The April, 2001 early deployment to the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station has just been completed. Six of us, Frank Schubert, Matt Smola, Leonard Smola, Greg Mungus, Joe Amarualik and I spent a week on Devon Island configuring the interior of the habitat in preparation of the upcoming summer field season. It was a week of relatively intense work and an interesting experience for us all. For this one week we were the only inhabitants of Devon Island, otherwise the largest uninhabited island on our planet. The FMARS was both our home and our work place, our base and our life boat. The exterior environment, while not as lethal as that on Mars, was in many ways more hostile than that prevailing in the summer. The outside temperature oscillated between -27°C and -35°C, and the Arctic ozone hole was at a maximum as is the case at this time every year. The stay gave us all a flavor of some of the great experiences to come, when crews will be spending increasing amounts of time in isolation in the FMARS, living and working as if they were on Mars. Properly managing our power resources and supplies, and using adequate clothing for all outdoor activities was critical to our survival. Luckily, winds remained close to calm throughout our stay, a true blessing given all the materials and equipment we had to move from the runway (a snow strip) to the habitat 0.5 mile away.
The Field Team
Frank Schubert, Matt Smola, and Joe Amarualik, heroes of last summer's habitat assembly effort, were on the first plane out to Devon. Leonard Smola and Greg Mungus flew out with me on two subsequent flights that same day as I shuttled back and forth between Resolute Bay and Devon to help with plane loading and unloading.
As many may know, Frank is an architect, a musician, and a pilot. He is lead guitarist for the group Devo and is related to the famous composer Franz Schubert. Gossip has it that he is also an ex of Michelle Pfeiffer. As a professional architect, Frank is an original, bringing much ingenuity to the way he sees and builds things. He has now added to his professional life the management the multiple-hab Mars analog station program effort at the Mars Society. On our expedition, he was to lead the FMARS habitat build out effort. He had put in many weeks of planning, in particular with Matt, and had been purchasing much of the materials we needed in Edmonton, AL in the weeks prior to the trip.
Matt Smola was introduced to our project by Frank. He brought for a second time to Devon Island his wide range of knowledge and skills, and let's call it a delightfully terrestrial sense of humor. If Frank is an artist, Matt is a perfectionist. He seemed to have endless energy and applied it with much efficiency in turning our hab from an empty shell into an (almost) perfect home.
Joe Amarualik, an Inuk Ranger from Resolute Bay, was rehired as our field guide and Arctic expert for a second time. He joined our project last summer and was a natural leader for the other young Inuit hires with us. While only in his late twenties, Joe is an accomplished Arctic hunter and survivor. He once skidooed to the North Pole on a 60 day trek and has had many encounters with polar bears, all of which he evidently survived. Joe is always thinking ahead, a key trait of explorers and survivors. He brought his skidoo to Devon Island along with a komatik (a traditional wooden sled) he built himself and his hunting rifle to fend off any polar bears.
Leonard Smola is Matt's brother and a "home improvement" genius in his own right. Like Frank and Matt, Leonard can do and fix just about anything. He would bring particular expertise to our effort in establishing the electrical power and plumbing system of the hab.
Greg Mungus is a young and bright aerospace engineering student. He is an expert in systems control and works part-time at Pioneer Astronautics, Inc, Robert Zubrin's aerospace firm while studying for his PhD. Greg is a space exploration enthusiast, and as he told me, likes to get into the nuts and bolts of things. That he did, with a demonstrated ability to learn superfast and adapt quickly to new situations. He seemed right at home on his first trip to the Arctic.
As for me, this was my fifth deployment to Devon Island. Of the entire team, I was the least expert in any of the needed skills, but (perhaps therefore) I may have enjoyed the trip the most. It was the first time I experienced Haughton Crater and Devon Island in the cloak of winter, a sight of incredible beauty and grandeur. Surpassing it all was the excitement of seeing the habitat turn into a living space, a spaceship. Every simple nail I pushed and screw I drove gave me an odd sense of getting us closer to Mars, or so I hoped. Here we were on Devon Island, in the middle of nowhere, building hardware for the great journey.
