Friday, July 29, 2011

Expeditions And Wilderness Parties

The ERTS camp had been designed under contract by a NASA team in 1977, based on the recognition that wilderness expedition equipment was fundamentally unchanged since the eighteenth century. “Designs for modern exploration are long overdue,” ERTS said, and asked for state-of-the-art improvements in lightness, comfort, and efficiency of expedition gear. NASA had redesigned everything, from clothing and boots to tents and cooking gear, food and menus, first-aid kits, and communications systems for ERTS wilderness parties.

The redesigned tents were typical of the NASA approach. NASA had determined that tent weight consisted chiefly of the structural supports. In addition, single-ply tents were poorly insulated. If tents could be properly insulated, clothing and sleeping-bag weight could be reduced, as could the daily caloric requirements of expedition members. Since air was an excellent insulator, the obvious solution was an unsupported, pneumatic tent: NASA designed one that weighed six ounces.

Using a little hissing foot pump, Ross inflated the first tent. It was made from double-layer 20-mil silvered Mylar, and looked like a gleaming ribbed Quonset hut. The porters clapped their hands with delight; Munro shook his head, amused; Kahega produced a small silver unit, the size of a shoebox. “And this, Doctor? What is this?”

“We won’t need that tonight. That’s an air conditioner,” Ross said.

“Never go anywhere without one,” Munro said, still amused.

Ross glared at him. “Studies show,” she said, “that the single greatest factor limiting work efficiency is ambient temperature, with sleep deprivation as the second factor.”


Munro laughed . . .

from “Congo”
by Michael Crichton

As I type this, it’s night, a little past ten o’clock.

There is a bright star almost directly overhead.

It’s hot and humid outside but my apartment’s cool
because of a small, efficient air conditioner.

Because I’m so comfortable inside, I don’t mind
taking my binoculars on an expedition
to the front lawn to have a close look at the bright star.

City lights obscure all but the bright stars around here
so without binoculars bright stars have no context
around them, no dim stars creating constellations.

I know, of course, that the bright star is the star Vega,
the brightest star in the constellation of Lyra,
the little harp, but without binoculars the harp
can’t be seen here and the bright star Vega is alone.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I lost track of the seasons.

Because I’m so comfortable inside, I don’t mind
taking my binoculars on an expedition
to the front lawn to have a close look at the bright star.

So I took my binoculars out to the front lawn
and had a look straight up. There was the bright star Vega,
with Epsilon Lyrae and Zeta Lyrae nearby
making a little triangle with Vega above
the little shifted rectangle Zeta Lyrae forms
with Beta, Delta and Gamma Lyrae, so easy
to see with a little help, so beautiful to see
glittering overhead, a shining harp in the sky.

Now I’m sitting here typing these expedition notes.

Although the weather’s awful outside—hot and humid—
my little air conditioner keeps my bedroom cool.

It will be nice sleeping tonight. I’m under the stars,
even if there is a roof between me and the stars.

And the stars up there make the shape of a little harp.

It’s not a real harp. It’s only a pretend harp. But
I can pretend, too, it will play a beautiful song
and I’ll listen to that melody from overhead
instead of my air conditioner’s compressor noise.

City lights obscure all but the bright stars around here.

But it’s only pretend. All the stars are still up there.

You just have to be cool, and know how and where to look.

12:30 am Update — Actually I see that it has now cooled off very nicely outside. It’s down in the seventies. I can switch off the air conditioner and not listen to compressor noises at all. Tonight it will be just me and the stars.

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