If you are an ExplorersWeb regular you may remember that around 7 years ago Tom and I decided to go to Mars. We made the announcement right here.
This was before Denis Tito and Mars One. Before Elon Musk docking with the Space Station and China’s first manned space flight. A lot of water has passed under the bridge.
So what have the two of us been up to?
Man has dreamt of going to Mars for hundreds of years but only in the 50s and 60s did we start to get the technology needed for the trip.
Early NASA spearhead, German missile expat Wernher von Braun, made a detailed plan on how the mission could be done. The vision got lost in politics and money.
In the 90s former NASA engineer Robert Zubrin showed in theory how the trip could not only be done but also at a fraction of NASA's budget. Zubrin’s plan was still expedition style though, involving a big set-up made up of at least three rockets and a number of settlers dropped on the planet.
After reaching the extreme edges of Earth mainly under our own steam Tom and I approached the mission from a completely new perspective. We eyed it as an alpine style expedition, which took the idea to a radically new approach enabling already existing rockets and space technologies.
The next step
Cook, Amundsen, Columbus and their likes took years to learn skills and plan their discoveries. We have been no different. Since our announcement we have been detailing the mission and acquiring the knowledge necessary.
That phase is now over and we have entered stage two: building it.
During this time we have met other individuals sharing the dream. First out is Cameron Smith. An anthropology professor and explorer, Cameron was a classic child-tinkerer with big ideas. ExplorersWeb moved him to become a maker. “I saw other people there doing it and realized I could too,” he told us.
“It” in Cameron’s case became the making of a space suit.
His first prototype resembled the very first suits manufactured in the 30s. 3+ years later, following endless tests and iterations Cameron estimates that today he is on level of the Apollo astronauts.
Spending countless hours and less than $3,000 in material costs Cameron has arrived at a working prototype he figures would actually work in vacuum, albeit in a somewhat daring endeavor.
We would agree.
A Space Shack in Oregon
We met last Sunday at 11 AM, on the minute of Slooh kicking off its live webcast of comet Siding brushing past Mars.
Portland glowed in a rare fit of clear skies as we entered Cameron’s dim space-shack in the middle of the city. We shook hands with “Professor Smith” and his young crew of citizen space engineers in identical black flights suits and mission logo patch.
The place was surreal. Expedition pictures and items crowded the walls. Science and history books spilled out of bookshelves. In the middle of the room; a dark capsule-like module connected to a gas tank. Blocking the only window was a podium with a large panel displaying screens and gauges. On the floor, the space suit.
A bed, a large dining table, an open kitchen in the back and a bathroom with a periodic table shower curtain completed the quarters.
The Explorers' Way
We sat. A few shy introductions later the table erupted in heated debates about rocket engines, inflatable spaceships, life support, 3D printing, algae, CO2 removing plants and interstellar travel. It was lunch time and Cameron passed around finger food; sizzling sausage offered straight out of an iron pan. Excitement mounted and cake got served on top of the space suit at which Amy objected. She was putting the last stitches by hand, one by one, in the tough material.
Then we became all business and the tests began. When I disclosed fluid was clogging my middle ear following a recent infection the team decided I shouldn’t go. We were not a government agency though, we were explorers. “We’ll be sick up there too, this is our chance to know the worst case scenario while we're still safe,” I offered.
It was decided Tom would go first and we would see about me. Before suiting up we received training in the spaceship simulator, 30 minutes each. We climbed into the crammed structure. A red light lit up the inside, mirrors were mounted in strategic places and tubes snaked all over. We were briefed on the setup and controls, rehearsing the dashboard.
Here we could increase the oxygen level, there change the pressure, this was emergency abort (go slow on that one) and so on. At the opening behind us Alex illuminated meters with a flashlight as we turned things on and off. Meanwhile the crew followed checklists of a couple of hundred items.
Off to the bathroom Tom changed into white long underwear and head cap with built in tubes circulating chilled water around his body. Amy revealed the garment had not been washed since its last test flight. But, she said, Cameron (a polar skier himself) had told her that considering our arctic expeditions this would probably not be an issue.
Time came to suit up.
Tom was told to lay down on the floor. With the crew’s help he squeezed into the space suit, currently a unisex size, a bit too tight for him and too roomy for me.
Layers of different fabrics combined with hard parts made dressing up a struggle. He got up and a corset lace in the back was tightened. Finally Tom pushed his head through a metal neck collar, tweaked from a reclaimed Russian high altitude fighter pilot setup sourced on eBay.
Portland, we have a problem
Mints to chew on were served after which Tom climbed into the hub. He was hooked up to a recorder, body temperature sensor, communication system, pressure meter, CO2 gauge, 02 supply meter and more.
Cameron leaned over him at the opening, “are you ready to shut the helmet, Tom?”
Tension grew in the room. A few more tests and the visor was closed.
“At this point you are like an unborn baby,” Tom later recalled, “with your life-support depending in a single line to Cameron’s less than three thousand dollar space suit.”
