Inside, Outside

This post describes the first EVA (extra-vehicular activity), in which three crew members explored the area surrounding the habitat while wearing simulated spacesuits. 

It’s hard to fully feel the true psychological weight of a simulated Mars mission until you put on a helmet, strap on an air unit, and zip up your suit. It doesn’t feel real until until you’re locked in and bound to a life support system, until a plastic dome lowers over your head and an air-conditioning unit whirs in your ears, muffling your crew mates’ conversation.  Before you take a hike in a spacesuit, you are just a visitor to a two-story structure in the middle of the high desert. You are a just a part of a group, soaking up the burgeoning camaraderie of your crew, eating surprisingly delicious meals, gasping at freeze-in-your-step sunrises out the porthole windows.

But when you walk from the airlock, in your soft suit of armor, with regolith pressing between the treads of your boots, you feel what you need to feel. You understand what simulations are for. You see how they make changes in your mind and how they take what you thought you understood and form it into something new. As you walk with your crew mates, you remember all the pictures you’ve seen of floating astronauts above the earth and all the videos you’ve watched of bounding explorers on the moon. And you realize, one small cut, just a nick in your suit or in your lifeline chords, one malfunction in the cooling unit, and it’s only a matter of seconds before your insulated world of warmth and oxygen breaks wide open. Your skin, usually such an effective protector, pales when exposed to the harshness of space.

You are in good hands on your journey today. The EVA leader has done this before, and he planned an outing that would be interesting and not-so strenuous. You are grateful because everything you do in your suit takes longer than you expect. You are double gloved and fumble with your pen and pad of paper. You hold a map, a notepad, your phone for pictures, and the GPS unit, checking directions to waypoints and confirming distances via walky-talky. The EVA scientist collects soil for microbiological tests later, back at the base. You revel in shadows cast by your helmets and air tubes on the rusty hills. You revel in the unearthly landscape.

As you walk, you point to something your EVA leader calls alien debris. It looks remarkably like a smashed Gatorade bottle. You arrive at the location called Brain Rock Formation and think yes, yes those do look like some sort of brains. Soon, you find the petrified tree stump you were looking for, overturned, with other hardened pieces of wood scattered about. After some time, you turn toward the habitat. Your path back takes you over partially frozen creeks, and you leave bootprints in red mud. When you stop for one last look around, you catch a glimpse of contrails in the sky. The white streaks remind you of a cover of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Who are the Martians? Your EVA leader sees the plane too and smiles. Alien space spacecraft, for sure.

To see pictures of this EVA, click here.

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