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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 10: The Escarpment Expedition

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Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here.

In part ten, Jin and his crewmate, Inga set out on an EVA to explore the Martian landscape.

“Recklessness comes with age and experience.”

Inga Popovaite, Crew Scientist/GreenHab Officer

Over the course of the mission, I had become obsessed with two things: the radio blackout issues and what I had begun to call the Delta Escarpment. Those two things were tightly intertwined due to Dave and Inga’s EVA to the southern regions.

Firstly, the unknown was calling to me – that dried-up river delta south of the Kissing Camel Ridges. I didn’t want to give up on scaling the escarpment to access that delta without a fight. Secondly, the area south of the ridges was also a known radio blackout region – the ridges block UHF (Ultra-High Frequency) radio waves, the type used by our walkie-talkies. These two motivators, discovery and safety, respectively, gave the area a magnetic attraction for me. So on Sol 6, I spent a substantial part of my day planning an EVA to investigate them.

Map of the Mars Desert Research Station by Jin Sia
My personal digital map of the MDRS region. The green areas are predicted to have good radio reception based on having direct line-of-sight to the Hab. Note the lack of reception close to the Kissing Camel Ridges. This map is a work in progress, please do not use as a reference (image generated by author.)

The EVA plan was highly detailed and extensive, but most of it was written for my own benefit rather than for Mission Support. Inga agreed to partner up with me for this EVA, a combination that would have two benefits: Firstly, she had already been to the region, and so was familiar with the Delta Escarpment. Secondly, I had been on EVAs with Lindsay and Dave already, but not with Inga yet. For Inga’s sociological study, she wanted to study how all the possible crew combinations (of which there are 6, given our crew size of 4) interacted on EVA. Since we had not been on EVA together yet, this would be a chance for her to gather new data.

We had four objectives:

  1. We would find and test potential entry trails up the Delta Escarpment. I would record GPS locations of the potential entry points.
  2. We would test the accuracy of the radio reception predictions I made, both in the blackout region south of the Kissing Camel Ridges and along Cow Dung Road.
  3. Inga would film some video for her outreach projects.
  4. Inga would continue collecting sociological data for her dissertation.

Inga and I would take the same rover, Spirit. This was the first EVA for which I had led the planning and execution.

As we suited up in the lower deck, Inga asked: “Do you think EVAs are becoming more routine now?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “We do try to spice it up by going to different locations every time.”

I’m not rock-solid on my answer. There was a special novelty about the first EVA of course, for which I took special care to prepare technically and mentally. But on each EVA, I haven’t just visited diverse locations, but also played diverse roles and pursued diverse goals. And I haven’t gotten tired of the landscape yet. It’s only been eight sols, at the time of writing. I’m still dazzled by the huge, shattered boulders on hillsides, the grandeur of the buttes rising above us, and the delicateness of capstones persevering atop eroded pillars. Trying to remember as much of the experience as I can is like drinking from a firehose – even just a couple of days after, I’m mostly left with just impressions. But thankfully, I always had a crew member with whom I could share the experience – and lots of pictures.

We drove down to Robert’s Rock Garden and parked in a small alcove off the road.

“EVA team to HabComm, comm check, over,” I spoke into the mic. Silence, as expected.

We hiked a bit further south and I tried again. “EVA team to HabComm, comm check, over.”

“EVA team, this is HabComm,” came Lindsay’s voice, thick with static. “We read you, over.”

I explained that we would be exploring the entry points to the escarpment and that we would check in again at 10 AM. This was our first test of the incrementally improved procedure; checking in and having a good handle on communications windows before heading out to the target.

Inga led me to the entrance point that she and Dave had found days before. I dubbed this Entrance 1. To get to it, we walked through a narrow, winding path with off-white, grainy walls of regolith sloping up at diagonal angles around us. When we reached Entrance 1, I scouted ahead and began working my way up. In some parts, instead of walking on the trail, I had to press my boots into the walls like a character in an action film to get enough stability. We had to be especially careful when we found pits in the path, as these were usually filled with spiky tumbleweeds. They were the closest thing to spiked pit traps that Nature will provide.

