Mars on Earth: Kawasaki Space Program 0
As a kid I wanted to be an Astronaut, exploring unfamiliar and strange landscapes for the good of all mankind. I imagined landing on Martian terrain, climbing out of my craft and traversing frozen, rocky craters on my personal rover. Then I went to a Supercross race and things changed. Suddenly two wheels were all I could think about and the pursuit of speed eclipsed any aspirations of space exploration. Besides, the chance of an AMA championship seemed more likely than a ride on a rocket.
Although I hung up any hope of becoming one of the chosen few to leave the confines of our big blue ball, I never lost interest in space and the science of space exploration. My wife can attest to the countless hours I spend watching the Science and Discovery Channels learning factoids about black holes, string theory and Mars. I never got an AMA Championship, but last month I got a chance to go to Mars, sort of.
Jan Plessner, Public Relations Manager for Kawasaki, called me up one afternoon and asked if I’d like to go on a media trip to Mars, not the red planet fourth from the sun, but a NASA research project near the North Pole for manned Mars missions. Before she was able to dish out any more details, I shouted into my cellular phone, “Yes. Yes! Hell yeah!” Jan Jan explained that the trip would be low on comfort, travel intensive and very cold. I wouldn’t have cared if she told me I had to walk halfway there in 20-year-old moto boots filled with broken glass; I was in no matter what. I would be joining a very small group to visit the Haughton-Mars Project for a once-in-a-lifetime journey. So why would Kawasaki want to send me to a NASA test facility on top of the earth? ATVs and Mules. Since the inception of the project in 1999, the researchers have used Kawasaki Bayou utility ATVs and Mules as research tools and analogs for manned rovers.
The Haughton-Mars Project is a joint research project between NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) on Devon Island located in the high arctic Canadian territory of Nunavut. During the short summer season, Devon Island has a climate that is temperate enough to survive. During that time it’s actually a desert, resembling the surface of Mars. During the eight-week window, science teams test systems and procedures of various aspects of what would be daily life. A massive 14-mile-wide impact crater further adds to the viability as a Mars analog for testing of rovers, space suits, greenhouses and drills for blasting through the frozen surface.
“We come up here to the high arctic because we find here on Devon Island the most Mars-like environment on our planet,” says Dr. Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute. “NASA is interested in places like this because we are looking for ways to explore mars in the future.”
While using the site practicing for the real deal in space, work is also being done to understand the unique geology of Devon Island. A small team of geologists is working to date the exact age of the ancient crater. Previous dating has placed the age of the massive indentation somewhere between 23 and 39 million years.
So, not only was I going to Arctic Circle for astronaut training, I was going to get to ride as well. How perfect could a trip for a closet space geek like me get? Now we just had to get there. Before the trip I was briefed that the flights to Devon Island would take three days if we were lucky. Weather in the high arctic is unpredictable at best, and we could be grounded at any time. Schedules would be very loose, and it was not known exactly how long we would be there and when we would be coming home. Some people would shudder at the thought of traveling so far without a solid itinerary; I looked forward to the unknown.
On Day 1 we boarded a flight on a Canadian airliner for the Northern Territory town of Yellowknife with a quick stop in Edmonton. When we arrived at the Yellowknife airport it was 8:30 p.m. and the sun was still up. From
that moment on I didn’t see our golden orb drop below the horizon until I got home. This would also mark the beginning of sleep deprivation of several members of our group. Luckily I can fall asleep anywhere and anytime if I’m tired enough, so I was good to go the next morning when we hopped on a much smaller turbo prop charter plane bound for Resolute Bay, which would be the jumping off point for Devon Island the next day.
About an hour into the flight I nodded off and awoke to an ocean of floating ice blocks as far as I could see. The blocks looked like continents moving slowly apart and back together. It began to sink in that this trip was no joke, and I hoped that I chose wisely in my thermal underwear selection. As we made the turn to land in Resolute, I spotted the landing strip. It was dirt, and it was short. My blood pressure rose slightly, and then spiked when I spotted a weathered plane wreck near the end of the strip. Come to find out during the pre-GPS era there were a number of plane crashes because of problems with magnetic navigation and the airstrip’s proximity to the magnetic North Pole. Landing was a bit bumpy, but we were in one piece.
Now in the last bastion of civilization before we headed to Devon Island, we were told we would be flying out to the Mars on Earth site sometime tomorrow depending on the weather. Notice would be short when it was time to leave, so we kept our bags packed and headed out to explore what Resolute had to offer. NASA has a brand new 2010 four-seat Mule 3010 that had just been delivered by a Canadian military C-130 transport a week earlier. Without even asking we were offered the use of the brand new Mule so we could reach some of the more remote areas of the bay. In short order we were loaded and ready to find us some polar bears!
Bundled up in thermals, heavy jackets, gloves and insulated boots we headed out for the bay, but first we were cautioned to be on the lookout for polar bears – seriously. Although they are not as common in the summer, if we spotted one we were instructed to go the other way. Polar bears are as big as mini-vans and will kill anything that has a heartbeat for a meal. Their claws are so powerful they have been known to rip open shipping containers looking for a snack. So much for checking out the cuddly white bears up close.
We set out for the bay and the massive blocks of sea ice on the shore to get some photos and to see if the ice was salty or fresh. Bombing down the trail the wind chill made every gap in our clothing very apparent, and we had to stop several times to readjust our jackets, face masks and gloves. It’s an amazing site to see all that ice floating on a glassy smooth ocean that is clearer than any mountain stream. We jumped around on the blocks of ice that were grounded and a few that were floating, but only briefly. A fall into the ocean here could be deadly in a matter of minutes.
After getting our fill of the ice we decided to head out on a few other trails, but we were stuck. The shoreline is basically like broken pieces of shale that slip and slide on each other. After a few attempts in two-wheel-drive the Mule was resting on the frame. To make matters worse the tide was coming up quick. Selecting four-wheel-drive, a locked differential and some serious pushing got us out before we sunk NASA’s shiny new Mule.
Once on our way, we explored the frozen tundra around Resolute, until we realized it was 9:30 at night. The sun was still so high in the sky it felt like early afternoon. We grabbed some dinner and tried to get some sleep. An hour later I decided to go out and shoot some more photos, taking advantage of the sunshine while we had it. I finally forced myself to bed at around midnight. The local kids were still out playing on the ice as I headed in. According to our hosts, the kids stay up for days, until they can’t play anymore. Then they catch up on their sleep and do it all over again.
Just as we sat down to breakfast, we got the call that our plane was ready and we needed to be at the airstrip in five minutes. A fire drill situation ensued as we stuffed toast and eggs into our mouths and ran for our bags. Our pilot was loaded up with supplies and waiting for us as we pulled up in the Mule. A few minutes to toss the bags on and we were off in the smallest plane I’ve ever been in. Our ride was a DeHavilland Twin Otter plane loaded up with gear and supplies for the Mars on Earth camp, leaving just enough room for us to squeeze in the back. Thankfully the flight was short, and we landed on Devon Island’s postage stamp-sized strip with a thump.
The snow was gone even though we had flown further north, and it’s a strange thing to see so much dirt near the North Pole. Even though the snow was absent it was still freezing out, and the ground’s frozen just below the surface. Just looking over the barren landscape does make you feel like you are on another planet.
After tossing our gear into our one-person tents, we took a tour of the main cluster of work tents. After a quick introduction to the team members, we were required to take an ATV safety course before allowed to get our ride on. It didn’t matter that I actually helped test the Bayou 250 for hundreds of hours when I was a test rider for Kawasaki; rules are rules.
During the safety meeting we were introduced to the two technicians responsible for keeping the fleet of 25 Bayous and Mule running in the middle of the Arctic desert. Jesse Weaver and Travis Oaks are both 17-year-old Tennessee high school students, and the youngest people on the payroll at NASA. Jesse had a chance encounter with Dr. Lee, one evening two years ago. Lee watched Weaver rebuild his CR250 in a matter of hours and offered him a job maintaining the machines on Devon Island. Weaver thought Lee was joking, until he got a call a week before it was time to fly to the North Pole. After scrambling to get cold weather gear together in the Tennessee summer, Jesse was on a plane to Resolute Bay.
Jesse has had some amazing experiences working for NASA on Devon Island. This spring he joined a caravan across the frozen ocean with two Ski-Doo snowmobiles and a Humvee fitted with snow tracks. This season he was able to bring his friend Travis along as a second technician to help with the growing pool of machines at the site. You can bet they both win the “what did you do on your summer vacation” discussion at their high school.
You may wonder why NASA would choose to use the bottom-of-line ATV from Kawasaki for their support vehicles. The reasoning is that the Bayou is a simple, air cooled, low maintenance machine that has an unbreakable reputation with farmers and construction crews. Another consideration is the size of the unit. There are only two ways to get gear and equipment to the research site, the same Twin Otter we flew in on and slung under a helicopter. Transporting vehicles by chopper is very expensive and dangerous, so that leaves the Twin Otter. The Bayou fits nicely in the fuselage of the small bush plane, so moving units to the island is much easier.
I was assigned a Bayou that would be mine for my short visit to the project. Due to weather concerns we were told we would only be on the island for 36 hours. A storm was moving in, and if we didn’t leave before it arrived we
might be stuck for a week. With that news it was time to get riding. Our first ride, or “traverse” in science speak, would be with Dr. Lee testing out a space suit mockup on a trip out to the crater.
The pace of the ride could be described as sedate at best. It sunk in that a crash so far from civilization would not be good. The nearest hospital was at least a five-hour flight if a plane was available and the weather cooperated. So we cruised along the trail to the crater following a man in a space suit on an ATV. It really doesn’t get any cooler. Even though the pace was slow, the terrain was amazing and really did look like I would expect it to on Mars. Rocks spit from the impact zone litter the landscape, and make the ride rough. Jagged rocks tear at the tires, and every unit has numerous plugs from punctures on the trail. The view from the edge of the 23-million-year-old crater is impressive, and we hang out for a short while learning facts about the impact.
An object about a half-mile across slammed into Devon Island, creating the Haughton Crater. The impact wasn’t large enough to be a planet killer, but it was a bad day for the island. Material from below the surface was tossed all over the countryside, contributing to the Mars-like surface. The heat was so intense the ground melted and then cooled, causing the crater center to resemble a volcanic blast zone. Even today the area is almost exactly like it was right after the blast, due to the desert conditions and lack of life forms in this region that might otherwise damage the soil.
On our way back from the crater we headed into a canyon that was actually the remains of an ancient coral reef. Heading into the canyon I thought I was seeing things; the ground in front of me rippled and moved like a waterbed. Had I not gotten enough sleep the night before? Not quite, the temps had risen to almost 40 degrees for the day, melting the permafrost just below the surface. We were basically riding over a crust of dirt floating on the melted ice and dirt just below the surface. If the crust broke, we could become hopelessly stuck in a sticky, muddy mess. Yet another reason to slow down and go easy with the thumb throttle.
As the day wore on clouds began to move in and the temps began to drop. It looked like the storm would be coming in ahead of schedule. At dinner we were told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice in the morning, in case the skies are clear enough to fly. After dinner we struck out on our own on a short ride to further explore. With such a small time allotted for our visit, we wanted to take in as much as we could. Just as we hit the sleeping bags around midnight the wind picked up, and the rain began to fall.
Climbing out of my tent the next morning, I was greeted with cold rain and colder winds. The clouds hung low to the ground and swirled around. No luck on flights for the day, the weather was just too much for the small Twin Otter to pick us up. We hung out inside the mess tent waiting for the rain to stop in hopes of going for a ride. After a few hours we gave up on a no-rain ride, and asked Travis to take us out on a ride even though the weather was miserable. On this ride we were able to pick up the pace and have some fun. Every canyon and groove in the ground had filled up with water, and the ride crossed many of them. We were getting soaked, but it didn’t matter to us, as a ride was the perfect cure for tent fever. Travis led us to one of his favorite spots near the crater called Trinity Lake. Filled by melted snow and rainwater, the shallow lake rests in a small valley about 15 minutes from the base camp. Just past the lake is an amazing sight; a 35-foot-tall rock that was ejected during the impact of the Haughton Crater. The rock stands on its end, embedded in the frozen earth, looking like it could fall over at any second. Knowing this would most likely be our last ride on Devon Island, we took our time and enjoyed being where very few people have ever laid eyes. It begins to sink in that our journey will soon come to an end, and the return to the base camp is bittersweet.
Our rides barely scratched the surface of the trails that could be explored if there was enough time. Two days was just not enough to get it done, so I hoped the storm would show up in force and allow a few more days of riding. As I rode back I made notes of the areas I would check out the next day, if we were still socked in. First on the list was a canyon nicknamed “Planet of the Apes.” Unfortunately the weather was on the move and improving.
The next day we were put on alert that a plane was waiting for a break in the weather to come and get us. When the weather allowed we would have only about an hour’s notice before we needed to be at the airstrip. This meant no more rides for us, so I spent the day talking to the NASA and CSA team members about their experiences riding the ATVs on Devon Island. Many of the scientists had never been on any type of powersports machine until their visit to the Haughton-Mars project. They saw the Bayou as an invaluable tool for their research, allowing them to reach remote locations with their gear and instruments. They enjoyed the increased range, but the most common first phrase was, “It’s really fun.” It’s nice to know that no matter how important your work is, it never hurts to have a good time doing it.
Dr. Lee summed up the role of the Mule and Bayous in the ongoing success of the Haughton-Mars Project. “Just as a microscope brings you closer to your subject, the Kawasakis bring you closer to where you need to study.”
Seeing an ATV as an important tool for the Mission to Mars, Dr. Lee hopes that one day Kawasaki will have an electric model that will fit on a rocket bound for space. As an ATV rider, I guess I’m closer to being an astronaut than I ever thought. Maybe they’ll need some on-site rider training on the Red Planet, where do I submit my resume?