I’ve opened the airlock hatch, and EVA1 has started. Please mark the time.
“What the hell is this? Looks like someone was having a party here, and didn’t feel like cleaning up after themselves” Sweat dripped from my forehead, and my faceplate had fogged up, but I still had no trouble recognizing what I was looking at. We’d stumbled upon a cache of beer cans and other garbage carelessly half-concealed underneath the aʻa near our water tanks. My EVA teammate Cyprien and I got to work, moving the rocks and picking up the garbage, Cyprien using a long grabber arm, and me trying carefully not to let the sharp metal tear into my suit gloves. We’d gone out to pick up debris, but this wasn’t exactly what we’d expected.
I found it a bit disappointing. Part of our training included cultural orientation, in which we’d learned about the importance of the mountain in Hawaiʻian culture. It saddened me a bit to see that someone had disrespected the landscape – simply used it as a place to crash, and had left the trash for someone else to pick up. It also served as a stark reminder that we’re still on Earth, and momentarily cut into my suspension of disbelief – NASA continues to search for life on Mars, but we don’t expect we’ll find any Martians toting a six-pack of suds.
We were already a bit frustrated. Since it was our first EVA – Extra-Vehicular Activity, fancy NASA-speak for putting on a spacesuit and leaving the capsule – we’d set aside an hour to get our suits on. It wasn’t enough – we ran face-first into the learning curve. The suits were easy enough to put on, but we had struggled with the radios. The upper fans in the suits were noisy, and the headset mics picked up their din, tying up the channel and preventing anyone from transmitting. Cyprien and I had already entered the airlock once, but, frustratingly, had to reenter the dome after finding the radios to be entirely unusable. We finally solved the problem by turning the upper suit circulation fans off – a decision that would later lead to the sweltering heat in the suits and the faceplates fogging – but, after all of our troubleshooting, we were running 20 minutes late. Not good, especially considering we’d only been granted a single hour for the EVA.
So we stood in the airlock and waited; to simulate the depressurization cycle an airlock would need to go through before opening into the thin Martian atmosphere, we wait in our suits for five minutes before leaving the habitat. Five long minutes, ticking deeper into our hour. Shey, working as our HabCom – Habitat Communicator – kept us occupied by singing a few jazz tunes, but my mind was anxious, ready to get outside and get to work. Finally, she announced that the five minutes had passed and gave us the go-ahead to proceed. For the first time since the door had been closed a few days before, two members of the HI-SEAS IV crew stepped out of the isolation of the dome, into the daylight, and immediately got to work.
And we had important work to do. In the days prior to mission start, a lot of work had been done to ensure the habitat was ready for the mission. In the hustle of the repairs, the news cameras and microphones, and the training, tools and materials had been left outside. Now, with a hurricane coming our way, those tools could become dangerous projectiles, threatening to be thrown into our habitat by the storm and causing damage. We immediately split our efforts – Cyprien looking for rocks to collect for water filtration, and me trekking over to the water and propane tanks to begin the cleanup and inspection.
I made my discovery of the beer cans near the water tanks, my first destination. With Cyprien still busy selecting rocks, I noted the location and moved on, continuing my inspection. The area around the propane tank, just over the ridge from the water tanks, was clear. Moving back to the main hab area, I caught a glimpse of Tristan watching through the hab’s small porthole. I stopped, slid my glove through my camera tether, removed it from the case strapped to my suit, and told Tristan to smile over the radio. Sans upper fan, the suit was starting to get hot and sweaty, but I was starting to have fun.
I moved on and continued my work, inspecting the solar panels and the backup generator, and moving tools and buckets from around the dome to the airlock door. Cyprien had just finished his collection, so we headed back to the water tanks together to clean up the trash.
A quick call to Shey revealed that we’d completed our tasks with a few minutes to spare. We were tired, hot, and sweaty, but we weren’t about to give on the extra time outside. We pulled out the cameras again, posed with our EVA tools, and took photos. Finally, one more call from Shey signaled that our time was up; time to come back into the isolation of the habitat. Just a few minutes to open the airlock door, pile the tools and debris in, and then it was time close the door and seal the world off behind us once again.
EVA is hard work…trying to dexterously manipulate tools through thick gloves, communicate with your teammates over broken radio links, and walk over rough terrain with limited vision out of the faceplate. There’s definitely a learning curve. But it’s also exciting. It’s exciting to be able to work and perform the sort of tasks real astronauts will have to do on Mars, and it’s exciting to be able to get out of the hab and stretch my legs. And, in the difficulties of this EVA, we learned the lessons that will shape our excursions to come. So, even after the challenges and EVA1, I can’t wait for my next one…