First week at FMARS

Greetings from Devon Island! My first week here has been filled with adventure and hard manual labor in preparation for the simulated Mars expedition. Ideally, there would have been an advance engineering crew sent up here prior to our arrival to get the FMARS Hab in good working order. However, that's not the case this year, so those kinds of tasks fall on our shoulders. The many maintenance issues at FMARS have so far prevented us from starting our primary mission, but hopefully we'll be able to wrap all of the house-keeping tasks tomorrow and finally officially begin the research activities in earnest this weekend.

Note that our satellite internet connection has restrictive upload bandwidth that makes it a challenge to upload pictures and videos. It's been taking me numerous tries over several days just to get my pictures online to my Phanfare site. In theory, our crew will be adding photos to our Picasa Web Albums site and Facebook Page, but so far that hasn't happened as much as I'd like.

In this post, I'll try to catch everyone up on what's been happening so far.
This post is mainly a chronological journal, but future posts will likely be more topical in nature. Since this post is so long, I've provided links below that will take you to each day's section.

July 2 | July 3 | July 4 | July 5 | July 6 | July 7 | July 8

July 2

The day started out much like the previous few in Resolute Bay with cold, windy, rainy weather. I spent the morning figuring out how to use the Iridium satellite phones as a data modem, and by noon the weather had cleared and warmed. We got the call that our flight to Devon was going to happen around 2pm, so we loaded the truck and drove our gear to the airport. Here are a few photos showing our flight's gear and the loading of one of the two ATV's on the Twin Otter plane. There is also video here and here.


The flight over to Devon lasted about 45 minutes and wasn't nearly as cold as I had anticipated based on my previous experience flying on Kenn Borek Twin Otters in Antarctica. I felt privileged to be on the first flight to "Mars" along with our crew's commander Vernon Kramer. Our job was to get to the FMARS Hab and start working on getting it ready before the rest of the crew arrived. Here is a photo of he and I on the flight and a couple of pictures taken out the window (center: Cornwallis Island, right: Devon Island).


We landed on Devon Island in sunny weather, and I was immediately struck by how Mars-like it seemed. It really did feel like I was on Mars! I kept anticipating seeing rover in the distance. Vernon and I were greeted by a very friendly dog and Stephen Braham, HMP's Deputy Lead and Chief Engineer. He helped design and construct FMARS and served on all six FMARS 2001 crews. I was struck by just how close the HMP camp and FMARS were to each other. From the runway, it's very easy to see them both. The two Mars research groups have a complicated and divergent history that is best left to a future discussion. The pictures below show our plane on the Devon airstrip, HMP, and FMARS as viewed from plane.


After we unloaded all of our gear from the plane, we filled the aircraft with several barrels of waste fuel and urine that had been left next to the runway by the previous FMARS crew. The plane then left us to fend for ourselves in the desolate environment. I loaded the shotgun with three slugs for polar bear safety and helped secured some of our gear on the ATVs. Just north of the runway on the trail leading towards the FMARS Hab, we had to stop. There was so much snow covering the path that we couldn't tell where it led. Vernon ended up having to dig out the topo maps of the area to figure out where we had to go.

The trail led us to cross two streams. Of course, luck would have it that my ATV would die just as I was in the middle of the first crossing. I couldn't get it going again, so I had to wade through the water on foot to where Vernon had gotten his ATV stuck on a snow-covered hill just past the second stream crossing. This hill is pretty steep, and no matter how much we pushed, the ATV was not going up it. I was soaked from the ATV spinning slushy water all over me. Luckily, I was wearing my trusty waterproof hiking boots and gaiters. We decided to leave our vehicles and cargo to set out on foot for the remaining half mile to the FMARS. The temperature was dropping fast as a cold front was moving in.