Last but not least, we had Phobos. Half collie and half husky, Phobos was hired from hunter and stone carving artist Simon Idlout of Resolute Bay. Phobos would serve as our polar bear guard dog. This was her third assignment to our Mars effort on Devon. In 1999, when she was only 1 year old, Phobos came to Devon with her twin sister Deimos to support the summer field season of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project. Later that winter, Deimos fell through the sea ice and drowned. In the Summer of 2000, Phobos came back to Devon with a new hire, Black Dog, a playful husky with fur as black as Phobos's is white. For awhile we tried calling Black Dog "Mathilde" after the very dark asteroid that the NEAR spacecraft had just flown by, but that name did not catch. Black Dog it would be.
Here is my log of our week on Devon. More was done by each field team member than is described here. I focus on moments I directly witnessed.
Saturday, April 7, 2001
Flying on a First Air Boeing 737 jet from Yellowknife which we had reached the night before, we land in Resolute Bay c. 3:30pm. Greg, Leonard and I take up rooms at the COOP Hotel in "downtown" Resolute Bay. Frank and Matt stay at the nearby South Camp Inn. The COOP Hotel is a traditional stop for me and I meet with several friends living in the hamlet there. At South Camp Inn, Aziz Kheraj serves as our project point of contact for this April field deployment. Much of the equipment and materials we will need to configure the interior of the habitat will be stored or obtained through his care. Just before dinner, we are joined by Joe Amarualik in the dining room of the South Camp Inn and meet to plan our field deployment.
After dinner at our respective hotels (5-6 pm), the six of us rejoin at First Air's air cargo facility at the Resolute Bay airport. We spend much of the evening there organizing our many boxes, crates and piles of equipment and supplies, forming palettes for each of the "put-in" flights anticipated over the next few days.
Sunday, April 8, 2001
After breakfast in Resolute Bay, I swing by Simon Idlout's home to "rent-a-dog". Phobos was tied outside the house, with a big chunk of frozen seal on the ground in front of her. She seems excited to go on a trip. The weather is beautiful: clear skies, winds calm, visibility unrestricted.
Around noon, the First Air Twin Otter takes off on its first flight to Devon with Frank, Matt and Joe on board. The cargo includes Joe's skidoo, komatik and rifle, a propane heater and some propane, one 5.5 kW gas generator and some gas (mogas), some food supplies, fiberglass insulation, tools, and personal gear. The payload is designed in such a way that if this first put-in flight were to be the only flight of the day and Frank, Matt and Joe were stranded on Devon Island (the weather could turn bad for the subsequent flights), they would have a bit of everything to survive at least a few days.
The plane comes back 2 hours later, this time to leave again with Leonard and me aboard. We fly out with more propane, a drum of mogas, a second 5.5 kW generator, the rest of the food, a stack of 4x8 sheets of plywood, and voluminous bags of fiberglass insulation. After dropping the load off on Devon, I ride our plane back to Resolute. The view of the hab from the sky is incredible, almost surreal. The FMARS stands alone on the rim of Haughton Crater, looking like a mechanical spider freshly landed on a snow-covered planet.
Around 4 pm, I am flying off to Devon again, this time with Greg, more supplies, more plywood, and Phobos. This third flight will be the last one of the day. Shortly after landing and unloading and while I'm at the runway, I photograph the Campbell Scientific weather station set up by Margarita Marinova last summer to support a research experiment planned for this coming summer with Bill Clancey of NASA Ames. I also swap the solid state memory logger box of the station with a new one provided by Chris McKay. The weather station will be visited and worked on during simulated EVAs this summer.
By the time we rejoin inside the habitat, the plane has left and we are now alone. I am relieved to see that our Base Camp and the FMARS have survived the winter without significant damage. A polar bear did break into one of the many sealed coolers of food stored outside the main tent at Base Camp, and the food in that one cooler (mostly trail mix) is gone, but the rest was left untouched. (The break-in apparently occurred in late August, 2000, with the arrival of the first snow. A helicopter pilot who landed at our site at the time to sling out some cargo reported that our food supplies had been visited by a bear). The main tent itself is in good shape and was not broken into. Some drifting snow has accumulated inside the tent in the rear section, in particular in the kitchen area. It will need to be brushed off before the snow is allowed to melt. The FMARS itself is in great shape. Snow is covering the dome and clinging onto the side walls. The Mars flag left flying at the very top of the structure at the end of last summer is still in place, although severely torn by the powerful winter winds.
