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Space odyssey on an Arctic frontier

Trekkers on the Mars simulation crew complete a grueling, 12-hour trip from their habitat to the chilly coast of Devon Island.
/ Source: Mars Society

The wet, exhausted analog astronauts weaved about as they walked, clearly fumbling with straps and buckles as they loosened the gear from their all-terrain vehicles. Ella Carlsson and I peered out the kitchen window, reporting to Peter Lee what we were seeing. We had established radio contact with the away team about 30 minutes earlier, after eight hours with no word from them. Those eight hours had been excruciating for those of us who were left behind, wondering what was happening, whether the team was safe, whether they had achieved our goal of reaching the coast.

InsertArt(1962211)THE FIRST RADIO contact had assured us of the answers to our questions: Yes, they were on their way home; yes, they were safe; and yes, they had reached the coast. As Jody Tinsley, Steve McDaniel, Jan Osburg and Digby Tarvin unloaded, the radio chatter that we heard was euphoric, belying their physical condition. We sympathized with their stiff gait and awkward movements. As they announced, “We’re in the airlock...” and “we’re ready to exit the airlock,” we rushed down the ladder to greet them and help them off with their equipment.

It was a dazed but happy crew who met us. But Digby and Jan caught our attention first, as we could hardly see their faces through the fogging on the inside of their helmets.

“Oh, my word!” I exclaimed. How long have you been like this?”

“About 11 hours,” grinned Jan. “I could hardly see a thing.” The scuba mask defogger he and Digby had put on the inside of their helmets had, unfortunately, not prevented condensation. They now swear by Palmolive dishwashing liquid, the soap the rest of us have been using for that purpose.

A more rested Digby told me his story today. As he spoke in his measured, Australian phrases, I took in his tale, which I must admit was interrupted by my involuntary (but sympathetic) shrieks of laughter. The ATV riding was intense, he explained. “The materials bouncing around in front of me (on the front rack) were mildly off-putting. The emergency gear was shifting its weight, and I couldn’t see over it to where I was going. But my opaque view in the helmet was the worst.”

Soon after departure, Digby’s helmet was fogged completely. Desperate, he began using his knitted skull cap to try to wipe off the moisture. To accomplish this, he had to butt his head around inside his helmet, trying to wipe the visor with the cap. (All these maneuvers are done, note, while the ATV is bouncing over rocks and creeping over boulders.) After a few attempts, he lost his cap, which slipped off the side of his head and down over one ear, and finally to the spot where the air intake comes in from the backpack.

Now half his fresh air was blocked off — and the condensation got even worse. Using his chin, he said, he eventually managed to move the cap out of the way. The cap finally dealt with, however, he still had the fogging problem. So using the only tools at hand, he began wiping his hair across the visor, with the result that he managed to clear a patch to see through, but strands of hair were stuck across it — and the oil from his hair made intermittent smears that compounded the difficulty with seeing ahead.

InsertArt(1962212)“We are straining to see where we are going,” he noted, “but the terrain is designed to be optimally inconvenient.” At one point, his view cleared, as he put it, “just in time to find myself stuck on a rock with almost no wheel touching the ground.”

Depending on where the patch for clear viewing was, he could crane his head to look out and navigate over a bump, but then his chin would bang on the bottom ring of the helmet. To complicate matters, he had occasional coughing fits, which, when he coughed straight ahead, fogged up the helmet even more. So he learned to cough into his air hose instead, but twisting around to do that meant that the microphone on his headset soon twisted up behind his ear. Now he could neither see where he was going, nor talk with his crewmates.


Judging distances, he noted, was especially difficult in a foggy helmet. There were times when the terrain was too difficult for the ATVs, when he and his crewmates had to get off and walk.

“When we got off to walk, I discovered that exertion exacerbates the fogging problem. If I sat down to take a break, the helmet cleared up. The minute I got moving again, the fog came back. So I walked crablike for a while, turning my body sideways when the side of the helmet cleared up enough to see to the sides only. I held my camera up to the side of the helmet and took my pictures that way.

“Doing a trip like this in sim is a thing that’s better to look back at than to do,” he confessed. “It feels better when you’ve stopped. It was a hard slog, hard work, not a tourist trip.”

There were times when the crew had to manhandle the ATVs, to force the front wheels in the opposite direction from where the wheels wanted to go. There were times when Digby gunned the throttle, trying to encourage the four-wheeler over a rock pile, not sure whether he would move forward or tip over. “This was the hardest expedition I’ve done since the military,” he summarized.


Was it worth all the effort, I wondered?

“I’m glad I went in sim,” he said. “It was satisfying to do this mission in an authentic way, but I missed the sensory experience. Being in sim meant that I could not fully appreciate the scenery.” (And the scenery was spectacular, if the pictures we have seen and descriptions we have heard are any indication — blue ice, floes on the fjord taller than the ATVs, amazing views from ridges.)

“Were you tempted to take the helmet off at any point?” I asked. “Obviously, it would have been much safer and convenient for you to be able to see where you were going.”

“It would have helped,” he admitted, “but I was not going to be the first to do it. No one wants to be the weakest link — it’s better to soldier on.”

And soldier on they all did, for 12 exhausting hours, completing the first round-trip, in-sim journey ever from the Flashline station to the coast. Well done!

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to