Status Report

Dispatch from Mars Society Arctic Expedition Robert Zubrin July 11, 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
July 12, 2001
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Our crew moved into the Flashline Station shortly after 9 PM last night. I had hoped for a
celebratory meeting of the two crews as they met during the exchange, but it didn’t happen
that way. Instead, the shortage of ATVs made it necessary for us to travel to the station two
at a time, so that two of the first crew would return the vehicles for the next two of ours,
and so forth. Vladimir and I get to the hab first. Sam Burbank explains to me the electrical
wiring system of the hab, making it emphatically clear that the system was Frank Schubert’s
creation, not his own. I see his point. The wiring system was clearly designed by someone
with a unique sense of humor. Appropriate alterations are planned. Pascal, the departing
commander, then gives me a briefing on the overall condition of the station, and wishes me
well for our upcoming shift. Then the last of my crew arrives, Pascal departs, and we are on
our own. We spend a bit of time stowing the large shipment of food we have brought with us,
and then retire for the night.

In the morning I hold a crew briefing laying out our goal of progressively increasing the fidelity of the simulation, and explaining how that will be achieved. Charles Cockell, our biologist, brings up the question of what should we do if an interesting scientific sample can be acquired by breaking simulation. I say we lose it. Our goal is to explore how much science we can accomplish under simulation constraints. We will break simulation for safety reasons, or to get a necessary piece of infrastructure, such as Steve Braham’s advanced satellite communication dish system, into initial operation. Other than that, we accept the burdens of living and operating within simulation limits.

In a certain sense the fact that everyone knows that in reality simulation constraints can be broken without risk puts an extra psychological burden on every member of the crew. A crew on Mars will know they need to act as if they are on Mars, or they will die. Here, we all know there would be no consequences if we go outside without spacesuits and do whatever we need to do the easy way. It is only the will power of the crew that sustains the sim.

Robert Zubrin in a spacesuit simulator preparing for EVA.

Robert Zubrin in a spacesuit simulator preparing for EVA.

Following the briefing we spend two hours cleaning up and straightening out the hab to put it in ship shape condition. Afterwards, everyone is very glad we made the effort. Getting rid of the clutter practically doubles our working space and makes the whole station much more pleasant.

We have Sapporo Ichiban oriental noodle soup for lunch. Just add hot water and have it right out of its own cup. It’s really pretty good stuff.

The plan for the afternoon is a paleontology walking EVA on Haynes Ridge. It turns out that my earlier report that the pedestrian EVA by Sam Burbank and Darlene Lim on the ridge July 9 was a fossil hunting trip was incorrect. They actually were engaged in retrieving an instrument. I suppose I assumed they were fossil hunting because that is the first thing I would do after landing on Mars. Well, here I am.

The crew selected for the EVA is Katy, Vladimir, and yours truly. Katy and I had worn the spacesuits before during training in Denver in May, but several changes had been made by the suit designers since, and it takes about an hour to go through the check list to get suited up. The suits are not real spacesuits, but are quite elaborate nevertheless. Developed by a team from the Rocky Mountain Mars Society led by Dewey Anderson, the suits look somewhat like Apollo gear and include an electric powered air ventilation system that is essential to the operator, voice activated dual band UHF/VHF radios, and a water provision system with bite vales inside the helmets. The whole suit, including helmet, radio, backpack, fabric, water, batteries, air lines, boots, and so forth, weighs about 40 pounds. This is much less than a real Mars spacesuit which might weigh 150. Then again, a 150 pound person together would a 150 lb suit would only weigh about 115 lbs on Mars, where the gravity is 38% that of Earth. Thus it is neither necessary nor desirable to use a heavy spacesuit on Earth to simulate one being used on Mars. Instead, what we try to duplicate is the loss of mobility, agility, dexterity, vision, and general sensory awareness that a Mars explorer on EVA might experience. The spacesuit simulators do rather well in achieving this goal. When you wear one, you feel very much that you are moving around inside of a kind of bubble. You cannot touch or smell anything in the surrounding environment, and your hearing is greatly impaired. To talk to anyone more than 10 feet away you need to use the radios.

Katy Quinn and Vladimir Pletser with a fossilized brain coral.

Katy Quinn and Vladimir Pletser with a fossilized brain coral.

We are operating our sim under the assumption that the hab is pressurized at 5 psi, ( 3 psi oxygen, 2 psi nitrogen, as on Skylab) which eliminates the need for prebreathing prior to EVA. So all we need to do after the suits have been donned and checked out is to spend 5 minutes in the airlock to allow for pumpdown before opening the door.

We proceed west along the ridge from the hab. The ground consists mostly of sharp rocks and our vision is somewhat impaired by a slight drizzle which wets our helmets, so we must walk carefully. After about 5 minutes I find something that looks like a fossil to me and show it to Katy, who is a geologist. She confirms my intuition. Then we all start finding additional examples of superior quality. The stuff is brain coral, probably dating from around 400 million years ago when Haynes Ridge was a reef basking in tropical seas.

A little while later Vladimir upturns a rock revealing an odd green discoloration on its underside. Perhaps it is a colony of extremophile cyanobacteria. We take a small sample.

Vladimir Pletser and Katy Quinn examining a fossil found during EVA on Haynes Ridge.

Vladimir Pletser and Katy Quinn examining a fossil found during EVA on Haynes Ridge.

As we proceeded further west we cross into what seems to be a different geological unit of lighter colored rocks that contained no visible fossils. So we double back and start exploring along the ridge to the east of the hab where the rocks may be a bit older. We find more brain coral, then, eureka! Katy finds a stromatolite the size of a quarter. Then I find one the size of a baseball. Then Katy discerns a three foot square slab with half a dozen stromatolites embedded in it, a virtual mother lode.

This is terrific. Stromatolites are macroscopic fossils left by colonies of bacteria. While the ones we found today were only around 400 million years old, stromatolites have been found in Australia dating back 3.5 billion years, to the time when Mars had liquid water on its surface. The warm wet Mars did not last long enough for anything as complex as coral to evolve on it, but life could have gotten as far as stromatolites. Stromatolites are exactly what we will be looking for on Mars. They are not as easy to find as conventional fossils of animals and plants, as they are much less distinctive. Yet we found them on Devon Island under suboptimal EVA conditions in less than two hours.

Could a robot landed on the ridge also have found the stromatolites? I believe the answer is no. Two hours is not a long time, but in that span the three of us wandered all over the ridge and our eyes processed the equivalent of millions of still images looking for very subtle clues. We could have wasted centuries trying to explore the ridge with robots and never made the discovery. If we are serious about ferreting out Mars’ secrets, we will have to send human explorers.

We return to the station after two hours and give our sample to Charles to analyze. Vladimir cooks us a great dinner of tuna fish, rice with tomato sauce, and vegetables. Eat your heart out, base camp.

Mission Support tells us that DHL says it has finally (after two weeks) delivered my water testing gear to First Air for shipment north. We’ll see. So far they’ve managed to ship it over 10,000 miles in various directions and circles around North America. This situation is beginning to remind me about the old song about the man who never returned because he couldn’t get off the MTA. Perhaps one of the readers of this column would care to write a new song about riding the DHL. Allow me to suggest a chorus:

“Did it ever arrive, no it never arrived,
And it’s fate is still unknown.
It will ride forever through the DHL system
It’s the gear that never arrived.”

Send your MP3 recordings to The best artist will get a free autographed copy of my new book “First Landing,” and a chance to play before a mass audience at the Mars Society convention in Stanford this August.

On to Mars.

SpaceRef staff editor.