While Frank, Matt, Leonard and Greg set out to organize the work in the hab and begin the build out, Joe and I shuttle back and forth to the runway by skidoo to pick up remaining cargo. Some equipment is also borrowed from the main tent at Base Camp. I spend the rest of the evening sorting out our food provisions and cooking dinner in the lower deck: we are having ground beef and rice in Alfredo-pesto sauce. Weird but apparently assimilated.
It is past 2 am by the time we crawl into our sleeping bags. The sun, after setting briefly, is already on its way up. Twilight blends into dawn in a magical display of soft colors. We spend the night each in a state room on the upper deck, except for Matt who climbs up to the top loft. One of the six rooms is blocked by a pile of wood and he kindly insists on leaving me the last room available. Phobos is outside, curled up in a ball on top of a cardboard box. Arctic dogs are used to this. They are taught not to enter homes. She will spend the night guarding the hab.
Monday, April 9, 2001
The day begins with coffee and scrambled eggs. Some eggs froze during transportation so it is important to use those up early. We have one Twin Otter supply flight lined up for late morning and finalize the contents of its payload over satphone links with Aziz at South Camp Inn and Greg White at First Air. Sounds of hammering, tearing, sawing and drilling soon engulf the hab, with music blasting from a stereo being heard only during brief pauses in the noise. Joe and Greg skidoo off to meet the plane while I join them on foot with Phobos. The weather is beautiful again and the winds are calm. The plane lands on schedule. The payload comprises mainly 35 sheets of dry wall, each of which weighing in close to 60 lbs. Getting them all from the runway to the upper deck of the habitat will take a good part of the afternoon.
With all the dry wall panels stacked up on the floor of the upper deck, we proceed to cut them into the exact shape of each flat wall surface existing on the upper deck. The crushed gypsum sandwiched in each panel is easily cut but generates a lot of dust. Once screwed to each flat wall surface, the dry wall sections will eventually be smoothed out with plaster and painted.
Joe finished insulating the underpart of the hab this afternoon. The fiberglass wool he installed will dramatically reduce heat losses.
The kitchen table and supplies are also moved up to the upper deck. Cold cuts and cheeses are on free serve for lunch. For dinner I come up with grilled chicken and mashed potatoes. Water for drinking, cooking and washing is derived from melted snow. This means that several times a day, Joe and I go out to scoop up large pots and bags of fresh snow which we then melt over our electric stove. I keep track of our water consumption, as this remains an important quantity to define in the context of planning a human mission to Mars. The data collected over the next few days will be meaningful only to the extent that a careful log is kept of how much water is used, under what circumstance and for what purpose. Whether the water is used hot, warm or cold is also important. Studies of water consumption will be a critical part of the research to be conducted on board the FMARS over the months and years to come.
The propane heaters are doing a good job at keeping the habitat warm. Being combustion devices, we are particularly careful about the fire and carbon monoxide hazards they present. Fire extinguishers and CO detectors are set up, to be followed by smoke detectors. The propane heaters seem to be burning very clean.
I took a moment off from dry-walling today to capture some video footage of our work. Andy Liebman who is producing a program on the FMARS project for the Discovery Channel sent me a digital camcorder just before we left. I am also taking as many photographs as I can using both a digital camera (Olympus 3030) and all-mechanical film SLR camera (Nikon FM). The digital photos are for immediate release. I download them onto my laptop (a WinBook Si on its maiden voyage to the Arctic) and then copy them onto a Zip disk. I made plans to send the Zip disk out to Matthew Pudluk and Jeff Kheraj, high school students in Resolute Bay, on one of the next resupply planes. Matthew and Jeff have kindly agreed to e-mail the photos to Marc Boucher, Mars Society webmaster, and to other friends. The satphone could also be used to send data, but the data rate seems too slow for sending images.
