So today was a fantastically fun day in that I finally got to not only put on a ridiculous floppy hazmat suit, but I got to go outside in it! Right now it’s still more novel than necessary, as the plague known as dome scurvy (or cabin fever to you Earth lubbers) hasn’t had nearly enough time to set in. I have little doubt that in the months to come doing an EVA, despite the hassle, will be a psychological treat that just can’t be missed. While you can’t really see well in these things, and the fans are humming and the radio never works quite as well as you want…walking in a straight line for more than four seconds has developed an appeal that’s almost at the same level as cupcakes.
Putting on the suits isn’t too bad really, we all have help getting our water packs on, I get to have my shoes tied for me, and when you wear a throat radio (it’s an elastic band that only picks up your voice through vibration, around your neck like a secret agent) you feel sorta badass. Your butt will never look trim in one of these, but if you’re simulating an EVA on Mars or escaping the plague, it’s a nice accessory to have.
After trying to dance salsa in the airlock for 5 minutes while pretending that we’re depressurizing, I finally managed to open the door and start crunching across the rocks to check around outside the dome. It really does feel like your world has been flipped inside out, isn’t it law that I’m supposed to be inside that dome?! Will I get in trouble for going out the airlock? I scamper off before anyone can grab me, one minute outside and I’m already vaguely paranoid.
Everything was pretty savvy around the dome area, as Andrzej and Cyprien had been out several days before on a hazard walk. Just making sure that there weren’t any bear traps or sandworms that we could get caught up in on the next time out. We’ll actually be conducting these weekly to just stay in practice on the suits and make sure that the exterior equipment is good to go. Last thing we need is for the radio antennae to go down or the solar water heater to fall off the roof.
Since all was in order, I started clomping up the hill with Carmel, the commander of the mission and my EVA partner. This was an especially auspicious occasion because on this crew of six, she and I are both from Montana. We’re essentially the mountain team that can handle any terrain and go farther than all the other teams. Harsh words, but true, we can boulder like rock rats, even with those goofy suits. In no time at all we’d made it up the scree slope right next to the habitat, and got down to task number one; making sure an experiment placed outside from a prior EVA was still in one piece and doing its thing.
It was totally alright, so we put all the rocks back, had a quick pebble fight, and got on with the major task of the morning, scouting expedition. Of course you’d give that job to the Montanans, we’re pros at stuff like this. What this entailed was essentially scouting out the length of the quarry we were living in, checking for interesting features and marking the coordinates so we all know where they are in the future. The habitat we live in is almost at the tail end of a string of various sorts of calderas, some turned out to be just big pits that anyone with heavy machinery could have dug, and others proved to be a little more insane. So for the next half hour, I got to be a very ungainly explorer in a suit looking at weird things the ground did awhile back. First big discovery, the hole to the center of the Earth.
This thing was deep, crazy deep! I simply couldn’t find the bottom, and you can’t hear when a rock hits anything when you’re in those suits, so as far as I could tell, this hole simply doesn’t end. Pictures don’t quite do it justice, as it’s surrounded by scree slopes and other atrocities in the same way an ant-lion pit would be. All of these photos were about ten feet from an edge that you simply wouldn’t come back from, as all exaggeration aside the bottom is easily a hundred or more feet down. And so steep! I would have loved to get down there, but frankly without ropes and at least one capable partner you wouldn’t come back even if you weren’t wearing a floppy suit. That crumbly lava rock is perfect for sucking you down to the depths of the planet!
We really figured that this would be one of the coolest calderas on our trip, and spent some time just jumping about on various lava flows to see how strong they were and find easy routes through everything. While we didn’t get to see a hole nearly as monstrous as the first one, we did come across another caldera that had had some fun times in the past and still showed it clearly. I present to you, a waterfall of lava frozen in place, just as it had started to try and fill this giant hole in the ground.
