Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 6: One Giant Leap for Jin

Mars Analog

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

In part six, Jin carries out his first-ever EVA, and sets out into the simulated Martian landscape to collect geographical data.


“. . . natural science per-se is not our objective… we are using the search for knowledge about the surrounding desert in much the same was a marksman uses a paper practice target; his goal is not to put holes in the target… rather, he is using the target as an aid in learning how to shoot.”

Dr.robert zubrin, President of the mars society, commander of MDRS crew 1 (from the first ever MDRS crew report)

Breakfast had a special excitement to it on Sol 3. All four of us would be going on EVA excursions to find our ‘Mars legs’. We would go in pairs: Lindsay and Inga in the morning, then Dave and me in the afternoon. The other two remaining at the Hab would act as HabComm, who would monitor and support the EVA remotely. If something went wrong, HabComm would go out on a rescue mission.

The destination was a site recommended by Dr. Rupert called Marble Ritual, a small rock formation east of the Hab. While the EVA team would be practicing important skills needed later for more challenging sorties, HabComm would also be practicing supporting the team over the radio.

The plan was that each EVA would begin by walking a full circuit around the MDRS campus. Then, the team would climb a hill near the Hab to practice the ‘duck-walk’ technique needed for steep ascents and descents. After that, each of the pair would take a rover and drive out to Marble Ritual together to practice rover driving as a fleet. Near Marble Ritual, they would dismount on foot, explore the formation, then return to the Hab.

Soon after breakfast, Lindsay and Inga suited up, with help from myself and Dave. I lent Inga my smartphone that had the GPS Essentials app loaded to use for navigation (or, more accurately, areogation.) Then after comms checks, I had the idea to bring down our Chief Morale Officer, Tiny Diamond. Tiny Diamond is an action figure from the movie World of Trolls, and when his belly button is pressed, he emits upbeat dance music. He was kind enough to preside over a pre-EVA pump-up dance session in which the whole crew participated (and those who know me in real life know that me dancing is an extremely rare occurrence.)

Lindsay and Inga entered the main airlock and began the depressurization procedure, which would take five minutes. Two minutes before the end of depressurization, Dave pulled a pleasant surprise on them – as an accomplished synthesizer player, he had recorded a cover of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss, famously known as the soundtrack for the iconic opening sunrise scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. To our delight, he transmitted the music over the radio to Lindsay and Inga as the airlock completed its cycle.

“EVA team, this is HabComm,” I spoke into the radio. “You are Go to open the outer airlock door.”

Vicariously through the porthole, I watched as the two stepped out onto the platform in front of the Hab. In one swift, synchronized motion, they planted the Areonauts’ first footsteps on Mars.

As they proceeded to conduct their walkaround of the Hab, I climbed the stairs to the upper deck to observe them from the main window. It was when I saw them walking across the alien terrain in simulation spacesuits that I finally felt like I had been truly transported to the Red Planet.

Tiny Diamond
TIny Diamond poses on the windowsill as Lindsay and Inga admire the view from an adjacent hill (image by Jin Sia)

It wasn’t long before the team ran into problems, as I later learned is a common occurrence in space. The team would take the electric rovers Spirit and Opportunity for this EVA. However, when Inga entered the driver’s seat on her rover, she discovered that the bottom rim of the helmet prevented her from seeing the controls. The team ended up taking only Opportunity, with Lindsay in the driver’s seat.

When they arrived at the location where Marble Ritual was supposed to be according to the GPS, they had difficulty finding it. Marble Ritual is a small feature and does not stand out distinctively from the surrounding terrain. Inga ran into trouble with using the smartphone GPS – the user interface was less than intuitive, especially in the glare of the Sun. I was able to help them troubleshoot over the radio and obtain a GPS fix, which I compared to a digital map of the area on ArcGIS Pro software installed on my laptop.

The data for that map had been provided by veteran MDRS commander Marc Levesque, a search-and-rescue and GIS expert (Geographic Information System; modern cartography using computers and data analysis techniques.) Based on the team’s GPS fix, I made some quick measurements in ArcGIS.

“HabComm to EVA team,” I said into the radio. “Based on your last GPS fix, Marble Ritual is seventy-five metres to the south-west of you, over.”

“Copy that HabComm,” came the response. “That was definitely Marble Ritual. . .”

As I had worked hard on putting the map together and learning to use ArcGIS for months leading up to the mission, I found it extremely vindicating that I was able to provide EVA guidance in real-time using it – not something I had intended for it to do in the first place. This gave me ideas for how I could better support future EVAs in making them easier and safer. As they explored the site, I began preparing a special surprise in my notebook.

Inga tried her hand at driving again on the way back, and cautiously returned to the Hab at low speed. She joked that she should be issued a Martian driver’s license. I disagreed – who would need one, with no one to enforce them?