Tuesday, April 10, 2001
After coffee and more thawed 'n scrambled eggs, another busy day starts. I skidoo out to the runway alone with Phobos to pick up a load of 2x4s. By now Joe has taught me how to tie knots on a komatik "like an Inuk", although some are still not quite up to standard. Frank and Matt will spend the rest of the day putting the 2x4s to good use. They have torn down all the summary partitioning erected in the lower deck last summer and set out to frame out the newly configured lower deck. According to the layout Frank worked out over the winter, beams are laid down on the floor to mark new rooms and two airlocks. Soon, a forest of 2x4s has grown occupying half of the lower deck. In addition to the two airlocks (a main one and a tighter secondary/emergency one), an EVA preparation room, an electronics room, a shower room, and a toilet room emerge. The other half of the lower deck will be occupied without partitioning by the lab (geology and biology), a medical ward, a gym area, and the access ladder to the upper deck. Frank and Matt's wood work is superb. The airlocks, in particular, look very cool with their curved outlines.
Greg spends a good part of the day in the upper deck assembling the many cabinets intended to line the curved walls of the hab. Undaunted by the number of cabinets and parts and the poor accompanying instructions, he produces one piece of furniture after another and soon the hab looks like a home.
Meanwhile, Leonard is outdoors building a wood box to insulate our generators which run in parallel powering separate circuits. Relatively high demands are made on each circuit to power electric stovetops, a microwave oven, a coffee pot, lamps, a compressor, and a variety of power tools including drills, saws and nail guns, not to mention the stereo and the satphone.
A fourth First Air Twin Otter flies in which Joe and I rush to unload. More dry wall is brought in and hauled onto the upper deck by way of a human chain. By now, dry wall cutting and screwing has become a way of life. Joe also sets up outside the habitat a new snow melting facility: a large propane stove with 10-gallon pots borrowed from the main tent at Base Camp. More water will be needed in the hours to come to make plaster, a.k.a. "mud".
Between screwing panels and taking photos, I cook dinner: chili con carne augmented with ground beef. Probably not worth traveling for but it hit the spot.
Overall we seem to be making good progress and collectively decide that we might be done by Saturday, in time to catch the weekly jet heading south from Resolute. The option to stay beyond Saturday is left open.
Wednesday, April 11, 2001
Leonard made our day today when he completed the electrical wiring of the habitat and flipped the switch. The ceiling lights he had been installing on the lower deck came to life without a miss. The hab's outlets are now live.
After this happy moment, reality struck: dry walling had to continue, now mainly downstairs. While Frank, Leonard and Matt toiled away cutting and nailing more panels, Greg took care of taping seams and I installed corner beads in the upper deck state rooms. We joined the others in the lower deck for ceiling dry walling after we were done upstairs.
Later in the day, I acquired a GPS fix on the position of the FMARS using my new Magellan 330 handheld receiver. It is one of the few on the market that includes Devon Island on its global map. With "selective availability" now eliminated, the position determined should be accurate to within 50 ft or so. After averaging received signals for 30 minutes, the FMARS's position is found to be: 75°25.88N, 89°49.44W.
Meanwhile, Joe began disposing of the burnable trash we had accumulated over the past days. He fed a vigorous fire in an empty fuel barrel just outside the habitat. As he walked around the hab to look for more things to burn, he noticed a set of footprints on an old hardened snow surface no more than 10 meters away from the FMARS, right between the hab and the edge of Haynes Ridge. They are polar bear tracks! Apparently some time this past winter, a lone polar bear wandered by the hab. A large animal's gate was evident from the spacing of the prints. Joe thinks it might have been a young adult. I took picturesof the tracks the following day when more favorable lighting became available. Was it the same bear as the one that visited the Base Camp food stash in late August, 2000? We don't know.
Two supply flights, the 5th and the 6th, flew in today, one in the morning, the other in late afternoon, to bring in more dry wall, plywood and corner beads. In spite of the biting cold and as much work as all these panels are to move, skidooing to the runway to pick up cargo seems to provide a welcome break. We all worked late into the night, with Matt, Frank and Leonard applying a first layer of plaster, Greg continuing with cabinet building and dry walling, and me working on dry wall touch-ups and other loose ends. Joe collected snow and melted it to create a continuous flow of water to make plaster.
For dinner we had spicy chicken soup and macaroni and cheese.
