Away Teams & Field Reports

Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 30 July 2002: Departure and Arrival

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
July 30, 2002
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Keith Cowing’s Devon Island Journal – 30 July 2002: Departure and Arrival
Keith wearing the Mars Concept Spacesuit torso
Keith Cowing

I got up around 6:00 this morning so as to get all of my packing out of the way. When it is your day to fly out you need to be flexible. The weather and the scheduling office at First Air can leave certainty out of the equation. If the First Air guys can fly in safely, they will. Many times the windows of acceptable weather are transient. As such, they need to take advantage of them as soon as they arise.

I managed to have an opportunity to wear the Hamilton Sunstrand Mars Concept spacesuit for a few minutes. After sharing a tent with it for more than a week I was itching to get it on. By a fortunate coincidence, the suit was designed specifically for me. I got it on easily and it rested on me as if I had been the model for its initial construction.

Keltey, Quimmiq, and John Schutt stand by our plane

Some people might find wearing a spacesuit uncomfortable – even claustrophobic. I found it to be a very pleasant experience. Indeed, it was fun. I only had a chance to walk around base camp for a few minutes but this was enough to make me understand what it would be like to ear one for a longer period of time. I was only wearing a torso, so I did not have the full “felt weight” experience. Nor did I have all of the electronics on. Nonetheless, it was a tantalizing glimpse of what it would be like to wear the real thing – in the field.

While wearing the suit (and gloves) I even had a chance to have a short conversation in American Sign language (ASL) with Ron Sidgreaves (his son is hearing impaired). Last week, I caught Ron gesturing to Harold Hansen while wearing the suit – he was signing. Being a former professional Sign Language Interpreter, I found this to be rather amusing. Trust me – I’m an expert – finger spelling is not easy in a spacesuit.

(L-R) Victor Rundquist, Steve Braham, and Brian Glass wait for us to depart

How would astronauts on Mars communicate on EVA if their radios failed? Would they touch their helmets together (so as to conduct sound) and shout like they do in the SciFi movies? Or would they use a gestural language, as do SCUBA divers? Given that the gestures divers use are rather limited in terms of the complexity they convey, I would hope that ASL – or some variation thereof – would be in Mars explorer’s repertoire.

The plane arrived a bit early. All of us – with one exception were packed and ready. One member of our group had not yet taken down her tent. This led to a mad scramble to help her get it down, packed, and up to the plane. Since loading and farewells take a while the delay in departure (if there was one) went unnoticed.

Everyone leaving Devon Island for the first time is given a HMP patch. This is the only way to get one: survive a stint on Devon Island. With the awarding of the patches, some last minute antics by the camp dogs, and a round of hugging and handshakes, the four of us climbed into the Twin Otter.

Coming into Devon Island over three weeks ago, I felt I was suddenly being dropped into an utterly alien world – one I have never experienced before. Today’s flight was a trip away from a place I had come to know as home – albeit a temporary and somewhat harsh one. Yet home it had become. While it was clearly time to leave, I caught myself thinking of ways I could stay – If not for only a few days.

I have to wonder what crews will think when the time comes to leave Mars. Certainly, the practical aspects will predominate, but I have t think that at least some of the crew will spend some time thinking of ways to say – just a bit longer.

When I arrived here, I had some minor lingering concerns about my ability to spend nearly a month here. To my great relief, I found myself adapting to life here in a matter of hours. Now that I am adapted, I am certain I could stay on for yet another month.

I am certain that these thoughts pass through the minds of Space Shuttle crews – certainly of Space Station crews. Sometimes they come true – we could get a sudden surge of bad weather that could delay our departure by a day – just as Shuttle crews find themselves in orbit for an extra day or so when landing site weather gets bad.

No. Not today. The plane is here. Time to head home.

Leaving Devon Island

The plane left Devon Island at 12:54 PM. As is the tradition – and as I had done many times – several team members stayed at the strip as we turned and taxied and then took off. Although I could not see Base Camp, I was certain that everyone was waving since this was the tradition for every flight that left the island.

After an uneventful flight I found myself landing in yet another alien locale: Resolute. Yes, I had been here before a month ago, but that Resolute had been one that was cold, rainy, and fogged in. This was a bright, comparatively cheery place. The time I had spent at the airport previously – including running around to locate various supplies- had where only a few buildings were visible at any tome.

Resolute Airport

When I was here before, the fog at Resolute airport ranged from thick, extra thick, to “can’t see your hand in front of your face” thick. Indeed, the day after I arrived, I was at the airport inspecting greenhouse materials for shipment to Devon Island. An impossibly thick fog rolled in out of nowhere in the course of 5 minutes. The fog was so thick I could see less than 20 or 30 meters in any direction. I had to walk from the Polar Shelf storage area over to the Resolute Airport terminal. Having only been here once before, I knew only one thing: that the road I could see eventually ended up there. I knew there was a shorter way, but I was not about to wander out onto a runway.

So, I spent an introspective 15 minutes walking along, eating a fruit bar my wife had packed for me, thinking of her as I savored its sweet taste. It was very quiet and no one was around. Only Keith was here. As I walked along, pondering the odd location I found myself in, the true nature of what I would soon experience began to manifest itself.

Today, a month wiser, I could see that I took a good 15 minutes that foggy day to walk from one point to another when I could have taken a 5 minute walk between the same two points had I known exactly where to walk. Oh well. That walk was much-needed quality time wherein I had a chance to catch up with where I had come from, where I was now, and where I would soon be.

Within a few minutes of landing we were unloading our luggage. Shortly thereafter a tingling sense of oddness began to make itself known. After another minute it came into focus: civilization.

New dorm facilites at the Co-op

While we certainly were not lacking in the implements of technology on Devon Island, we used them in a rather Spartan location. It was just that there was so much … stuff – and people here. Funny thing: when I had landed in Resolute for the first time last month, I felt that this barren place was on the edge of civilization. Now I saw it as a big, complicated place. Weird.

A few minutes later the oddness returned. I was looking at a television at the Polar Shelf offices. It was thirty seconds or so before I noticed that I was just staring at it. Of all things I had been watching Jerry Springer and hadn’t noticed. I hadn’t seen a TV in a month.

Co-op cafeteria

There were no major dysfunctions after this and I re-acclimated to civilization shortly thereafter. There were two things, however, that I was most looking forward to: a real toilet and a real shower.

We checked into our accommodations at the Co-op half an hour later. I offered to be the last to take a shower. No one took me up on the offer. I didn’t make the offer a second time. After being certifiably clean for the first time in weeks, I went over to the main Co-op building where I checked in on my email and started the process of preparing to go home.

I walked around town to get some pictures in. With the nice, clear weather the ice in the bay looked particularly beautiful. After an hour or so I headed back to my room.

That night I hit the sack early. I slept like a log.


Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA Space Station Payload manager/space biologist, Away Teams, Journalist, Lapsed climber, Synaesthete, Na’Vi-Jedi-Freman-Buddhist-mix, ASL, Devon Island and Everest Base Camp veteran, (he/him) 🖖🏻