Isn’t that nuts? My favorite thing about being in this kind of landscape is that it’s more like a really solid waterscape. You see all sorts of things where you just know rock can’t do that, but it did. There are rivers of frozen rock surrounding the habitat, and random occurrences like this one where you know without a doubt that everything you’re standing on used to be more like clam chowder that stone. And like 1500 degree chowder at that. If I’d been standing where I was some decades ago when these things were active, I’d have melted in a second and just left a really cool bone sculpture desperately reaching for the sky. Honestly it wouldn’t look out of place, add a touch more drama to the area.
Carmel evidently felt the same way, as several times during the expedition I caught her pretending to get sucked away in a frozen lava flow. I’ve included one of many pictures, but suffice to say that her status as a soil scientist and lover of rocks makes this particular landscape at least twice as alluring for her as it is for me. She eventually had an entire handful of pretty rocks that had been formed from all sorts of exotic processes. She promptly lost them of course, but they’re somewhere in the hab and hopefully we’ll figure out what happened to make them. While the photographs make the landscape seem bleak, in reality there are insanely pretty rocks scattered everywhere, with shapes and colors that just defy logic. Volcanoes are really cool.
I should also mention that Carmel loves plants, so every “Martian” bush or shrub (is there a difference?) we came across got the obligatory photo, this is one such example of her making friends with the local flora, which had berries we couldn’t taste due to being stuck in the suits. Not that we would have, of course…but admit it you’re always tempted when you see these things on a hike. I have to admit the plants were very fun as well, they have this habit of springing out of places where the earth just got shattered. You’ll see what could only have been a vent spewing noxious gases while the ground cracked in half, and there’s a snuggly green bush coming out of it like “Hi there!”, totally oblivious to the history of the thing it’s sitting in. Bushes are naive like that.
Needless to say, when this simulation is all over I’m going back out with just normal clothes and doing this all again. And someone had better drop me down that hole on a rope too, it’d be so cool!
Well, we’d finally managed to get near the end of our EVA without running into any crazy Martians wanting to eat us, despite the fact we wore wrappers (pictured below) to make sure they knew our health information. And while I loved being out there as just an outdoorsy guy generally, these suits were getting hot! I actually had to retie my shoe twice, and water just ran off my back to make a small pond in my visor, which of course runs right to your crotch when you stand up again. When I got out of the suit it looked like I’d had an accident! Picture not included. Our rubber gloves were full of sweat, and fans or not we were starting to get pretty hot. Time to head in!
Passing the giant hole in the ground, we crested one of the crazy rock hills and home sweet dome finally came into view again. I must admit I was quite thankful for the cloudy day, doing what we’d done in the full sun could have been extremely uncomfortable, it’s hot out here! In the picture above, you can see we’re living on an older lava flow, it’s had a chance to rust red and turn more of an earthy color. The black flow in the left of the picture is A’a lava, the stuff that’s like piles of broken glass. Much more recent as it’s still so dark, and impossible to cross in these suits, pretty nasty stuff even in regular clothes. Basic lesson, be three times as careful as you usually are out here. Solid looking rocks will crumble into empty space, or snap in half and drop you onto shards of other things. Stick to the trail man.
And finally coming in, Carmel has to display our amazing victory over the day. You’ve gotta admire the tenacity, lifting her arm like this for a minute to get a good picture meant that a small pond had drifted out of her glove and down her back. Can I reiterate that these suits are hot? We managed one last quick check of everything before heading back into the airlock to recompress and get some lunch. Oh and a shower, definitely one of those. All in all a grand time, and while I may only do this once a week or so, it’ll be one of the best ways to keep myself from feeling too stuffed up on the side of the mountain. We still have a few other directions to explore for next time, who knows what crazy things we’ll discover on the next trip out. The skeletal remains of a lava whale? A crashed spaceship? A rock that looks like Batman? I’ll have to find out next time! Maybe even wear the mock spacesuit and look extra legit!
EVA success! I live to have more adventure.