Thursday, April 12, 2001
A seventh First Air Twin Otter plane flew in this morning bringing in more plywood, both 4x8s and 2x4s. The materials were lined up c/o Aziz in Resolute Bay with whom we are in daily contact by satphone. Greg White at First Air is also very helpful in finding optimal time slots to send Twin Otters our way.
Joe and I skidoo out to the runway to meet the plane in what has become a daily ritual. Interestingly, he never quite uses the same route as the one we followed on the previous ride. I think Joe is an explorer at heart. He is curious of the unknown and enjoys the wilderness. He seems to know of at least hundred ways to get from the hab to the runway.
The theme of the day is plastering. Frank, Matt and Leonard plastered just about all day, while Greg continued manufacturing cabinets and I drove screws ever deeper. Frank and Leonard also installed a ventilator in the toilet room, and Greg erected the shower. Leonard also began the hab's plumbing and installed the water heater and storage tank by the loft on the upper deck.
Plastering is truly an art, one that Frank, Matt and Leonard seem to have mastered. I tried my hand at it throughout the day, but mostly to fill in big holes in the dry wall. As we went on into the night, Joe, Matt and Leonard manufactured more plaster.
For dinner I served Canadian ground beef patties, which taste like Salisbury steaks, with rice and gravy. Phobos, still alive and well, is fed once a day with our leftovers.
We decide that tomorrow will be our final push. Everything that can be done will be done in time for a pull-out on Saturday.
Friday, April 13, 2001
It's Friday the 13th. Frank and I had agreed earlier on that we would find a moment to take a break and drive out to Devo Rock, an impressive tower-shaped rock filling half a valley located a few miles east-northeast of the FMARS. The rock was named in honor of Frank's music band. He had first seen the rock during the one and only traverse made last summer by the first crew that occupied the FMARS after its inaugural. On that traverse, Marc Boucher, Charlie Cockell, Frank Schubert, Robert Zubrin and I headed out east to Lake Cornell and Astrobiology Funding Pond, and then north over to the SETI Institute Hills. We reached an overlook where an unnamed valley could be seen that had a large, 15-meter block occupying its floor. Frank wanted to return to the site to collect a sample.
We borrowed Joe's skidoo and made our way to Devo Rock within minutes. The unnamed valley in which it sits is actually a continuation of Lowell Canal, the creek from which water is drawn to support our Base Camp, and this coming summer, the FMARS as well. My Magellan 330 GPS receiver indicates that Devo Rock is located at approximately 75°26.62N, 89°45.38W. Moments after we arrived at Devo Rock, Phobos showed up on her own. She had evidently followed us all the way from the FMARS now located 3.5 miles away (as the crow flies). I shot digital stills of Frank and of Phobos and some video segments of the two with my Olympus 3030.
As we had reached Devo Rock ahead of schedule, Frank and I decided to do a little more exploring. Before we left the FMARS, we had told Joe that we would be back within 2 hours and that we would stay within a few miles towards the east-northeast. We continued down the valley until a multiple junction was reached, then turned right and followed a very broad valley trending NW-SE until we found a tributary that allowed us to climb out. The broad valley was the northwestern end of what is known as Lost Valley. Within minutes we reached a hilltop on the Southwestern side of Lost Valley. The FMARS came into view in the distance, a bright white speck under deep blue of the sky. Not seeing Phobos, we decided to backtrack and head home the same way we came. Once back on the floor of Lost Valley, however, we saw Phobos running down the hill we had climbed moments ago. She had evidently almost caught up with us as we decided to head back. The lookout hill will be called Phobos Hill.
Frank and I were back at the FMARS with time to spare. Our little escapade, while of short duration and incidental to the task at hand, will nevertheless remain one of the high points of my stay. The snow cover at Haughton this time of year does not allow much geology to be done (except perhaps to observe certain snow-related processes) and riding a skidoo by -30°C is always a face and finger numbing experience. But as viewers of unseen landscapes, we nevertheless enjoyed every glimpse we could capture of this untouched land. Explorers on Mars, I imagine, will enjoy every moment of their EVAs.
As our work day progressed, it became clear that we would need to stay up round the clock to get everything done before leaving. Two Twin Otter flights were lined up for the pull out the following morning, just in time to allow us to catch the mid afternoon "west jet" to Yellowknife and Edmonton.
