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Arctic riders shake, rattle and roll

Motorized outings during a simulated Mars mission involve a good deal of bumping, thumping and inconvenience.
/ Source: Mars Society

“Wham! Bump! Bump! ThumpThumpThump . . . Wham! BUMPBUMPBUMPBUMP BUMP! Kersplash! Splasssshhhhhhhhh. Thump Thump! Wham, wham, wham, whamwhamwhamwham!” Ouch! What you’ve been hearing are the sounds of me riding an all-terrain vehicle this afternoon, following Jan Osburg and trying not to fall too far behind.

THE BUMPS and thumps are the sounds of my head banging against the inside of my helmet. The splashes are my bounding into the Lowell Canal and across to the other side. I climbed on a new steed this afternoon when Jan mounted Old No. 2 — I think of this new ATV as Clunky. But today my bucking bronco became a raging bull.


Because of the cold I have just been getting over, I have missed some of the crew’s longer extravehicular activities, and it was clear to me this afternoon that I have some catching up to do.

Digby Tarvin had reported to me that our folks had reached amazing speeds on some of the longer EVAs, but I had no idea. I was delighted to be selected as photographer for this afternoon’s adventure, but whew! Jan was leaving me in the dust. Now, the terrain we covered was easy, but rocky. The terrain was not what wore me out. No, it was the sheer speed with which we covered our route. My eyes could not look ahead fast enough for my brain to prepare for the next pounding my poor skull was going to take. Wham! WhamWhamWham!

After calculating that my performance as photographer would be compromised if my brains were completely turned to jelly, I finally found a position that protected my head somewhat and still permitted me to see ahead. Imagine, if you will, a little old lady driving a motorcycle. She is wearing a helmet, and she is hunched over with her head low and her arms reaching out and up for the handlebars. This position put my chin in jeopardy, but the back of my head was a lot better off. In this manner I hurtled through the landscape helter-skelter, rock hopping at high speed after Jan, with Jody Tinsley, my EVA commander, and Ella Carlsson, the Ghost Rider, close behind. I clutched Clunky with my knees, hoping at least to stay on.


Our bull ride ended near Devo Rock, a local landmark east of the Hab. There we were to test whether a person in an EVA suit could use a Prusik rope to climb a fixed rope. If so, then we can expand the area where we can take biological and geological samples. We don’t plan to use this technique often, as it’s pretty demanding of the suit and the person wearing it. But we wanted to see how challenging this effort would be.

We gathered our equipment off the four-wheelers and surveyed the task before us. Devo Rock looms over the Lowell Canal. There’s no vegetation, only rocks and a shallow stream. Jan was already dressed for adventure: a four-point safety harness with an additional belt, a tether with two crab-claw carabiners, and of course, a full EVA suit — no self-respecting FMARS researcher would arrive at the scene without his suit and helmet. Ella armed herself with a shotgun and video cameras, and we were off to set up our experiment.

Once we had clambered over the rock pile at the base of Devo Rock, Jody and Jan conferred about the best place to situate the fixed rope. This took quite some time, especially the positioning of the Prusiks. I took out my digital still camera and began documenting their work.

To photograph anything while wearing EVA gloves and a helmet is hard, tedious work. Cameras don’t come with buttons the size of cupcakes, though it would be nice if they did. The buttons I was trying to manipulate are about the size of the head of a push-pin, and they are flat against the metal housing of the camera. I might push the shutter button five times but not actually take a picture once — my glove-padded fingers aren’t engaging the shutter. And as far as using the telescoping feature — my word. I just flail near the toggle and pray.

InsertArt(1968439)Now there’s framing the picture to worry about. It’s hard to see one’s subject when wearing a space helmet. It’s virtually impossible to situate the viewfinder to the face shield in a way that gives a clear view, so most of the time we use the LCD screen. But that isn’t easy, either. The diffused sunlight here creates a lot of glare; I can sometimes only guess if the camera is going to shoot what I think I’m looking at. I turn it this way and that, trying to see the display, and at best I hold my breath and shoot and hope the result is interesting.

All this effort requires concentration, of course, but while balancing the camera (and trying desperately not to drop it), I am also scrambling over rocks to get a better photo angle, answering radio transmissions, radioing my crewmates where ropes are or where they should put their feet (a person in an EVA suit facing a rock wall cannot look down to find good footing). For a similar sensory experience, go put a backpack over your shoulders, a goldfish bowl on your head, and oven mitts on your hands. Now get in your car, turn it to face the sun, climb over into the back seat, and lean over into the front to fine-tune your radio while talking on your cell phone.


In spite of my efforts, it was hard to keep my mind on what I was supposed to be doing when there were so many other interesting things to look at. Ella, while checking the area for bears, had found a couple of good locations for the film cameras, and was now looking for fossils. Of course, you’d have to walk around with eyes closed not to find them (even in a helmet) — the rocks are full of corals and ammonoids, beautiful creatures with coiled shells.

But Ella is particular: She looks for especially lovely or complete specimens, ones that truly speak to her of a life once lived here. This Arctic desert, almost devoid of life today, is clearly a memorial to a once-rich ecosystem. Everywhere we go, wherever we look, there are mute testaments to the past. There is treasure in every rock we climb, every rock we jump on an ATV — it just takes looking to see them. It’s hard to consider this a desert when it’s so rich with past life.

But I turned my attention back to my crewmates when at last Jan pronounced himself ready for the rope test. Jody, who had double- and triple-checked the equipment, was satisfied and stepped away. Film cameras rolling, Jan tested his weight on the rope and swung back. We asked him to perform several tests on one side of Devo Rock, then moved our operations over to rocks on the other side.

Again, it took a while to set up the ropes to Jody’s satisfaction, but once they were ready, Jody joined Ella and me on the sidelines. Jan was a good sport, rising to every assignment we gave him, even collecting rock samples to take back for Peter’s biology research. This involved using a rock hammer, breaking off a bit of rock, and putting the sample into a zipper bag — all while wearing an EVA suit and hanging from a rock face.

“You did it!” we cheered when Jan finally came down. ”We did it,” he replied, elated but relieved. “I’m just now realizing how stressful that was.” We stood there a few minutes savoring the accomplishments of the afternoon. And then the climber, commander, photographer and guard packed up and mounted the ATVs and bounced for home.

© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to