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.

Yesterday marked 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.

I think listening to her tales of discovery in the jungles of Madagascar was 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. I think we just don’t want to go badly enough.

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 if we don’t have the guts to act on it. Let’s go somewhere.

I keep waking up and not knowing where I am. In the last week, I’ve been in Pavilion Lake, Vancouver, Williamsburg, New Orleans, and now New Jersey. Four days from now I’ll be on my way to the Arctic. There’s not a lot for me to do right now. I’ve been thinking about packing (there’s only room for one backpack of stuff … yikes), and have spent a good bit of time drooling over Google Earth’s vision of Axel Heiberg Island, trying to familiarize myself with the fiords and glaciers of the area.

I’ve also been lonesomely thinking back on my time at Pavilion Lake. One thing I really ought to do is finish watching Apollo 13. How weird is it that I’d never seen that movie before?? We started watching it one night, but everyone was too exhausted to make it to the end.

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:

  • Ta’lab (Arabian)
  • Sin (Babylonian)
  • Lair báln (Celtic)
  • Thoth (Egyptian)
  • Phoebe (Greek)
  • Mama Quilla (Incan … though I doubt anybody would take a spacecraft named “Mama Quilla” seriously)
  • Igaluk (Inuit)
  • Kalfu (Vodou)

…and my personal favorite, from Aztec mythology:

  • Coyolxauhqui

Yeah. NASA will definitely go for that.

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.

* * *

The Barge
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!

* * *

Alien Autopsy?
(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.

* * *

Media
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.

* * *

Mutant Monster Dandelions
This doesn’t really have much to do with anything, but aren’t they enormous?? I tried to make a wish on one, but couldn’t get the little fluffles to fly away, no matter how hard I blew.

* * *

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 inner 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 on his leg. 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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

The End
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.

Signing out for now,
Zena Cardman

Pavilion Lake Research Project 2008: Intro
Interviews with some of the PLRP submarine pilots

First Footage from the DeepWorker Submarines
Early PLRP footage from the subs. The male voice you hear is NASA astronaut Mike Gernhardt. The female voice belongs to the lovely Bekah Shepard.

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.

Exactly two weeks from today, I’ll be in British Columbia, getting ready to head up to the Pavilion Lake Research Project–the first of my adventures.

Yesterday, during one of my now-frequent phone calls with friendly NASA folks, I learned that the Discovery Channel is going to be there filming us.

!!!!

Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Love,
Zena Cardman