Matt plastered a little more, then spent the day working on walling the airlocks with bent º inch-thick plywood. He also made airlock access doors. Leonard wired the upper deck and installed plumbing for the lower deck lab area and the upper deck galley. Greg finished building all the cabinets while Frank and I hung the completed ones up. Joe helped with just about everything and continued burning waste outside the habitat.
Frank and I also worked out some last minute minor changes to the configuration of the the upper and lower decks, and he proceeded to cut out and install beautifully curved countertops. We discussed in some detail how samples might be brought into the hab via the sample hatch in the lower deck to be analyzed through a series of glove boxes designed to limit any cross contamination. This by no means represents a final design for a spacecraft on Mars, but is merely a possible configuration which we hope to investigate experimentally. The trial and error approach remains a promising way to make progress in areas as poorly known as engineering for in-situ science analysis.
I took more pictures and shot more video both indoors and outdoors. Meanwhile Phobos watched quietly the weather deteriorate after six consecutive days of windless blue skies. While the sun remained visible, it was now filtered by increasing fog. Dinner consisted of sugar-glazed turkey medley over spaghetti, an original recipe spawned by the need to use up the few perishable supplies we had left.
Around 3 am, a breakfast of eggs and hot dog sausage was served. At that point, it became clear that we would not sleep at all. As we worked deep into the night and witnessed the sun rise after a brief sunset, we seemed to roll into autopilot mode, finishing our buildout effort one step after another without much time for respite. I kept an eye on safety, but clearly so did everyone else. Coffee production replaced that of plaster. My final task was to haul trash out for Joe to burn. All continued working like robots through the morning.
Saturday, April 14, 2001
As the morning hours advanced, we were getting closer and closer to getting all our work done, but also farther and farther from leaving as judged by the weather. An ominous layer of fog was now sitting all around us. Visibility was down to 1 mile, winds were picking up slightly, and the sun was reduced to a faint and diffuse glow turning on and off above the drifting fog. The Fortress, an imposing mesa butte located at the runway, was barely visible. These were IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions), meaning that a Twin Otter would not be able to land at Haughton where there are no navigational aids.
By mid morning, we are finally done. The lower and upper decks have been fully reconfigured, dry-walled, corner beaded, plastered, replastered, wired, and plumbed. The trash was out and turned to ashes. The floors were swept. At last, we had a spaceship. Frank says the FMARS will need a little work at the very beginning of the upcoming summer field season, but in just a few days, it should be ready for operations.
As the weather seemed to lift, affording at times 3 miles+ of visibility and the winds remained close to calm, I called in the first of the two Twin Otters expected for the day. Two planes would be needed to pull out the six of us with our personal gear, Phobos, Joe's skidoo and sled, equipment to be returned to Aziz, and various items of unburnable trash. Around 10 am, we mothballed the hab and made our way to the runway. But just as the plane reached our camp, the visibility dropped again. The Twin Otter dipped and circled several times but decided not to land. The six of us in relatively dark clothing had formed a human chain along the runway to make it more visible, but the pilot later reported that while he could see us, his horizontal visibility was too low for a landing to be attempted. It was a good decision. From our perspective however, hearing the plane disappear into the distance on its way back to Resolute was not the best news of the day.
We moved back into the hab, some to catch some sleep, others to have a warm bowl of ramen.
Then, a miracle happened. Around noon, the sun came out and the fog began to dissipate. The winds had picked up but were still at an acceptable level: 10 kts from the south, i.e., a reasonable crosswind for a Twin Otter. I phoned First Air again and the same Twin Otter was soon on its way. It landed at Haughton around 1:15 pm under cheers from us all. Phobos remained placid. All six of us boarded the plane, Phobos as well, and we took Joe's skidoo. But we had to leave behind for a later flight Joe's komatik and a few other items. Joe will fly back to Haughton in a few days when the weather gets better to haul the rest out.
We land in Resolute Bay just in time to check in for the flight south on the "west jet". After brief farewells to Joe and Phobos, we are off the ground again.
Later that evening, in a somewhat surreal atmosphere, we are sipping drinks in a bar in Edmonton and turn in at about 1am. Just as the rising sun is beginning to light up the now quiet Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on the rim of Haughton Crater.