After one wrong turn on the trail, we finally made it to the Hab. The first order of business was making sure at least one of the generators worked. Then, we did a quick walk-through inside to assess its state. We were surprised to discover that the spacesuits weren't there (Vernon remembered that they had been sent to Resolute Bay for cleaning back at the end of the 2007 season), so I got on the Iridium phone to call our people in Resolute Bay to ask them to look for the suits. That's how I found out they were already in route and due to arrive in only 30 minutes. We weren't expecting them for 3-4 hours. They must have realized the weather was worsening and decided to advance the schedule. Vernon and I went back to the snowbank to push the ATV down the hill to the stream bed below. Vernon drove it to the runway just in time to meet the others (Joe, Stacy, and Christy) as they arrived. I waited next to the stream by myself in the dropping temperature with a loaded shotgun and waited.

While I was waiting I started shoveling out a path in the snow in the hopes that within a few days perhaps it would melt enough to allow our vehicles to traverse it. About half an hour later, Joe came around the bend on an ATV towards the streams where I was waiting. I directed him downstream to a place that looked like it was snow free. He negotiated the bumpy terrain and came around to the top of the hill above the snowbank that had stopped Vernon and me in our tracks. Joe went to the Hab to get the trailer that was there and brought it back. A few minutes later Vernon came from the airstrip with the gear in the other trailer hooked to his ATV. We then hand carried everything from Vernon's trailer up the hill to Joe's trailer, and then Joe took it to the Hab. This process of ferrying loads one trailer at a time from the runway lasted from about 6pm to 11pm.


By the end, we were all wet from standing in the snow and water and tired from carrying heavy loads up the hill. It took us another three hours just to get everything inside and put away enough that we could sleep. During this time, Vernon and I made one trip back to the stream to collect water so we'd have something to drink. Meanwhile, Joe got the generator going. It was a very cold by this point. The wind howled all night and the next day.

You can read Vernon's July 2 Commander's Report for more.

July 3

We spent all day getting organized. Stacy and Christy organized the kitchen and all of the food. Joe cleaned and organized the work areas upstairs. My job was getting the satellite dish assembled and installed. We discovered that the satellite kit only included the mount for the side of a house but not a vertical pole. Since we needed it on a pole, I had to improvise a way of fitting the dish over the pole. It wasn't too hard. I just had to cut the pipe from the wall mount and drill holes through it and the existing pole outside FMARS. Then I just bolted them together. The winds were blowing 60 miles per hour with snow blowing horizontally, so we couldn't align the dish. Exhausted, that night we ate lasagna for dinner and brownies for desert and watched some much needed comic relief with History of the World Part I before getting some rest.

Some pictures of the Hab's second floor where we sleep and work are below. In future posts, I plan to share a video tour of FMARS and have a post dedicated to how we gather and handle water here.


You can read Vernon's July 3 Commander's Report for more.

July 4

Vernon woke us all up at 7:30 with a long list of tasks to accomplish. Christy and I worked on trying to orient the satellite dish while the others gathered more water and the abandoned ATV in the stream. The satellite dish alignment was a challenge because the dish could only adjust down to an elevation angle of 10 degrees, but we needed an elevation of 5 degrees at our high latitude. This meant we had to tilt the pole at least 5 degrees to make it work. Plus, it was really windy and snowy all day. Once the dish was roughly oriented, we had trouble finding the signal so called technical support for assistance, but being a Saturday and a holiday it was hard to find anyone on the phone. The picture here shows me working on the dish a couple of days later when the weather was nicer.

We spent the afternoon working on various Hab plumbing and water issues. It was especially important to get dehumidifiers working because in the sealed environment of the Hab the water vapor was collecting on all of the inner surfaces and starting to drip. Mold was growing too. We had to wipe down the walls and ceiling to clean off the mold. I had to re-connect the Hab's hot water heater because the input pipe to it had been cut. Finally, by the end of the day we had running water in the Hab, including hot water to the sinks and shower. The picture shows the Hab's main water tank, which is just a big plastic Rubbermaid container on the 3rd floor loft near the kitchen.

