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Arctic Mars brings everyday dramas

Daily life at the Arctic Mars outpost means worrying about power, water and trash as well as the simulated space mission.
/ Source: Mars Society

“Hey,” my husband Jody whispered to me, “you’re about to lose power!” I woke in a start. Yep. The generator was gulping and spitting in a most unnatural way. I held my breath, listening. He was right!

I CLAMBERED out of my pallet on the floor and pulled on some jeans. Out the door of our stateroom I leapt, dressing as I went. I looked down — 5:30 a.m. Whew! Digby Tarvin and I had neglected to top off the Yanmar’s fuel last night before bedtime. (We are the out-of-sim crew members this week, the only ones who can go outside in regular clothes). Exactly 10 hours had passed since we’d refueled the diesel, so it was high time. And the bread machine was mid-cycle! Cooks Jody Tinsley and Jan Osburg were counting on a delicious, fragrant loaf to complete their breakfast menu, and it was up to me to reach my goal in time.


I lost a shoe on the way down the ladder, slipped and slid down the last three rungs, and hit the metal floor at a fast trot to the back hatch. Ooops! Boots were at the front airlock instead. I rushed back, grabbed them, pulled them on, and threw myself out the rear airlock.

When I reached the generator station, Jenny, as we call her, was gulping harder, with longer pauses between gasps and spurts. I quickly unscrewed the fuel cap and put the end of the hose in the tank. Normally we do this task with a companion, but Digby was fast asleep, and there were only moments left. I stretched to reach the handle of the pump, holding the hose in position in the tank. As I turned the handle, Jenny caught her breath, began to cough less, and finally smoothed out to her normal rumble. As she settled down, I replaced the cap and put the hose up. That was close!

My companions were asleep when I eased back up the stairs, with less of a clatter this time. One neighbor was even snoring when I slipped back into bed, unaware of how close we had come to having no fresh bread this morning. Somehow, I managed to go back to sleep and was dreaming of getting a haircut when Jody’s alarm went off.


Being out of sim means being ready to tackle any outside jobs around the Hab. The crew decided early on that in order for each of us to have as much experience in full sim as possible, we should rotate the out-of-sim duties a week at a time (except for Jan, who will be in full sim during our entire rotation; he will never leave the Hab without an EVA suit). Digby and I drew the first out-of-sim rotation.

Every day, in addition to our guard duties, we refuel the generator, gas up the all-terrain vehicles, empty the waste water containers, burn trash, film the extravehicular activities and bring our day’s water supply up from the stream. We have to work these tasks into our normal schedule, scooting out to do the chores in between attending seminars, going on EVA as regular crew members, writing reports and doing the specialized tasks we came for.

We all stay pretty busy — our normal days begin around 7 a.m. and end, depending on what projects are going on, between 11 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. Although we all wear different hats throughout the day, we each have specific responsibilities. Ella Carlsson rides herd on the EVA suits and equipment; Jan and Digby wrestle with our comms and engineering projects, Peter Lee works with Steve McDaniel on the science lab and the video project we have going; Jody fixes things and manages maps; and I oversee the kitchen and write.

We do much of our work in the common room, on the second floor of the Hab. It’s the nerve center of the station. It’s where Steve held a seminar on our microbiology project this morning, and Jody gave us an overview of the Haughton Crater this afternoon. It’s where Jan and Digby do comms, and where our laptops are set up for reporting, researching and file-sharing. It’s where we cook and eat our meals and watch movies on DVD. There’s a table, a long desk that we share currently housing six laptops, a projector, a printer and Jan’s ham radio setup. The satellite and Iridium phones sit on a shelf.

InsertArt(1954904)On the second floor are also the staterooms, a euphemistic term for the closets in which we sleep. They are about 4 feet wide and 11 feet long, little corridors that accommodate sleeping and not much else. But they are our hideaways, places for power naps and recharging, places we can go to escape the bustle of the group areas. Some staterooms have plywood berths; others, like mine and Jody’s, require sleeping on the floor. (Thank goodness for ThermaRest sleeping pads!) Some rooms have wire shelves for gear or hooks for hanging things.

Above the staterooms is the loft, where our water tank is (we gravity-feed the water to the kitchen and washroom), and where we store empty boxes, extra gear and spare food. We reach the loft by a wooden ladder made of 2-by-4s. On the first floor is the lab and mechanical area, the washroom and the EVA room. We move from floor to floor on a 24-foot fiberglass extension ladder, the one I slid partway down this morning.

We reach the outside through the front or rear airlock. Once out, someone looking at the Hab sees a white 2½-story cylinder, with porthole windows that look out on a wide-open, barren land. From the inside, we see the landscape only through a series of circles.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to