Riding Aroud in the Ford F-350 Mars Rover

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Kathleen Johnson pushes open airlock door

Mars Desert Research Station, Utah; April 12, 2004—Technically, we were dead. The diesel generator had quit, cutting power to the Hab and, presumably, our life support systems. Like any good Mars base, the Hab had a backup power source. But that generator failed as well. Don Foutz, our local mission support team and proprietor of the Whispering Sands Motel in Hanksville, drove out to have a look at the problem. He wore a black Star Wars T-shirt and a black cowboy hat pulled low on his shaved head. He didn’t have any more luck than we did, and he gave up, declaring his frustration in the voice of Scotty, the hyperbolic chief engineer of the starship Enterprise.

“I’m sorry, Captain, but I cannot bring it back to life,” Don wailed. “I’m just a simple mechanic.”

“So, it’s dead?” I asked.

“It’s worse than that, he’s dead, Jim,” Gus chimed in. I laughed.

Alyssa nudged me in the ribs and whispered, “What the hell are they talking about?”

“Scotty, Captain Kirk,” I said. “You know, Star Trek?” I tried my own Scotty impression. “I’m doin’ all I can, Cap’n!”

Alyssa looked at me as if I’d spoken to her in Klingon, and suddenly I felt very stupid and very old. I was a toddler when Star Trek was still running new episodes on television. Alyssa wasn’t even around for the first Star Trek movie.

“I thought he was doing that guy from Austin Powers,” she said. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I chuckled as if I did.

Don shook his head in disgust. “This is what happens when the Chinese try to copy American technology,” he said, nudging the dead generator with the toe of his boot. “Just can’t be done.”

Don hauled away the old generators. He had to drive all the way to Colorado to get us a new one, and he wouldn’t be back for at least another day. In the meantime, Gus and Gregorio rigged up a spare solar panel in the GreenHab to keep the pumps running and water flowing into our toilet. Kathleen, Alyssa, and I drove into Hanksville for bagged ice to keep the refrigerated food from spoiling.

I felt bad for Gregorio. His daily activities at the Hab were front-page news back home in Venezuela. He carried the hopes and expectations of an entire nation on his shoulders, and so far, his only noteworthy accomplishment was repairing a bad terminal in the Hab’s hot plate. It meant a lot to the six members of Crew 28, since we cooked all our meals on that hot plate. But I found it hard to believe that Venezuelans felt a surge of national pride when they learned of Gregorio’s facility with a soldering gun. So when he asked me if I wanted to go with him in the pressurized rover to scout potential EVA locations, I said yes.

The “pressurized rover” was a battered old Ford F-350 crew cab pickup truck that once belonged to the Air Force. The faded blue paint on its panels still bore the stenciled traces of decals that had peeled away long ago. The thing that made the truck “pressurized” was its enclosed cab. Astronauts could ride inside it—and by extension, in the back of the truck like a bunch of yahoos—without having to wear suits and helmets. The cab was a mess. Wires hung beneath the dash. The torn cloth headliner flapped around in the wind. And the pin that connected the gearshift lever to the steering column had been replaced by a bolt too small to hold it in place. More often than not, the lever came off in your hands when shifting or it dropped on the floor when the truck hit a bump. Greg Michael, the planetary scientist from England, said he’d never in his life seen a truck so big. He much preferred the ATVs. But Gregorio was blinded by that special engineer’s love for broken things, and he adored that truck.

Gregorio carefully put the truck in gear and headed north along the rutted BLM road. As he drove, he narrated aloud to a mission control team that existed only in his head. If we turned left, for instance, Gregorio alerted mission control about his intention a good 50 yards before the turn. And when he finished the turn, he reported that too. He also had the peculiar habit of conversing with you face-to-face as if he were communicating via radio. We all did this to some degree, saying “Roger” this and “Copy” that. It was a self-conscious game, and none of us would play it once we got home. But with Gregorio, I got the sense of a powerful imagination at work. He meant every word.

“I have no idea where we are heading. Over,” he said. The truck rattled and shook. “What’s the navigation officer’s opinion on this?”

I’d forgotten that I’d introduced myself as a GPS expert. Now I was the navigation officer? I didn’t want the responsibility. “Well,” I said, trying to recall the topographic quad map leaning against the wall upstairs at the Hab. “This road should end at a canyon, and this looks like a canyon up here.”

Gregorio took us to the edge of the canyon and parked. We got out of the truck and looked down at the emerald green river snaking below. Hundreds of millions of years it took the river to make this canyon, carrying off pieces of rock bit by bit.

“Can you believe it if they found a river like this one on Mars?” Gregorio said.

“That’d be something,” I said.

“Yeah,” Gregorio was silent for a moment. “Some day,” he said, smiling. “Some day, I will go there, and when I come back, I will tell you.”

I laughed. “Now that would really be something.”

We headed back toward the Hab. Gregorio glanced down at his gauges every so often and read aloud his findings. “We are OK on the fuel consumption. Everything’s looking fine. Four-wheel drive, on. The oil is OK. The charge of the battery is not a worry right now.”

“Roger,” I said. “Copy that.”