Ever Wonder Where NASA Tests Their Space Suits?

Field testing a NASA-designed suit in Iceland’s most Martian-like environment

Iceland or Mars? The goal of the Mars Suit 1 mission was to blur the line as much as possible.

words :: Feet Banks // photography :: Dave Hodge.

Space may be the final frontier, but when it comes to field testing the latest spacesuits here on Earth, the best we can do is Iceland’s Grímsvötn volcano. Actively bubbling away beneath the Vatnajökull ice cap, Grímsvötn is fraught with harsh weather conditions, steam vents, deep crevasses and dangerously unstable terrain. Plus, the volcano could re-erupt at any time. 

These conditions are exactly why scientists and explorers consider the area an “analog”, one that mimics conditions found on distant planets or moons. In August 2019 a team of seven headed to Grímsvötn to test a 50-pound Mars mission analog spacesuit known as the Mars Suit 1 (MS1), a one-off prototype built in collaboration with NASA by designer Michael Lye and a team at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“It’s crazy there,” says Dave Hodge, a photographer and Explorers Club member who helped with funding and coordination for the trip with Lye and Daniel Leeb, mission director at the newly-formed Iceland Space Agency. 

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“The volcano erupted six years ago,” Hodge says. “It blew right through the ice cap, so there is this massive area of giant crevasses and huge chunks of ice the size of parliament buildings just hanging off the side of the caldera, all above a giant glacial lake full of chunks of floating ice. The caldera of the volcano is 20 kilometres wide. It’s an incredible spot, totally remote.”

 

“I also like the idea of humans living in space, being able to extract resources from ateroids or space space and sending those resources back to earth”—Dave Hodge

 

The idea behind analog testing is to simulate, as closely as possible, what the actual experience would be like on Mars. Much of the MS1 mission focused on Icelandic geologist Helga Kristín performing experiments in the suit.

“The gravity on Mars is around one-third of that on Earth,” Hodge says. “So the goal with the suit is to simulate that. There were no elaborate heat/cooling or oxygen systems in the suit, we don’t need those here, and they would add too much weight with our gravity.”

A specialist in volcanology and how magma behaves underneath the physical husk of volcanoes, Kristín used LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) surveying technology to provide feedback on whether it was possible to perform precise scientific duties while wearing the MS1. An experienced mountaineer, she also tested the suit by doing some ice climbing and glacier travel. 

“One very important role of analogue missions is to ensure that participants feel, act and believe in what they’re doing so that useful data for what might happen on Mars is provided,” says Lye in an interview with space.com. “The idea is that anything you would do while exploring Mars… any activity, whether it’s science or travelling or moving about, would be possible in this suit.”

For Hodge, who also got to try on the suit (“it was awesome”), the MS1 analog mission held extra significance because he was able to fly an official Explorers Club flag. Established in 1904 in New York City, The Explorers Club is a multidisciplinary society dedicated to scientific discovery, research, exploration and, more recently, conservation. 

“It started around the polar expeditions,” Hodge says, “but now there are 3,500 members worldwide who can apply to carry a flag on expeditions. Flag expeditions need to be focused on exploration, scientific research and/or conservation—you won’t qualify if it’s just a vacation.” 

For this expedition, Hodge, a photographer and musician with a history of oceanic adventure (sailing and diving), carrying the Explorers Club flag was an incredible honour. “I had flag number 60, which has been all over the world since 1935. There are 222 flags in service; some of them get retired because they get tattered over the years. On the wall at the Explorers Club there is a flag that’s been to the top of Everest twice (elevation 8,848m/2,009ft), as well as to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (10,994m/36,070ft below sea level). There’s another flag from the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. It’s displayed still in its packaging along with a letter from James Lowell apologizing that they didn’t get a chance to unpack that flag because they were too busy trying to stay alive.”

Geologist Helga Kristin displays Explorers Club Flag #60, which has been accompanying expeditions since 1935.

Hodge spent a lot of time in Whistler in the early 1990s touring with the band One. In 1993, he spent a year there biking and snowboarding. “With One, we’d come to town and do shows for a week,” he recalls. “Those were wild times. I remember the last party ever at the Buffalo Bill’s band house, a true house-wrecker and the manager of Bill’s was right there with us. Someone stuck the coffee table through the drywall, people were throwing dressers through the windows, it was chaos. 6810 Beaver Lane—I still remember the address.”

These days, Hodge is still making music and scoring and narrating films, but he’s also rediscovered his passion for photography, conservation and exploration. He’s been involved in noteworthy shark research expeditions and has experience in the Arctic, both above and below the ice. Space, he thinks, has more potential than people think. 

“As I learn more about it, space exploration can help conservation here on Earth,” he says. “People think it’s all about trying to get somewhere out in space, but all the satellites up there are helping conservation and science, from tracking weather patterns to helping predict environmental sensitivities to allowing people to communicate from the middle of nowhere.”

Even after the success of the MS1 mission, Hodge believes space exploration is about more than trying to get to Mars.

“All the tech and gear and vessels being developed for space can also help move things forward here on Earth. For sure, I think some of those billions being spent could be diverted to coming up with solutions to our problems right here and now, but I also like the idea of humans living in space, being able to extract resources from asteroids or space and sending those resources back to Earth. Instead of continuing to take from this planet, we could give, and take some of the pressure off the earth. It’s a deep argument and a long way off, but there’s some validity there.” —ML

To see more photos from the Mars Suit 1 mission check out unexploredmedia.com and Dave’s Instagram @davehodgephoto

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