Joe and Vernon went out after dinner to try pointing the satellite dish and sometime after midnight they were successful in gaining internet access and emailing the first report from FMARS. Meanwhile, I got my room set up and wound down the evening reading a few chapters in Zubrin's Mars on Earth book.

You can read Vernon's July 4 Commander's Report for more.

July 5

We had a crew meeting on some health and safety issues, including the importance of making sure we don't overwork ourselves and that we maintain quiet hours at night so people can sleep. Our main priority for the next few days is making sure several environmental projects are taking care of before a Canadian government inspector is due to arrive around July 11. This includes digging a proper sump pit to filter and contain our grey water, assembling a trash incinerator, and making sure all of our fuel areas have proper spill containment underneath them.

In the morning, Joe worked on the generator, Vernon and Stacy worked on the sump, and Christy and I went to get water. Because it had been so cold (and therefore not much snow melt), the river level had dropped considerably in the 3 days since I'd arrived. We hauled the 35 gallons back to the Hab, and I figured out the pump to get it up to the storage tank on the 3rd floor. I also sneaked in a quick email, facebook, and twitter update to let everyone know I had made it to Devon Island safely. The pictures below show the water containers in the ATV trailer, the ATV next to the river (which is named, the Lowell Canal, by the way), and a view looking up the snowy hill that we have to climb with the heavy 5-gallon vessels.


By the afternoon, the weather had cleared and we learned that our sixth crew member, Kristine would finally be joining us on Devon Island. She had been stuck in Resolute Bay since she got there the evening of July 2. Joe and I had an adventure taking a barrel of bad fuel to the airport and bringing a good one back. First, we successfully braved going down the snowy hill by the channel for the first time and were able to take the barrel to the airstrip without incident. A Twin Otter landed about this time bringing someone from HMP. We had to wait at the runway until the plane had taken off before we could leave to go back to the Hab. When we'd reached the stream, we went the long way around on the ATVs like Joe had done on the first day. Getting up the very rocky hill with a trailer in tow and the heavy payload was a challenge. We had to twice take off the trailer and re-orient the ATV before giving up and going further downstream to find a place with a shallower slope where we could drive.

When we eventually made it back to the Hab with the fuel, Stacy and Vernon told us Kristine's flight would be arriving soon and that we should go back to the airport to meet her. Stacy went with us too, so with two ATVs and two trailers, we set out. A plane landed while we were in route, but when we got to the runway, it turned out to be another HMP plane. We waited for it to take off, and then we turned around to come back. We'd barely cleared the runway when another plane turned final for a landing right over our heads! Joe and I quickly got our cameras to snap some pictures and video from that unique vantage point.


Kristine was indeed on that third Twin Otter flight of the day. With snow flurries falling, we helped her unload the plane. We even managed to put all of the stuff onto our four ATVs (She had brought two on the flight.). When we got to the stream and the dreaded snowy bank, Joe decided to attempt going up because going the long way would take considerable time and effort with the cargo we had. No one wanted to repeat the process of hand carrying each item up the slippery hill like we'd done on our first day. Joe started on the far side of the creek and set on at top speed in first gear. He made it! We got three of the ATVs up the hill without any trouble, but the last one got stuck. I had the idea of placing rocks in front of the tires to give it traction as we pushed. This strategy worked, and It took us nearly an hour to get it up the hill this way. Below are a couple of pictures of us unloading Kristine's plane and on the right is Fortress Rock.


It was my turn to cook, so when we got back, I let everyone else unload all of the gear. I made curry and rice. Kristine has a very extroverted, bubbly personality, and her addition to our crew immediately perked up the mood in the Hab. She even pulled out her Class IV Laser medical device and started treating all our sore muscles with it that night. Here is a picture of Vernon getting some of the laser treatment.

You can read Vernon's July 5 Commander's Report for more.

July 6

With all six crew members finally at FMARS and the weather cooperating, we decided to raise the Mars flag over the Hab and take several group photos. Always up for a good climb, I volunteered to be the flag-raiser. More pictures from this series are on our Picasa Web Album, and there is an HD video here.


