Status Report

Dispatch from Mars Society Arctic Expedition Robert Zubrin July 19, 2001

By SpaceRef Editor
July 19, 2001
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This morning I outlined the plan of campaign for the third crew. Unlike all the other rotations, this crew has no one in it with extensive Devon Island field exploration experience. For us, as for a crew newly landed on Mars, the surrounding territory is terra incognita. We have aerial photographs and a topographic map, but they do not tell us what the land about us is really like, or what we can find there. So we must create a map with sensuous content. We must explore.

For the next several days, we will conduct a systematic survey over increasing distances in all directions around the hab. Our survey began yesterday, with the pedestrian reconnaissance of our landing site on Haynes Ridge. Today we would go further, using ATV’s to explore the hills and valleys to the east of the station. The EVA crew would be Charles, Brent, and I, with Cathrine severing as capcom. Simultaneously with our excursion, Christine would get her chemical analysis gear going in the lab.

Preparing for the EVA.

Our suit up period was still slow, but at two hours compared to yesterday’s three, it was a distinct improvement, and I anticipate better tomorrow.

It was a joyous excursion. The day was brilliant, with temperatures about 50 F, and hardly a cloud in the sky. The hills to the east of the hab overlook the crater, and the views were spectacular. Charles collected rock, soil, and water samples, and Brent noted waypoint positions for sample collection in his GPS, communicating that data to Cathrine back at the hab. (Because it is very difficult to write anything wearing a spacesuit, it is the station capcom who takes notes for the EVA team.)

ATV's are a great way to get around on EVA.

My responsibilities were the lightest. All I had to do was indicate the direction of travel, take photographs, and tell everyone when it was time to move on.

Some of the valleys we passed through were still muddy and quite treacherous, since as a result of the dry sunny weather we have had for the past two days, the mud is now covered by a thin layer of bone-dry dirt. It is now stealth mud: you can’t see it until you are in it. We had a couple of close calls, but we were traveling light, and never got stuck anywhere more than momentarily.

Geologist Frankel examining rocks on hills to east of station.

We came to a hill overlooking a stream, and decided we would go down to it to get a water sample for Christine. Having by this time discovered the deceitful nature of the low ground, we decided to leave the ATV’s on the crest, and travel down on foot. It was two hundred yards, and easy enough going down. The hike up in spacesuit simulators was a bit of a work out, but even though it turned out that the ground we covered probably was strong enough for ATVs, reaching the idyllic locale at the bottom of the slope on foot made it somehow much more special, and well worth the effort.

Then, sadly, it was time to go back. We had to return to the hab by 4:30, so we could interact with the public at the Mars Society exhibit at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It turned out that our haste was for naught, since the KSC exhibit center was evacuated this afternoon due to a hurricane, or some other variant of the extreme weather conditions people down there must endure. Floridians should consider relocating the Devon Island. The weather here is fine.

Brent Bos takes GPS reading by stream bed as Frankel prepares to gather water sample.

Anyway ,even though we were rushed, I saw something on my way back that made me slam on the brakes of my ATV. It was a flower.

It was like suddenly meeting an old friend in a strange place.

Arctic life.

Then I saw a few more flowers, typically separated from each other by 100 meters or so.

Now this is a very interesting thing. Given that these flowers apparently can survive up here, the question is how come they are so few and far between? They are clearly too far apart to be competing with each other, and there are no insects or herbivores to prey upon them. So why is there one here, and another way back there, and nothing betwixt?

The answer, I believe, has to do with the lack of animals. The meteor impact flashed to vapor all the nitrates in the soil in and around the crater, leaving the ground infertile. So the only place plants can grow are places that the few animals around have enriched. There is a flower at this particular spot, because 30 years ago a seagull took a dump here.

A lot of people view the Earth’s ecology as being built upon the productivity of plants, who are consumed by herbivores, and they by carnivores, etc., in a kind of pyramid, with the plants at the bottom supporting the whole non-productive lot above. But this is a mistake. You can see it on Devon Island. Animals are needed to open new lands for plants.

Chipmunks transport pine cones up mountainsides, spreading forests high up the slopes. Birds drop fertilizer and seeds on newly-formed sterile volcanic islands, transforming them into lush tropical oases. Animals create the habitats in which they and their posterity can live.

Mars is a currently barren island across the ocean of space. We are the birds that can bring the seeds of life to it.

Come, let us fly.

SpaceRef staff editor.