Mars Desert Research Station
Lindsay walks to the rover to begin the return to the Hab (Image by Inga Popovaite)

It would be inaccurate to say that the EVA was a success despite the difficulties. Rather, the EVA was a success because it ran into difficulties, that were solved by the EVA team and HabComm working together effectively. We had proven that we were fit to take on Mars.

After a triumphant lunch, Dave and I began suiting up for our first EVA together. Our primary goals would be largely the same, but Dave would test his camera tripod in the field and I would test recording geographical data using GPS Essentials on my smartphone. As we had slightly less time to complete our EVA than Lindsay and Inga, we decided to move climbing of the hill near the Hab to the end of the excursion.

As we waited in the airlock for the end of depressurization, I closed my eyes briefly and drew my attention to my breathing. I felt the suit pack rise and fall with the rhythm of my breathing and the steady breeze from the suit’s fans. When I stepped out that door, I wanted to do so with an open mind and open heart.

“You’re going to be taking your first step on Mars, Jin!” said Dave (I may be paraphrasing.) He said it with the grin of an old veteran watching the rookie go through something familiar for the first time. He had learned from our conversations earlier that I considered going to the MDRS almost a surrogate for real Mars.

Then, Lindsay’s voice crackled in our ears informing us that it was time to open the outer door.

I shoved hard, and the door came unseated. Mars revealed itself before us. We stepped out onto the platform, then walked down the steps. Together, Dave and I set our feet firmly in the regolith.

“That’s one small step for man,” said Dave, “And one giant leap for Jin.”

Soon, we got to work doing our own walkaround of the campus. Then, we each departed together in our rovers. I took Curiosity, and he took Spirit. We drove the rovers down Cow Dung Road as Lindsay and Inga had before us. It was the suits that really completed the effect; with them and the incredible view, the only way it could have felt more like being on Mars was to actually go to Mars.

We ran into problems of our own.

We did not correctly identify Marble Ritual and accidentally stopped at a similar-looking feature further North. Instead of the smooth, layered mesas we should have expected, we instead explored a hill with massive, shattered boulders littering its slopes. It was as if the chain gang in a prison of disgraced gods had smashed small moons here with gigantic sledgehammers. Many hills in the area surrounding MDRS are strewn with similarly huge, angular pieces of rock that seemed to have been put there by some catastrophic process. (But don’t quote me on that; I’m not a geologist.)

Despite going to the wrong place, it was a fascinating, fulfilling area to explore.

I tested my field geographic data collection process and Dave tested his camera. By combining the two, we got some pretty cool pictures.

Jin Sing Sia
Jin recording the GPS coordinates of this feature. “This is how I later discovered we had gone to the wrong location” (image by Dave Laude)

We drove back to the Hab, and Dave instructed me in the art of climbing steep slopes in a suit. We negotiated what must have been a thirty-degree slope by carefully ascending sideways. The structural integrity of many slopes in the area is deceptive – they look solid on the outside, but many surfaces are in fact crumbly, brittle outer crusts of (what seems like) dried mud that easily gives way to a free-flowing interior of loose sand. Slipping is easy if one does not allow one’s boots to sink into the sandy interior first.

At the top of the hill was an incredible view. I could see the entire MDRS campus and the surrounding escarpments, all painted a pleasant reddish-brown streaked with off-white strata. I pulled my notebook out of my pocket, set my radio to manual mode, and deployed my surprise. I delivered a dedication to a successful first day of EVAs, then began to read.

No Sea was Ever Sailed
By Quent Cordair

No sea was ever sailed
By fear of drowning in the deep.
No bridge was ever built
By huddled souls in castle’s keep.
No cloud slipped ‘neath the wing
Of one who dared not leave the ground.
No daunting height was scaled
Without a test of holds unsound.
No barn was ever raised
By hands that wouldn’t plant in spring.
No city skyline drawn
By those whose vision wouldn’t sing.
No rocket ship was launched
Without a dream to touch the stars.
No man stood on the Moon
Who didn’t long to land on Mars.
No writer wrote a wonder
Without braving the first line.
No sculptor carved a marvel
But for craving sight divine.
No dancers spun a ballroom
Before graceless learning turns.
No masterwork was painted
By a critic’s clucks and burns.
No cure was finally bottled
Without trials that failed to save.
No bulb illumed the night
Of those who never left the cave.
No gear turned fine and smoothly
Till the first rough models broke.
No wheel turned light and quickly
Till a rebel carved a spoke.
No friendship grew and strengthened
Without hearts opened to hurt.
No neighbor’s warmth was nurtured
With responses cold and curt.
No lovers’ cove was treasured
More than after storms astern.
No passion’s flame rekindled
But for bringing fuel to burn.
No man was free a master
Till his mind was unenslaved.
No people shed a tyrant
Till they faced him unafraid.
No peace was long in lasting
When unanswered went the call.
No justice served for any
When no one would stand for all.
No life is fully lived
In pallid dread of pending death.
No fear is faced and conquered
Till accepted with deep breath.
No step into this world
Is ever taken until willed.
When last your eyes have closed
May they’ve seen a life fulfilled.


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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir