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Arctic astronauts learn to make do

The simulated Mars mission puts improvisational skills to the test — skills that will be needed on interplanetary expeditions.
/ Source: Mars Society

“Well, I don’t know. I’ve never established a personal relationship with a fish.” This was the answer that cracked my interviewer up this morning, but what else could I say? Jan Osburg and I were discussing on camera whether it would be worthwhile to have a pet on an extended space mission, like a manned mission to Mars, which could last two and a half years or so.

InsertArt(1964577)MY VOTE was yes, that a cat, for example, would be a nice addition to a space crew. Peter Lee had commented a day or so ago that cat hair would be an issue, so Jan asked me this morning, what about a fish? But in my limited experience, fish are cold and clammy — not like a cat, which is eminently pettable.

Back in the early 1950s, Ruthven Todd wrote a series of children’s books about space travel. The first in the series, “Space Cat,” was my husband Jody Tinsley’s favorite book when he was young. In this book, Flyball the Space Cat traveled to the moon with Capt. Fred Stone. Flyball and Fred were good traveling companions. Later books (we’ve read them all) sent Flyball and Capt. Stone to Venus, Mars and beyond. These adventures were in my mind when I answered Jan.

For our mission’s video project, we are all doing taped 90-minute interviews (this is a scary enterprise, but that’s another story). Steve McDaniel has done almost of the interviewing, but today Jan gave him a break and took over the role.

As I answered my first few questions, Jan realized that he was not satisfied with the limited lighting offered by our EVA prep room, a small space downstairs that Steve is keeping heated for the private interviews (the hab itself is unheated; the common area upstairs stays warm, but the bottom floor is around 40 degrees, which is convenient, by the way, as it is also able to serve as our cold food storage). Before I knew it, Jan was creating a recording studio out of the EVA prep room.

He bustled in and out of the workshop and soon had put together a studio light using a 500-watt portable floodlight and the bottoms of two white cardboard boxes, which he set up as reflectors against the airlock door. “Much nicer,” he pronounced as he settled back into his interviewer’s chair.


At the time I didn’t think about it, but later this incident came back to me as yet another example of the resourcefulness of this crew to create what’s needed out of the materials we have at hand.

As I climbed the stairs after my interview, I passed the stretcher that Peter and Ella Carlsson spent one afternoon making out of a broken chair. We plan to run some medevac simulations in a day or two, but at the time, the Hab had no stretcher. Crew 11 at the Mars Desert Research Station last season had done some medevac work that Peter was following up on here at Flashline, but that crew had a conventional stretcher with which to transport victims. One problem they ran into was that a person needing medical attention who was wearing an EVA suit had to be placed face down; the backpack of the suit prevented the person from being able to lie down flat.

Peter told his story this way: “I was planning the sim as I was lying down to take a nap. But as I fell asleep, I kept thinking about the problems Crew 11 had with a standard stretcher. When I woke up, I wandered downstairs, and there was the broken chair.”

He called to Ella, who is a good mechanic, and soon they were taking the chair apart and sawing and drilling on it. I remember wandering in and out of the workshop that day as they worked and figured. In one afternoon, they made a stretcher using only a broken folding chair, a hose clamp, nails, and some metal tubing to reinforce the frame. And this stretcher can carry a person in an EVA suit face up: Their design accommodates the backpack through a space in the frame. While we have tested it in the workshop, we are looking forward to testing it in our medevac sim soon.

Peter also has created large tongs for use on EVA sample collecting missions to solve another problem. He took two rather large L-shaped shelf brackets, cut off one end, and connected them with available rubber bands. This way, wearing an EVA suit, a crew member can pick up a sample without contaminating it with the glove.


In a more esoteric project, Jan spent hours cobbling together navigational materials for our Campaign for the Coast. Here at the hab, we have several copies of topographic maps of the Haughton Crater, an area of interest to everyone. But when we decided to stretch the bounds of our exploration beyond the area where we are, we realized that we didn’t have the topo map that covers the area north of the crater. What we have is a photomosaic of aerial photos of the coast, with an “approximate north” arrow, but no scale. Similarly, we have a radar-satellite image, also with an approximate north and no scale.

InsertArt(1964578)Both these show shaded relief, and through a series of long nights of calculating, comparing the scale and known points on the map we did have with points that could be extrapolated on the mosaic and radar-sat image, taking a compressed computer map we received from Mission Support, manipulating that image, cropping it, and plotting waypoints we knew or needed, and using Microsoft Paint, Jan finally managed to create copies of maps that show the main and alternative routes.

It was an arduous task, but he threw himself into it, using every resource at hand. Without his determined effort, we would not have reached the coast when we did. Ironically, we received very nice electronic maps of the area on the night the coastal EVA team returned in glorious victory. We are happy to have these, however, as future extravehicular activities will be much easier to plan.

On the return trip from the same coastal EVA, Steve was at one point disconcerted to discover that his shifter lever had come loose and fallen off. He was lucky enough to find it, and the next day, Jody managed to concoct a repair using a bit of aluminum cut from a Pepsi can as a little shim between the gear shifter shaft and the socket on the shift lever. This repair has so far been successful, as Jody rode that ATV on yesterday’s EVA south with no shifter problems.

This afternoon, as I sat at my keyboard, I heard Jody ask, “What are you doing there, Digby?”

I turned around to the common room table and watched as Digby Tarvin, in another example of crew ingenuity — surrounded by pliers, wires and some electronics — explained, “I am attempting to fabricate a plug for connecting the DC output from a battery charger into one of our digital cameras, as the camera battery is a bit dodgy, and we didn’t bring a spare battery. This appears to be entirely promising.” He was piddling with the inside of a broken ball-point pen and some tinfoil.

I tell these tales to illustrate one of the most important qualities of a crew member on a space mission. Now, actual astronauts on a Mars mission will have decades of planning behind their efforts, and loads of expensive, sophisticated equipment at their fingertips.

But Murphy’s Law says that something will eventually, inevitably, go wrong, and in that case, the astronauts are going to have to rely on their own resourcefulness to solve problems, to create tools out of materials at hand. I am delighted by my crew’s ingenuity and determination not to be defeated by lack of just the right tool or device or map, proud that we are able to use what we have to do what needs to be done.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to