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Real work for simulated ‘Marswalk’

During the Arctic Mars simulation, it takes a team effort to pull off an outing, complete with practice spacesuits and real scientific gear.
/ Source: Mars Society

Space mission today! EVA! Extravehicular Activity! To prepare for an EVA requires all of us. The ones going out in suits have to gather their scientific equipment, the GPS units and maps for navigation purposes, cameras, writing materials, personal items and the like; the guard has to get the shotguns ready and attach them to different all-terrain vehicles.

THE ONES staying behind help those going out by zipping suits (there’s a torso-long zipper down the back), helping put the big, unwieldy boots on, fastening the leggings or gaiters, hefting the backpacks and adjusting the fit if necessary, and fitting and connecting the helmets. The backpacks are the ventilation for the suits; their fans blow outside air through tubes into the helmet. Ella Carlsson maintains the batteries and checks over the helmets and suits regularly, so rarely do we run into problems as we are suiting up.

Each backpack is keyed by number to a suit and to a helmet, so we know which part goes with which. This fact should make the suiting up process go smoothly. However, there’s almost always a bit of chaos. The EVA room, where the suits, packs, and helmets are stored, is rather small, so we spill over somewhat into the lab/mechanical area. People are moving around carrying awkwardly shaped things and trying to put boots on. The ones who dress quickly have to sit around in the restrictive suits until everyone else is ready to go.

The process is made more intricate because of the paraphernalia that must be fitted to the crew member and suit. Each person has a radio headset, but we have learned that the earpiece tends to fall out over a long EVA in rugged terrain, so it must be taped to the side of the head. The headset must connect to the EVA radio, which must be attached to the suit, usually with a Velcro strap on the upper arm. This is done after the suit is on, and the long wires must be secured to the suit and yet allow for freedom of movement.

Then there is a mirror to be strapped on top of the arm for seeing behind (I can’t turn my head while it’s in an EVA helmet more than a few degrees to each side). And perhaps I want a pencil to make notes with — it has to be secured somewhere, too.

So as the time for the EVA approaches, there’s a lot of bustling and excitement. Does everyone have what’s needed? Are all the radios working? Each radio must be tested — can I hear the EVA leader, the crew members and the Hab? Can the others hear me?

Let’s go through the checklist one more time.


And then it’s showtime. Into the airlock goes the EVA team; five people on today’s mission filled the airlock completely. The team stays inside the airlock for 10 minutes before they are given permission to exit the outer door — this routine simulates the depressurization astronauts must go through in order to go outside. When the crew returns, they come into the airlock and wait five minutes for simulated repressurization before receiving permission to come inside the Hab.

There’s something really exciting about being one of the “chosen ones” going out to explore new terrain on Mars. At the same time we are restricted by the suits, we are seeing our world in a different way. In the suits, we are astronauts on a mission. We are free of the bounds of the Hab; we are explorers, adventurers. We are self-reliant, resourceful, strong, striving to accomplish the mission goals. We communicate with our EVA teammates by radio or signs; we work together to climb over rocks or pull out of mud, to collect samples and keep them organized. We are on our own — we find our own way.

InsertArt(1954901)But exploring was not to be my lot today. Someone has to stay behind, as we have only five ATVs. So at 3 o’clock this afternoon (or at 1500 hours, we say at the Hab), the airlock door shut behind our EVA team, separating Steve McDaniel and me from the rest of our crewmates. They were going out on a mission to Devo Rock, a landmark out of sight of the Hab, about 2 kilometers away (I have to put on my metric hat to be a legitimate member of a space mission — that’s about 1.2 miles when I’m at home). They were setting out to explore a part of Devon Island we had never seen, to test the GPS units and practice driving in rough terrain.

We were to stay behind in the Hab. Steve monitored the radios, responding to the EVA team as needed, and spent hours logging the videotape; I emptied food boxes, tended the generator, and did some work around the Hab. All afternoon, as Steve peered at his camera’s playback screen and I scrubbed cabinets and boiled tonight’s potatoes, we could hear the EVA team having adventures.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to