tapes backed up for miles, waiting to be copied and stored, which means I get to sit and watch the footage from all the dives. Even on a tiny screen, it looks unbelievable.
Some of the microbialites are pretty small and ugly. But others have the most incredible intricate and varied shapes. We’ve adopted a vegetable system of nomenclature: some are artichoke-shaped, some cauliflower-shaped, etc. Others look like collections of chimneys, and a few are perfectly cone-shaped. Mike Gernhardt found microbialites that look almost like fire coral. Here’s a video: