Photos by Katherine Wright

Our second day at Kilbourne Hole was no cooler than the first. To avoid the heat-failures of the first day, instruments were wrapped in space blankets, shaded with umbrellas, and placed in drinks coolers full of ice. Scientists sought shade in a newly bought gazebo, sheltered in air-conditioned cars at regular intervals, and significantly upped their fluid intake. These “field modifications”, it was hoped, would keep the instruments and people cool—and functional—in the searing heat. Some worked better than others, but overall the performance of instruments, and their operators improved over the first day’s outing to the desert.


“Where was this Day 1?” said Ben Fiest, a web information expert, stepping into the shade of a blue gazebo that had been rigged up close to where the scientists were making measurements. “In Walmart,” replied Patrick Whelley, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who was standing in one corner of the tent enjoying a fruit snack. The gazebo had been purchased the previous day to provide shade for the instruments while they weren’t in use, and also respite for the team from the blazing sun when they weren’t working.

NASA scientist Patrick Whelley standing in the shade of a gazebo.


On Day 1 the hand held chemical analysis instrument stopped functioning early afternoon. (The instrument is called a Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscope, or LIBS for short). In an attempt to keep the LIBS cool on our next outing in the desert, its operator, Amy McAdam, also a scientist at Goddard, shaded the instrument with an umbrella, while its lasers zapped the rocks. Sadly, her effort was in vain—by lunchtime the LIBS had again given up the ghost. “I’m learning what [the instrument] can and can’t do,” said Amy, “it doesn’t like the heat.” The LIBS ended the day surrounded by ice in a drinks cooler. “There isn’t too much water [in the cooler], so it should be ok.”

NASA scientist Amy McAdam protects her instrument.


In the 105 °F heat, Nikki Whelley’s boots melted. The soles detached from her shoes and started flapping as she walked. During the one-day break we had between field days, Nikki, who works in education and outreach at NASA and was on the trip to keep us journalists in line, reattached the soles with Super Glue. For good measure, she also bound the boots with silver duct tape. Nikki’s boots weren’t the only ones to suffer this fate. Mine died on our third field day and were thrown out at the end of the trip.

Melted boots were stuck back together with Super Glue and duct tape.



Jake Bleacher, the field trip team leader, had told the journalists to bring at least 3 liters of fluid with us to the field. As we each discovered, 3 liters just wasn’t enough. On the second day at Kilbourne Hole, I doubled my water intake and regularly sipped on Gatorade. And at regular intervals, Jake and helpers carried bottles of water, keep cold in an ice chest in one of the trucks, to the team members out in the sun.

Astronaut Butch Wilmore sipping on the water in a bladder in his backpack.


To operate correctly, the hyperspectral camera—a camera that captures the heat, or infrared radiation, being emitted by rocks—needs to remain cooler than its surroundings. On the first field day this didn’t happen. On the second field day, the hyperspectral team wrapped the instrument in an emergency blanket made of the same material that NASA uses to shield satellites from space radiation. “It’s the first time we’ve operated in this heat,” said Byron Wolfe, who works for the company that made the camera. “[The blanket] is a field adjustment.”

The hyperspectral camera wrapped in an emergency blanket.