A field campaign is not very different than a space launch. After seven weeks of fieldwork in Peru, I’ve returned from our expedition and have been contemplating the long journeys we made, laden with supplies and scientists.
Like a space mission, we aim for inhospitable destinations in far-away places. The steep slopes of the cloud forest are better left to the animals, but the scientific allure is too great. To get there, we have to plan meticulously, bringing all the supplies we’ll need to operate without external support.
Here you can see me in the Cusco airport, bringing equipment into the country for the project. After thirty hours on airplanes and a long adventure with la aduana, I’m still smiling – I’ve successfully carried in a large microscope, a specialized photomicrography setup, extra digital scanners and a computer, field clothing including polka-dot rubber boots, and a set of extensible metal pruning poles and cutting-head meant for removing branches from the forest canopy.
Next I met up with parts of the rest of our team, preparing the rest of our supplies for launch into the forest. Here you can see a small part of the provisions – crates of eggs, celery, fresh spinach, and a large insulated dry shipper, filled with liquid nitrogen and stored safely in a wooden crate. To preserve many leaf samples we need to use cryogens – and this delicate storage system needs to make it through long bus journeys into the mountains. None of what we bring can be replaced when we arrive.
Finally, the launch. We travel on dusty windy roads in top-heavy vans, hundreds of thousands of dollars of instruments strapped to the top or stuffed rudely into the seats. And we hope desperately that nothing falls off.
Once we reach our field sites, it’s time to unload and deploy all the equipment we’ve brought from all over the world. Here we are clearing bunchgrasses off part of the puño in order to make space to assemble our field laboratory.
The end result of this laborious launch operation is a working lab – here we’ve fit half a dozen people and four separate science pipelines into one large plastic tent. You can see beneath our feet the trampled remains of the grassland, and all the backup gear and consumable materials we need to keep operating.
Sometimes things break, and we have to improvise. To dry our leaf samples we rely on propane-powered ovens made of thin plywood and wire. For ventilation and mold reasons, they need to be kept off the ground. At this site our normal supports weren’t available, so we propped them up with leftover cans of condensed milk, and covered the sharp wire joints with segments of twigs. When supplies are limited, all options are on the table.
Some rockets use multiple stages, discarding spent pieces as the main payload continues on to its destination. We eventually exited the field, leaving behind a great quantity of supplies for the team, then continued on to a laboratory at a university in Lima, carrying a much smaller set of supplies necessary to set up an imaging facility. Here you can see our microscope and photomicrography equipment deployed and ready to analyze leaf structure.
With all the equipment delivered, with all the field teams set up, and the laboratory running, it was time to declare our mission accomplished. The Saturn V rocket that sent a few hundred kilograms of humans to the moon weighed over two million kilograms at launch. I thought of it as I slept in an airport, almost home, carrying only a backpack, like I was coasting through space on the last stage of what was once a very immense machine.