Everyone jumped to the side. Tom lay silent in the hub. “Shut the main valve,” Cameron barked at Alex who frenetically screwed the top of the gas tank on long arm, his body arched in opposite direction.
Tom recalled: “After the bang, Cameron re-emerged over me wearing protective glasses and an overly cheerful smile. “How’s it going Tom?”
“I’m good,” I said, “but that’s Major Tom to you for the next 20 minutes!”
The right stuff
It was interesting to watch this motley crew of different personalities rise to the occasion when we ran into trouble.
Over at the control panel twenty-something child prodigy Alex shouted out key values. Romanian-born young inventor Dorin documented on camera, scuba diving seamstress and bones expert Amy was everywhere, Cameron synchronized.
We became a unified biomass, all tuned into each other while focusing on our own task. The room was steaming with thrill. An opened street level door let in some fresh air. I glimpsed a woman outside walking her dog, unaware.
At this moment we knew we were testing not only a 3,000 dollar space suit but also the skill of an unpaid development team. What a mere 5 years ago had been just a crazy, foolish idea - that explorers could go to space - right here and now felt like a realistic and attainable plan.
Tom's going up
The popped one dollar gas meter was fixed and Tom’s inside pressure went back up. The suit started to fill until he almost floated inside.
Feeling his legs sticking out of the hub firming with the gas I excitedly yelled, “You’re rigid Tom!” That didn’t sound right I sensed by the scattered laughs but there was no time to explain. At 3.5 PSI Tom had reached above Apollo pressure. The only opening at the back of the capsule was closed up and he was alone with the dashboard.
“It was a feeling of loneliness,” Tom recalled, “that you are truly de-attached from everything that gives you life on Earth.” He felt his ears pop at 2.5 PSI, some more at 3.5, “but I could have gone higher,” he figured later. As Amy had done some days before, currently the un-official record holder at 5.0 PSI.
Many hours had passed already and the crew was getting tired. It was decided nevertheless I too would go in, carefully.
Repeating the procedures I squeezed into the suit and red-lit capsule. Alex was in the kitchen fetching ice. Waiting for him I quickly realized the importance of the thermal undergarment as my body heat started to cook the inside the space suit.
Trapped in the stiff molding I could do nothing for myself in the rising temperatures. “They’ll have to get me out or I'll have a heat stroke,” my instincts screamed at my reason pointing out it had taken them half an hour to put me in.
Claustrophobia is the fear of having no escape and being in closed or small spaces or rooms. I had never suffered it before but now it wanted to play. I had to overcome it. I slowed my breathing and told myself I would be fine. My pulse stilled and the heat leveled out. Moments later Alex filled the ice-bucket and turned on the circulation valve. Cold water mercifully surrounded me.
My blocked ear was the next question. Pressure went on, no problem. Some more, I did fine. At 2.0 the crew wanted to abort but Cameron let me decide. “How high did Tom go?” I wanted to know. If not Amy at least I had to beat him. I popped both ears with ease and only felt an issue when I lowered my pressure too fast at which point I really sensed my body is a gas filled shell: like a balloon someone let the air out of; my insides briefly collapsed.
With the helmet down and my impaired hearing I had a hard time hearing the crew. The gas filled up my oversized suit. I lost contact with my gloves and could no longer reach the emergency control. I noticed everyone had scattered while for some reason the gauge meter of my pressure kept creeping up. Was I turning the control handle by accident?
“Hello?” I sounded through my helmet. No answer. I remembered one of the first features Cameron had showed me; a safety valve at the gas bottle that would pop at 5 PSI. I would be fine.
The crew returned to the capsule and I returned to earth. Regaining mobility in the deflated suit I shut off all the controls, and finally the red light. I pulled myself out and high-fived all around.
Almost 8 intense hours later we headed to a nearby Indian restaurant. Beer floated, curried goat came on the table. We debated space logistics with the ease and enthusiasm of climbers laying out plans for a roadtrip to Alaska. Cameron took a napkin and drew a sketch of an inflatable Mars hab. It occurred to me people at neighboring tables were unusually quiet.
A few weeks earlier Cameron had been invited by a large, private space company to work with their space suit engineers. “What did they need?” I asked. Cameron thought about it.
“I think confidence,” he said. “The hardest part is thinking you can do it.”
Do you want to join? We need as many explorers as possible to work on this and further missions from all possible angles. More than suggestions though we need real things. Bring the gear, not the ideas.
Except for a new version of the spacesuit, Cameron plans to next year build a high altitude balloon that will take him to 50-60,000 ft for further tests. His immediate needs are materials and a vacuum chamber for tests.
We may need a separate, mobile suit for the 9 months we’ll spend on Mars surface and a hab to drive or pull behind us. Because a pressurized space suit essentially is a miniature version of the spaceship itself, in the next phase we will work on biometric and environmental sensors, along with communication between them.