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Space cowboys do Arctic chores

The Mars simulation crew turns its focus away from heroic efforts and toward the mundane, practical aspects of the mission.
/ Source: Mars Society

“Wait!” Peter Lee hollered. “Ella lost the trailer!” Uh-oh. I wasn’t surprised, really. The road up to the Hab is rough — that’s one reason we were working on it. I have a particular vendetta against one bulbous rock that reminds me of a basketball. It is too big to drive around, and too round and tall to drive over easily, especially when towing a trailer. No matter what I do to avoid it, it always seems to heave itself in my way. So as I turned my all-terrain vehicle around to join the others, I wasn’t surprised that it had caused trouble. But this time, Ella Carlsson hadn’t tried to drive over it — no, the rock was in the trailer, thanks to Peter’s good work with the pry bar.

A MINUTE LATER, when I arrived on the scene, Peter was wrestling with the rock again. It had dribbled itself over the back of the trailer, and the trailer was no longer connected to the ATV. Ella had bumped over a rock that we hadn’t moved — we can’t move them all — the trailer had popped off the hitch, and my basketball rock had bounced out. I backed the ATV down within reach of the trailer; then we pushed and heaved the trailer back up to it, then hooked the trailer up again, a difficult task in EVA gloves.

Today was a day for projects close to the Hab. Time’s winged chariot bears down upon us, and we are vainly trying to stop it. In response to the impending end of our rotation (we are two weeks into a three-week simulation), we are turning our minds briefly away from heroic efforts and on to the practical, mundane matters of accomplishing the science mission, doing Hab maintenance, and improving the state of the Hab and its environs.

To that end, I led an extravehicular activity today to clear our driveway of the worst of the rocks — and gather materials in the process for a wall we planned to build around some of the more unsightly areas around the Hab. Even the finest homes have unattractive back-door entrances and receptacles for the trash and such — and the Hab is no different. Early in our mission, we planned several walls to shield these things — the generator, the fuel drums, and the burn barrel — from view.

Our plans to go on a major building campaign were tripped up by the fact that we discovered we have no shovel, so we have decided to content ourselves with smaller projects. The generator wall would be a great undertaking — two parallel rock walls with debris packed in between, the better to muffle the sound from Jenny. So we instead turned our attention to the burn barrel. (We burn what’s burnable; we will pack the ash and unburnable trash and take it with us when we leave.)

Back at the driveway, once we had the trailer loaded again, we headed up to the Hab and drove around the guy wires that secure it to Devon Island. Parked near the barrel, we began to unload our trailer and build a wall at the same time. Ella, our construction supervisor, directed Peter and me on our placement of rocks. This effort was hampered, however, by the fact that Ella’s radio stopped receiving. Peter and I could hear each other, Ella, and Hab Com; Ella could not hear anyone. Technology is great when it works, but when it doesn’t ...

Rather than stop our sim, we communicated with Ella through hand signals. (We have all lived and worked so closely together that Peter suggested today that radios were superfluous anyway, that we were now reading one another’s minds.) Normally, we could stand near one another and talk loudly and be able to hear voices without the radios. But our work site was only a few feet from the generator, and we could hardly hear ourselves think, much less hear voices through helmets. Gesticulating madly, I passed on to Ella word from Hab Com that the wall needed to be longer on the right side to screen the barrel. We stacked and restacked rocks for about an hour and a half.


The EVA team did a happy high-five when Ella pronounced the wall complete, and this afternoon we are all sneaking peeks out the Hab window to admire our handiwork. When Jody Tinsley went out to burn the trash today, he looked as if he were cooking at a backyard barbecue rather than setting fire to rubbish.

InsertArt(1966688)While we are elated at our job well done, we have chatted seriously about equipment issues. In spite of the fact that I soaped my helmet, the shield fogged up on me, and sometimes I had a hard time seeing what I was doing. And still suffering a bit from my cold, I was very sensitive to the cool air blowing on my face.

Handling the rough stones is hard on an EVA suit; they rubbed against the fabric as I carried them, and in kneeling down to lay the stones on the wall, I felt as if I were pretty hard on the knees. Peter tried squatting to protect the knees of the suit, but with a heavy backpack on, it’s hard to keep balanced. And if we fell over, we’d be just like a turtle on its back — we’d have to lie there till some kind stranger wandered over and turned us over.

I suggested to the crew that some sort of spacesuit chaps would be nice for some of this heavier work — we wouldn’t have to worry about the integrity of the suit (not a big issue here on Earth, but a huge one on Mars), and we’d look a lot more like the space cowboys we feel as though we are.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to