Inga Popovaite at the Mars Desert Research Station
Inga, about halfway up the Delta Escarpment. We have draped t-shirts over our helmets to act as makeshift sunshades (image taken by me.)

After a slow ascent taken with great care, we finally reached the summit of Entry 1. From here, it was just another few hundred metres of relatively smooth hiking to the delta. However, completing the ascent of the escarpment was not within our EVA plan, so we stopped to enjoy the majestic view around us for a few minutes.

Jin Sia looks over the Delta Escarpment
I admire the view from the top of the Delta Escarpment (image taken by Inga Popovaite.)

We began to think about descending. I looked around to see if we could go down by an alternate path – perhaps one that would be smoother than Entrance 1. We eventually found one and decided to descend by it, which I dubbed Entrance 2.

It was definitely smoother, but not by any means easier. Because the path from Entrance 2 was smoother, there were fewer flat areas – rather, the whole path was on an incline, all of which had to be negotiated carefully and slowly. To make things worse, all hikers know that descending a trail is far more difficult than ascending it.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

We came upon the mother of all tumbleweed spiked pit traps. A huge hole blocked the trail obnoxiously, over a metre wide. I descended to it with caution, but caution wasn’t enough. I leaned forward and peered into the pit, and I could not see the bottom through the tangle of tumbleweeds.

“Inga, turn around,” I said.

I tried reversing myself so I could climb back up on all fours, but I began to slip. I heard the sickening rolling sound of regolith grains tumbling down the slope. Oh, what I would have given for a mountaineering axe at that moment – or a pair of particularly sharp sticks! I fell onto my butt and scraped to a stop. It must have taken less than two seconds for those events to transpire, but it may just as well have been two terrifying minutes. I leaned forward in my suit, hands pressed against the walls, panting. Sweat had soaked through the suit.

After about half a minute of catching my breath, I started crawling my way back up, backwards. Mars had given us the small mercy that the pit was located at a sharp right turn, meaning that one could go around it more easily. This was the non-obvious path that would’ve spared me the near-disaster earlier. In hindsight, not trying this first was a stupid decision on my part, especially in a bulky spacesuit. Another hard lesson from Mars. After going around, we continued the descent. With an even greater abundance of caution than before, we inched our way down the slope sideways, back to the trail.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Jin Sia at the Mars Desert Research Station
I cautiously descend back to the path after going around the tumbleweed pit (image taken by Inga Popovaite.)

The rest of the descent was relatively uneventful, although we did have to be careful not to step into pits in the trail.

Overall, the Delta Escarpment was not an easy hike. When I explained our findings to the rest of the crew later that day, I advised that it should not be attempted by inexperienced EVA hikers, and definitely not in anything less than ideal environmental conditions, which we’d had on that EVA. However, we had shown together that there are two ways to reach the delta – although Entry 1 is much better than Entry 2.

The Delta Escarpment could be overcome!

After we had returned to the plain, we checked in with HabComm, then returned to the rover briefly to rehydrate and rest. A bizarre sight made us put down our water bottles: A massive tractor was going north on Cow Dung Road, scraping the road smooth. This was one visitor I didn’t mind – I pretended that the driver was in a pressurized cabin, maintaining the roads of Mars. I snapped our crew’s picture of the day as the tractor crawled past.

Inga Popovaite at the Mars Desert Research Station
Inga poses with the terraforming tractor as it passes us at Robert’s Rock Garden (image taken by me.)

We returned south to explore more potential entries to the delta. We didn’t find anything obvious, but it was a stunning backdrop for an interview on Mars. Inga completed her undergraduate degree in journalism, and she put her skills to work here. She asked me about why we were exploring the region and how it would help us learn about real Mars. Reflecting on that experience, I realize that I’ve gotten a lot better at talking about my work off-the-cuff since I signed up for this mission three years ago. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become so well-acquainted with it and because I’ve had to explain it so often. One of the best interviews I’ve ever given was the day before I was due to fly out to the MDRS; it was a last-minute interview with a Malaysian journalist. I was so busy that I had absolutely no time to prepare for it, but it went well. Practice makes perfect.

