“Let’s head for Marine Rock and take the Autobahn home,” suggested Peter Lee, the navigator on today’s extravehicular activity, the 19th of our rotation. Jody Tinsley commanded this one, with Steve McDaniel our Ghost Rider. Peter made his suggestion about a half-hour from the Hab; we’d been gone since 14:18, or 2:18 p.m. to you folks back home, and it was now around 21:00, or 9 p.m. I turned Festus, my all-terrain vehicle for the day, for Marine Rock, relieved to be that close to the Hab. It was an exhilarating day, but I was ready for the spaghetti supper that was waiting for us back home.
THIS MORNING we woke to rain, wind and cold weather — and the sound of Steve’s voice and a soft knock on the stateroom door: “Bad weather this morning — sleep in, and we’ll have a later breakfast.”
This was a setback of sorts, for he, Jody, Peter and I had planned an early start this morning — we were headed for points east, and it was going to take all day. But the idea of setting out in simulation EVA gear in the cold rain was not appealing, either — these are not waterproof, and the fog that accompanied the rain was not going to help our navigating. Peter had planned our route and had GPS waypoints plotted on his map, but once en route, we needed to be able to see the terrain to pick out the best routes and river crossings.
By later in the morning, after a leisurely breakfast, the fog had cleared a little, and the rain had stopped. It was touch and go, but our time is running out, and opening up routes for future sim crews to explore more fully in each of the cardinal directions has become a legacy that we want to leave behind us when we go. So we decided to see what we could do, if the weather would hold. East is the direction of Devo Rock, a route I’ve mentioned before, and my previous ride there was simply a prelude of amazing ATV exploits to come.
The last advice Jody gave me before we left was, “Keep your thumb on the throttle!” He knows my tendency to be rather methodical in my route selection. On this advice, I resolved to do my best to keep up with Peter. I succeeded too well, our navigator suggested at one point, when he stopped rather suddenly, and I had to slam on brakes to keep from hitting him.
Today was my longest trip in sim so far, about 40 kilometers, or about 24 miles (this is a long way over rocks on an ATV, especially one with a flat tire). Ella Carlsson pointed out when we returned that our route today was at least as long as the “Campaign to the Coast,” and we didn’t even name this expedition anything fancy. So for the record, I’m suggesting “Expedition East.”
And what did we see, farther east than any sim crew had gone before? Oh my word, as Ella and I say. Rocks, of course. Rocks are all there is here, except in some places they are covered with snow or ice. There’s ever so little dirt — thimblefuls here and there, where tiny plants cling to life in and among the rocks. All day long, we saw plant life in only two places. Not far north of Devo Rock, we found some ferns unfurling in crevasses on a large rock heap that sits aloof in a confluence of three streams.
This confluence is a scene from a movie about the apocalypse; there are 50-foot-high skree or talus slopes descending to these streams; the streambeds are nothing but rock; the rocks are covered in rocks or water from snowmelt. There’s nothing else to see but threatening clouds overhead. There’s no bank beside the streams — only jumbled rocks. And in the midst of all this, the large heap of rocks sheltering the tiny ferns.
Farther along, almost at our destination some three hours later, we found little mounds of purple flowers. No mound was larger than a typical pancake, and they were scattered among these low hillocks of small tan rocks. I wondered how they found homes here in this barren land, how long they lie in wait, holding onto life through the Arctic winters in this desert. There’s no dirt to soak up even today’s rain; the water made its way through the cracks in the rocks and quickly added itself to the streams we crossed.
InsertArt(1968433)Quickly the water will wend itself to the coast to join the ice-locked, ice-blue water already surrounding this island. We got a glimpse of this water today, from high on a promontory, 1,000 feet of rocks between us and a stream of water locked into lakes at times by alluvial fans at the base of the rocky slopes. Jody, our geologist, was ecstatic at the lovely bent and tumbled rocks shouldering the load of the outcrop we stood on, and the fan of rocks slumped down into the stream. Peter, Steve and I stood open-mouthed and took in the view.
Today was a wonderful success. We saw some amazing scenery. We achieved our mission goals — we went six times the distance that had been reached before and collected useful soil and rock samples along the way. And we put some of our equipment to the test. I’ll mention two items here: Steve field-tested a device Digby Tarvin rigged for the purpose of attaching a power cord from one of the digital cameras to the ATV. Digby had gone out in an EVA suit this morning to install this device, and it worked well. The second test we did was how well one could inflate a tire wearing an EVA suit. All three of us tried this maneuver, as my ATV had a tire that lost air at an alarming rate. Attaching the pump’s hose to the valve stem was no mean feat in EVA gloves. It took patience and attentiveness to keep me on the way. And what a way it was.
Some people suggest that robots can do all the exploration work necessary to tell us what we need to know about Mars. I can only say that yes, we gathered samples to study from the rocks we saw today, and yes, we took photographs — these things some robots can do. But I challenge anyone to send a robot where we went today and program it to convey what we have seen. I am not a rocket scientist, or a robotics expert, or an engineer. And certainly robots will and do have their place. But to go where we went, to see what we saw, to select the particular fossils and soil samples we did, to choose and improve on the preplanned route, to return to home base with excitement and animation, to inspire others to reach beyond what we have done, to improve upon it — that’s man’s job.
© 2003 April Childress. Licensed by the author to MSNBC.com.