The weather was very nice most of the day, so I also took some panoramic photos of the FMARS Hab and Haughton Crater:

Joe took a nice HD panoramic video of the area too. I also made my second YouTube video outside the Hab that day. It introduces you to the FMARS surroundings:

Later in the day, I organized tools and equipment on the first floor of the Hab and cleared the two "airlocks" so we'd have safe exits in case of emergency. Joe got our backup generator running, and the girls organized all of the remaining food that Kristine had brought on her flight.

You can read Vernon's July 6 Commander's Report for more.

July 7

We experienced several episodes of snow, sleet, and sun throughout the day. There was even a rainbow. I spent the majority of my time helping Vernon and Stacy build spill containment systems for our fuel barrels and generator area. This involved first building a frame with plywood and 2x2s. Then we covered it with a white matting that absorbs oil. Next came two layers of heavy plastic, which we stapled in place. On top of that went another layer of the absorbant white material and barrels. We built three of these things over the course of the day, including lining the floor of the generator shack.


Four out of our five ATVs stopped working, so Joe spent all day trying to fix them. He took one apart completely, read the manual, and eventually discovered that the new spark plugs we had put in them had the wrong gap size. He just hammered it to a narrower gap, and they all ran. In the meantime, Christy and Kristine had quite an adventure getting water with the one functioning ATV and getting stuck on the dreaded snow hill.

At 2:11pm, an extremely rare magnitude 6.1 earthquake happened in Baffin Bay only 490 km (305 mi) from FMARS. This is the largest seismic event with magnitude over 6.0 in the region since 1963. Unfortunately, the seismometer I brought with me to Devon Island was not operational at the time of the event. What a missed opportunity to record some unique data! In the hopes of catching any aftershocks that might result from this earthquake, I walked about a quarter mile south of the FMARS Hab and installed the Nanometrics equipment. I'll move it to a more remote location while "in sim" (i.e., wearing a space suit) in a few days. You can see some video of my installing the station on the FMARS YouTube Channel.

You can read Vernon's July 7 Commander's Report for more.

July 8

I spent most of the day trouble-shooting a problem with my seismograph only to discover that I had to learn the fine points of pushing a button for just the right duration at just the right time during the unit's boot sequence. I got the seismic station running smoothly, so now if another earthquake happens, I'll be ready!

Vernon and Kristine worked on setting up a fueling area for the ATVs over the spill containment mat. Christy worked on medical emergency contact information and inventory of our medical supplies. Joe and Stacy spent the day getting a spacesuit ready for me so I could get some pictures in time for a press deadline.

When I first put on the simulated space suit helmet, I was immediately struck by how isolating it felt. I couldn't hear the others very well and had to use the radio to communicate. All I had to keep me company was the sound of my own breathing. This led to frequent fogging of the helmet dome since we didn't have time to put defogger on it. When I stepped outside, I half expected to bounce on the ground as if I was in the 1/3 gravity environment of Mars. As I walked around, I had a slight spring in my step for this reason. I'm looking forward to going on some interesting EVAs in the space suit in the coming weeks.

That evening we enjoyed a really good spaghetti dinner made by Christy with freshly baked bread that Vernon had made and watched the movie Capricorn One while disassembling space suit backpacks.

You can read Vernon's July 8 Commander's Report for more.

We will devote tomorrow to getting all of our space suits ready. That includes sewing on patches & suspenders, re-building the air handling backpacks, replacing broken parts, and painting almost everything. Friday will consist of safety drills and EVA practice. We'll probably take Saturday off to explore the area, exercise, relax, wash clothes, etc. and will enter full Mars mission simulation mode on Sunday. We'd hoped this initial preparation period would have taken less time, but sometimes you just have to go along with what life dishes out for you.

I don't plan on letting my entry back up this much again because this post is really long! I have some footage that I'll edit into another YouTube video. When it's ready, I'll post it here.


SteveandAlina said…
WOW!!!!! Brian, thanks so much for sharing. Stay safe! -Alina

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