(I would provide some quotes and screenshots here, but I neglected to download the video file from Inga’s camera.)

I then set to work with my radio reception investigation while Inga trailed me within visual contact distance, snapping pictures of the landscape. I zig-zagged the area on foot, mapping how well radio waves spread over the mountains and through the narrow pass at Robert’s Rock Garden. Every few hundred metres, I called the Hab and graded the audio quality of their response according to a four-point scale rubric. I analyzed my findings later and found that the radio reception predictions were very conservative – it was possible to contact the Hab over a much greater area than expected, although one still had to be careful not to be too close to the Kissing Camel Ridges.

Inga and I then began our next leg of the EVA; we would hop back into the rover and drive back the way we came. As she drove, I would call the Hab once per minute and grade the reception quality on the same rubric I used earlier. Inga performed a three-point turn while I guided her out. After the rover was pointing north, I clambered into the passengers’ seat and we got moving – only to discover that our tractor friend from earlier was returning south from smoothing Cow Dung Road. I jumped out and guided Inga in reversing off the road so he could pass. She drove in reverse well, given that she could not see behind her at all. Our tractor friend was prepared for us this time: he waved and snapped pictures.

When the road was clear again, we resumed our journey.

“Alright, let’s go!” said Inga.

“Let’s go!” I replied. “Поехали!”

Поехали”, pronounced poyekhali, translates to “Let’s go!” in Russian. It was famously exclaimed by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 as his rocket leapt into the sky, sending him on his way to become the first human in space. Inga, being Lithuanian and having lived in Georgia (the country, not the state) for several years, was fluent in Russian.

Поехали!” she replied. “Давай, давай быстро!” (Let’s go! Come on, come on quickly!)

(Apologies if I’ve misspelled anything, for anyone out there who actually speaks Russian. I’m only about halfway through the Duolingo course.)

On our way up and down the roads, as I took data, we bantered in very basic Russian. When we had to do another three-point turn in the north to return to the Hab, I got out to guide her again. She introduced me to the concept of a ‘mori man’. In Georgia (again, the country, not the state), men having trouble finding jobs will sometimes hustle some cash by guiding cars in and out of parking lots, then collecting tips. They are known as mori men’ because they say the Georgian word mori a lot in their work, which means ‘come’. Apparently, I’m the best ‘mori man’ on Mars.

Давай, давай!

That afternoon, Dave put on a fascinating show-and-tell with some relics from the history of electronics that he had brought with him. He is a retired microelectronics engineer, having been inspired as a teenager by the launch of Apollo 11. One of these was a stack of FORTRAN punch cards for a program he wrote in junior college, whose code I tried (and failed) to interpret. Another was a board of magnetic core memory, which was the technology used by the Apollo spacecraft’s guidance computers – it was assembled by seamstresses threading copper wire through tiny ferrite toroids by hand.

He then led a discussion about what Martian society could be like. He gave us the following prompt: “Food production will be done by specially trained personnel and run by a single organization answering to a citizen committee.” This led us onto all sorts of interesting tangents, ranging from the role of agriculture in creating hierarchy in human society to the issues with the nuclear family structure.

Lindsay and I were on dinner duty that night. Despite the both of us being frantically busy writing up reports – especially as I was writing a very detailed EVA report about my analysis of the Escarpment Expedition – we managed to put together a delicious Martian pizza from scratch, with dough kindly made by Inga. We didn’t have pineapple, so I put reconstituted apple cinnamon pieces on my slices. That’s a combination I recommend trying out if you ever make pizza yourself.

That was perhaps one of the best days I’ve had in sim yet.

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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir