R&R Meeting in the Airport

We’ve worked together for just about a year before we finally met in person. The Medford airport is incredibly small—certainly the smallest either of us has ever been to. Meeting in person was exciting, but we found ourselves in a unique situation of quickly jumping right into the normal conversation as if we were old friends catching up after a work trip. We got lunch while we waited for Chris Patterson to land and dived right into a conversation about our flights, our past weekend, and our partners. It wasn’t long before Chris landed, we got our rental car, and the excitement of being on the other side of the country kicked in. The drive should only have been about two hours but we stopped at a couple of scenic overlooks while we drove through the mountains and added the first few pictures to our albums of the trip, the same albums which would eventually have nearly two-thousand pictures cataloging our experience.

Meeting the Team

After our drive, we arrived at Lava Beds, and naturally, we stopped again to take pictures of the park entrance sign and the scenery—a flat and arid landscape garnished with ancient lava rocks and scarred with matching blackened trees, still burnt from fires that ended years ago. Finally, we finished what was left of our drive and parked at the research center, where we were quickly met with a warm embrace by the rest of the team introducing themselves. The anxiety of meeting new people was quickly alleviated by some light chatter over dinner and our first in-person team meeting shortly after.

Mushpot Cave with Barb

Barb Bieler, the logistics coordinator for the trip, brought us to Mushpot cave before we retired to bed. We strapped on helmets and headlamps and followed her on a short walk to the entrance of our first cave. The entrance had cement stairs with railings on both sides and the interior of the cave was conveniently dressed with smaller lighting fixtures. Barb guided us through the cave and told us about some of the features on the walls and the work ahead of us in the week. We were absolutely fascinated by the cave and sufficiently excited for the week as we walked back to the research center under the night sky.

First Look at Valentine

Our first full day of the trip was a busy one. We gathered some informational pamphlets we designed and got printed before heading to Valentine Cave to help set up and get our first look at what was going to be the main home of the team’s Spot Robots for the next week. We got our first look at the robots before Pat Dobson showed us around the cave and we were enthralled by its size, structure, and features. We soon went up to the entrance of the cave to meet the middle school students who were coming to meet the team and see the caves. We handed out our pamphlets and offered to answer any questions, but they were captivated by our NASA jumpsuits and mostly just wanted to know if we were astronauts or if we had gone to the Moon.

Valentine’s Crawlspace

After lunch, Pat brought us to the end of Valentine Cave, well past the aphotonic zone, meaning that no light was coming from the outside. We all turned out our lights and were silent—that sheer darkness was something we had never experienced and it was surprisingly disoriented. This, Pat told us, was why it is so important to bring a spare light source and backup battery when going into the caves. Eventually, at the end of the cave, Pat showed us a small passageway that we had to crawl through. It was a bit nerve-wracking at first but we soon got to the very end of the crawlspace and took some pictures before crawling back out.

The Robots

Finally seeing the robots in action after so long of hearing about and seeing pictures of them was something unforgettable. The robots moved at times with such calculated precision, but sometimes they did “interesting” maneuvers, like trampling over a flood flight that was on the floor. They seemed remarkably smart and advanced but sounded like RoboCop’s limbs as he marches down a street, which was unsettling and certainly felt like a strict contrast to their impressive movement and design.

The Rest of the Caves

While the majority of the team worked in Valentine to run tests with the robots, we had the chance to follow Taeyeon and Sammi as they snuck one of the robots through the tiny crawlspace-sized opening to Mammoth Cave and used the robot’s 30x zoom camera and a handheld UV light to image microbial communities on the cave wall. A train track ran above the cave and we definitely got nervous as we heard it overhead, but as we went deeper into the cave, we were mesmerized by the cathedral ceiling painted with glistening biofilm. Later, we also got the chance to follow Chris as he mapped Yellowstone Cave with a handheld LiDAR scanner. Yellowstone was the most difficult cave to navigate for us and even required some bushwhacking to find its entrance and a rope ladder to get into it. Yellowstone looked ancient, with a floor cluttered with ancient microbial-made structures and small paths to squeeze through.

Saying Goodbye

We had the chance while we were there to interview and get to know the entire team, which made saying goodbye much harder. We hugged and shook hands with everyone and got emotional before driving away with Chris to head back to the airport. We had almost the same layover in Seattle, so we said goodbye to Chris and met there to get lunch and chat about the trip. Finally, we said goodbye to each other about forty times before walking away to our departure gates. One of the last things we did was make an agreement to go back to Lava Beds sometime and relive our adventures.