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.

Happy Moonday

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.

Spain, Caves, & Canada

On Tuesday I flew to Canada, after a week-long astrobiology course in Spain.  Tomorrow I’ll drive up from Vancouver to Pavilion Lake, to spend the next couple weeks deploying submarines with the Pavilion Lake Research Project.  I’m so pumped to be working with many of the same folks who were at the lake last summer–plus all the new people.  This year’s lineup includes:

1. more astronauts
2. more undergrads

…both of which I’m really excited about.

I’ve spent the last few days helping out with inventory and packing at UBC, and trying not to feel too overwhelmed with the amount of stuff we’re going to cram into this field season.  I’ll keep you posted!  In the meantime, below is a pair of photos from Spain.  In addition to seminars on subjects like microbial metabolisms, deep-sea hydrothermal vents, and  Saturn’s moon Titan, we were treated to an afternoon of spelunking.

Here we are inside El Soplao cave:


…and here are a few of the ladies, posing outside afterward:

More soon,

Happy Lunarversary

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.

Two Astronauts

I don’t work with normal people. Since I got to Pavilion Lake, I’ve had the opportunity to befriend an unreal group of people—people who’ve made careers at all ends of the earth, in outer space, and at the bottom of the oceans. Of course they’re all human, and they all take their jobs in stride as if it were the most common thing in the world. I think you have to, in a sense. But at the same time, what lets these people do such incredible things is that they never let it get old. It’s both a privilege and a talent to be able to pursue a job you love.

Adding to the list of characters here: Last night Dave Williams, the second of our two astronauts, arrived. Mike Gernhardt has been here since Monday. (Mike was wearing his flight suit today. My brain has more or less oozed its way out of my ear, and my heart has crawled up to take its place.)

This is the first year that Pavilion Lake has gotten the submarines, so there has definitely been a learning curve. These days, though, operations are running pretty smoothly, and the sub pilots have been able to start bringing up samples from the bottom of the lake. We’re researching microbialites, which are unusually-shaped carbonate structures. They vary in size and shape—from hand-sized to a few meters large, and from tall, chimney-like structures to structures that look more like heads of broccoli. We want to figure out how these structures are formed, and what causes the differences in shape and size. The submarines help us explore more than we possibly could by SCUBA.

Perhaps even more than the science itself, I’m fascinated by the technology that enables us to do this science. Thursday night Phil Nuytten arrived for a visit. Nuytco, which made the DeepWorker subs we’re using, is his company. Phil is a renaissance man of diving, pioneer of underwater technology, and, incidentally, a phenomenal totem pole carver. Yesterday he gave a really inspiring presentation. We got to see footage from the first solo dive deeper than 1,000 feet, see videos of the early development of the Newtsuit, and just listen to Phil talk about his career. He’s one of those people who either disregards or loves the fact that something hasn’t been done or doesn’t exist yet. You want to make a pressurized suit that can go down to 600 feet, but is still flexible enough to swim in? Sure. You just do your thing, Phil.

Yesterday Discovery Channel was here filming us, and they’re around again today. I’m trying my best to play it cool, but it’s totally not working.


Mars in Nature

Margarita Marinova, a Caltech grad student and one of the awesome people here at Pavilion Lake, just got the cover of Nature for her research into the origins of the two distinctly different hemispheres of Mars! Way to go, girl. Read more about it here.