When NASA visited Venetie
VENETIE ‹ The cozy log structure smells of coffee, gasoline, and spruce logs
burning in a stove made from a 55-gallon drum. Inside the building that
serves as the Village Council headquarters for Venetie, Josh Bundick
explains a new policy that rewards villagers who find spent rocket parts
launched from north of Fairbanks.
The Venetie men and women in the cabin look at one another when Bundick
mentions that National Aeronautics and Space Administration is offering as
much as $1,200 for the location of rocket parts. Dozens of these rocket
stages remain in northern Alaska from aurora-studying missions launched
during the last few decades from Poker Flat Research Range in Chatanika,
about 30 miles north of Fairbanks. Burnt out rocket motors are not easy to
see, especially in burned forest of the type that forms a patchwork quilt
"The end of a burned tree stump, that's what it looks like from above,"
Bundick says. "Looking for these rocket parts is like looking for a needle
in a haystack."
"Yes it is," says Venetie's Ernest Erick, looking at a map of possible
impact zones north and west of the village. "That's a lot of country."
Erick, a resident of this settlement of less than 200 people, stated his
village's interests in an afternoon meeting between officials of NASA, Poker
Flat Research Range and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For the three
NASA researchers, this is their first winter trip to an Alaska village. One
experience the Virginia residents might not forget is their ride from
airstrip to village school in the back of a pickup truck when the ambient
air temperature was minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA's Tripp Ransone speaks with Venetie residents in the
Village Council office. To his right are NASA¹s Josh Bundick and Mark
Bertram of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
PHOTO: Ned Rozell
Their mission is to spread the word of NASA's "Clean Range Policy" initiated
in 2011. The agency will pay $1,200 for location data on rocket motors that
have not been reported before. There is a $500 reward for nose cones, doors,
payloads and smaller rocket pieces.
"Our goal is 100 percent recovery of rocket parts," Bundick says to the
small gathering. "With the rewards program, we're moving in that direction."
The attempt to retrieve rocket parts old and new (Poker Flat has one launch
scheduled this spring) is in part inspired by an Environmental Impact
Statement now being written. That document, which will be available for
anyone to review once it is drafted, will decide the fate of continuing the
NASA Sounding Rocket Program at Poker Flat, managed by the Geophysical
Institute and owned by the University of Alaska.
Some rocket parts, such as payloads attached to colorful parachutes, are
easy to recover. Rocket motors that penetrate the ground "like lawn darts"
after they burn are more difficult to find on recovery flights that occur
from Poker Flat after each launch. For years, the Geophysical Institute has
paid the tribal governments of Venetie and Arctic Village for the right to
launch rockets from Poker Flat, parts of which may arc to the ground on
their expansive lands north of the Arctic Circle.
"You're an essential partner here," Mark Bertram, a biologist for Yukon
Flats National Wildlife Refuge who traveled north from Fairbanks with the
NASA people, tells the nine Venetie men and three women gathered in the
Venetie resident Ernest Erick, who attended a meeting with NASA
officials in the small village north of the Arctic Circle.
PHOTO: Ned Rozell
Erick, wearing a baseball hat and tanned mooseskin mukluks, notes that he is
among those villagers who signed the land-use agreement with Poker Flat
Research Range more than 20 years ago.
"We need to see an increase (in the payment for the right to use Venetie
lands)," he says. "We're not big oil people here. We're friends of the
"I can come back and work on that, at your convenience," says Kathe Rich,
Operations Controller at Poker Flat Research Range. Rich, the point person
in NASA's rewards program, has already made payments to several people who
have given her valid coordinates to rocket parts no one reported before.
As the daylight wanes outside the big window in the village council office,
the NASA representatives show their last PowerPoint slide, and the villagers
clean their plates of fruit and other snacks carried northward by the
visitors. Cold air curls into the room as people head outside to the rest of
their afternoons on a late winter day.
"We want to have a clean range," Bundick says. "Now, any rocket that we
launch, we want to bring it back home."
This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research
community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute.