Moon on Mars: Return to Earth

We are back in the southern regions, and our month on Mars is already a dream, a muse, a fading memory.

The Haughton Mars project on Devon Island is a place where we are reminded of our crazy and rapidly changing past and one possible future. This is the realm of vast, barren, impregnable landscapes; covered with layers of dust and sand, with stones and formations sharp enough to cut the skin. However, from afar, soft rolling plains are visible, punctuated by steep ravines, hills and low hills. The valleys meander from nowhere to nowhere, occasionally getting trapped in crystal clear meltwater.

It is predominantly red in color, with features carved eons ago by glorious but vanished glaciers and constantly polished by fierce sand-filled high winds. And, despite all the dangers of its uneven surface, it is inhabited by magic.

On the subject: Perseverance rover collects organic-rich Mars samples for future return to Earth

Rod Pyle is a space historian and writer who organized and offered leadership and innovation training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Rod received the endorsement and recognition of the outgoing NASA Associate Director, Chief Information Officer of the Johnson Space Center for his work.

This amazing island is already moving into a softer, almost sensual memory. But specific impressions remain, as sharp as the ancient reefs that permeate the landscape. Everywhere you look, the view teases you with false promises of closeness and distance; It is impossible to navigate far by eye, since there are no objects familiar to a city dweller like me. No trees, no bushes, no power lines, no buildings, nothing. This valley on the left may be two miles away, or only a few hundred yards, and a magnificent boulder in the middle of this plain may be ten feet high, or three times as large.

Landscape Background Brown The plain glows red at sunset. (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)

And at the same time the mind rebels. Lateral visual scores can be inaccurate, but that’s not particularly worrisome. But extremely erroneous ideas about the distance along the Z axis – that is, the distance from oneself to another object – excite the primitive brain after a while. This hike, which you thought was long and arduous, ends up being just a cakewalk, and when you arrive at your destination, the reptilian brain screams, “Wait! It is not right!” The visual physics of this place defies the ancient hunter-gatherer in us, telling us to be careful, be careful, and tread carefully. Here, nothing is as it seems, and this awakens caution in the irrational mind.

Typical Devon Island Geography: Pascal Lee takes a soil sample. (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)

As we counted the days until the big weather front that was to pass us by in the last week, each of us had a lot to do to close the camp for another year. We went about our business, looking at the sky several times an hour to see what might happen. But despite the heavy clouds and biting wind, the weather remained fairly mild (at least by Arctic standards). The planes hadn’t flown yet, but where we were, the conditions were mild.

Sunset at the Haughton-Mars Project base, with the greenhouse on the left and Fortress Rock on the right, at midnight. (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)


As I went through the steps to help complete the visit, I made it a point to reflect on the trip and make sure I remember each experience – and the place itself – as vividly as possible. Despite the complexity, the environment is a paradise compared to Mars. Yes, our conditions were Spartan – no shower, no running water (there is a system that will be repaired in the future), toilets, let’s say, the most elementary, heating is weak. But hey, I can go outside and breathe! The soil is not impregnated with perchlorates! Solar radiation, although more intense than in the middle latitudes, does not pose a particular danger! It looks eerily similar to Mars, but it’s a detoxified version of a theme park.

We left in two groups after 21 days. The transport contractor called us on the morning of that last day and said that the first plane would be there in a couple of hours. We hurried to wrap up the things that needed to be done with all hands, as the first group will reduce our number by half. The MIT/Haystack team packed up their radio astronomy equipment and began hauling supplies to the airstrip—they had at least a dozen crates and suitcases to carry with them. The rest gathered their personal belongings and continued to close the camp. When you’re about to leave for a year in harsh environments like the Arctic, a lot of preparation is required.

Then we all headed to the runway for the first of two flights. The sky was clear for the first time in days, and a dazzling blue deepened overhead. Of course, we heard the plane first, because there are no competing sounds. A speck to the south became a Twin Otter that skimmed low over the runway and then landed, its big tires spewing gravel as it hit the runway, making a wide turn to pull up on the payload. The crew jumped out and we started to load the cargo that was supposed to go out with the first half of our team. They were lucky – their cargo consisted mainly of luggage and EDGES equipment. Our flight, a few hours later, was supposed to take out trash, garbage and, um, personal waste – for a total of three weeks. Nothing is left behind.

After the plane took off, there was silence again. We didn’t even turn on the generator, the white noise source that was with us for about 16 hours a day throughout our stay. We returned to the camp and completed winterization at leisure – most of the hard work was done.

Concluding my stay, I remembered the previous night with clear skies and moderate winds. As long as it’s cold, it was great. The generator was turned off around 10:00 pm, and as silence fell over the base, the sky began its nightly transformation into a Maxfield Parrish painting. A bright yellow streak tinted the horizon to the west under an increasingly red ruffled cloud bank; by 11:30 the sun was setting just behind the hills, and the sky in the east was tinged with delicate lavenders, purples, and pinks.

Typical sunset at 23:00 overlooking the HMP greenhouse. (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)

I could watch this for hours, I thought, and I did. It was probably the fourth night that I didn’t sleep until dawn; I knew that I would pay for it the next day, but this was my last chance to enjoy the magical land, many hours of sunset and sunrise, when our star just flickered over the horizon. It is also the time of day when the landscape is tinted a deep, rich red, and the shadows cast by rocks, bluffs, and other terrain features create harsh relief that illustrates the more subtle features of the terrain that are flattened out by full daylight. It reminded me of my first trip to India, when I was traveling alone at the age of 22, looking at the Taj Majal and telling myself to burn it into my memory; I’m not likely to be back anytime soon.

Let’s go back to the next day: soon we were back at the airfield, waiting for the plane to arrive on our last flight. A mountain of garbage was waiting to be loaded. The Otter landed and we quickly loaded up—by the time we were done, there were four of us crammed into the back of the cabin, and the rest of the plane was filled with trash in triple bags, much of which was not worth even thinking about.

There are still four days of travel ahead. The Otter will drop us off at Resolute Bay, where we’ll spend the night in our dorms and then a long flight to Hall Beach to refuel on a larger ATR 42 turboprop (there was a severe shortage of fuel at the border). city ​​that week), then to Iqaluit, where we will spend one more night. We had time to tour a couple of these stops while we waited for the flight schedule; they are rugged, rugged towns with prefabricated houses clinging to the rocky terrain, set along the coastline, with the last remnants of winter ice adorning them like abstract ornaments. We eventually made it to Ottawa, where our team parted ways, and Pascal and I headed back to Northern California, from where I was supposed to return to Los Angeles.

Rod Pyle (right) and Pascal Lee (at the observation deck). (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)

During this trip home, the first symptoms of COVID began to appear – we both somehow contracted the virus somewhere south of Ottawa, and I had to stop several times to get enough sleep. In Los Angeles, I was waiting for two weeks of quarantine. However, thanks to modern medical science, this should have been an inconvenience, not a death sentence, and it was a small price to pay for the joys of travel. I was exhausted but exhausted; sick, but more alive than I’ve been in years.

I will miss my new friends. John Barrett, Riegel Cappallo, and Jason Su Hu returned to Massachusetts to begin the lengthy task of sorting the results of the EDGES experiment. Gabriel Dube returned to Montreal to start his next year at school. Sawan Dalal returned to San Diego, then to Houston, where he learned where his new medical residency would begin, and John Schutt returned to Blaine, Washington, where he began training for a long kayak trip with his wife. When I left Pascal in Mountain View, California, he was already working on the financials for the season and starting to prepare for the summer of 2023, and Apollo (wonder dog!) Curled up in his favorite bed. And I was at home in hot, sweltering Southern California, adjusting to triple-digit temperatures.

The HMP crew gather for their last dinner together. (Image credit: Rod Pyle)

I will remember this trip for the rest of my life. Ever since I was young during the space race, I have dreamed of living on Mars, a by-product of my insatiable consumption of science fiction. Humanity still has a long way to go before we settle on other worlds, but with only a few weeks left before the first flight of NASA’s Artemis lunar program, we will be on our way for the first time in half a century. This is a great time. While I waited out the COVID lockdown, I had ample time to reflect, and I realized that my long-standing hunger to understand what existence off Earth might be like had been sated after decades of reflection. The reality of this experience belongs to the next generation or their successors, each with their own dreams.

The sun sets over HMP base camp at 23:00. (Image credit: Rod Pyle) (will open in a new tab)

I wish them well, and although I envy their future adventures, I do not feel the slightest feeling of anguish. Mars will be an exciting place to explore and eventually settle, and it will take the heartiest of them all.

I am calm for myself. I’ve already been there.

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