In August 2019, a carefully selected team of renowned explorers traveled to Iceland to test out a new spacesuit, the Mars Suit 1 analog suit, including Dave Hodge, a nature and research photographer who lives in Amagansett. They spent 10 days crossing the Vatnajökull glacier and inside the Grímsvötn volcano, which mimics the polar regions of Mars, as it is one of the country’s most remote terrestrial analog sites. The mission provided potential information and insights to identifying life on Mars through geothermal energy, repurposing frozen water for rocket fuel, and long-term human habitation.
“There was nothing for 10 hours in any direction. Being inside the suit, in that remote base, did really feel like you were on another planet,” said Hodge, who is a member of the Explorers Club, which promotes scientific exploration and field study. He is also a member of its business development board.
Looking at the rows of ice and mountains, “It’s very confined inside. You’re looking at this beauty and you can’t really touch it, you have to be protected. The main feeling was a spectacular beauty being in a space suit looking out at this new world. I feel like that’s as close as you can get on this planet.”
Founded in 1904, the Explorers Club’s past members include notable names such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Theodore Roosevelt, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Mary Leakey, Jane Goodall, and Jeff Bezos. It’s famous for its firsts, including journeys to the North Pole, South Pole, the deepest point of the ocean, landing on the summit of Mount Everest, the surface of the moon — all of those missions carrying the famed club’s flag. The Iceland Space Agency Glacial Expedition with Volcanic Research Mission was an official Explorers Club Flag Expedition, granted only to expeditions that meet high standards of both science and exploration. Flag 60 was carried by Hodge.
“It’s a great honor to have the flag and it’s a big responsibility, to make sure we get to report back to the club. That then goes into an archive that is accessible to scientists and researchers all over the world; it will remain permanently in that collection,” Hodge said.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Rhode Island Space Grant consortium granted funding for the development of the suit, known as the MS1. Designed by Rhode Island School of Design’s Michael Lye, it included input from HI-SEAS crew members (the long-duration mission simulations run by the University of Hawaii on Moana Loa) and NASA’s Johnson Space Center Space Suit Engineering team, incorporating geometry from NASA’s Z-2 prototype suit. It weighs roughly 50 pounds.
Lye began working with NASA in 2004, when he taught an advanced design studio class in the Industrial Design Department at RISD. He now oversees a team of students every April that enter NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge competition and sends students for internships every summer. A team of 14 RISD students also contributed to the design of the MS1 simulator suit, beginning work in the fall of 2015.
“It’s specifically intended for use here on the surface of the Earth. It is not capable of being pressurized or used in a vacuum, but rather it is intended to be used during mission simulations or concept operations for research of all kinds including planning, testing, or developing future missions. It can also be used for psycho-social research programs like Hi-SEAS,” said Lye, who explained that “using a real spacesuit on Earth costs millions of dollars.”
“It attempts to overcome those problems in a low-cost, accessible, usable, and reliable way for the Earth-bound research projects that are currently going on around the world.”
The MS1 was tested using different shapes, sizes, and genders, rather than just the traditionally athletic built male.
The team endured heavy winds, limited visibility, unknown terrain variables, and risk of volcanic eruption during their time in the Grímsvötn volcano’s caldera, a 200-meter-deep lake with a 20-kilometer-wide rim consisting of steam vents, and hot grounds with active magma below — a geothermal site in the middle of Europe’s largest ice cap.
Chosen for its remoteness, geological and topographical nature of the location, “it’s as similar as possible to surfaces of other planets and the moon,” Hodge explained. The MS1 was also tested on its ice climbing capabilities where the bottom of the glacier meets the land, a location made famous from the film, “Interstellar.”
Ali Watson, who works with Hodge at his company UnExplored Media, was the only female Explorers Club member to join the mission and was the executive producer of the mission “ISAGEVR1. “A lot of what we do is push the limits of innovation around exploration. We’re trying to look at how we can push human potential,” said Watson. “The space race is valuable because regardless of whether we will get to another planet in time, the most important thing to come out of this is the technology that will help us in extreme environments.”
Space technology acts as a catalyst to applicable research at home. In researching for the outer world, it also provides information useful for climate change, or even virus precautions.
“The technology that’s being developed is valuable. There’s so much crossover between space and protecting our home,” Hodge said.
Lye said, “The MS1 is really a research tool that allows NASA or other scientists to collect the best data possible here on Earth before beginning the extremely high-risk missions into space or Mars. The MS1 is another tool in the arsenal of research, testing and understanding what future missions might encounter.”
Other team members included Benjamin Pothier, an elected fellow international of the Explorers Club, specializing in personal experience; Helga Kristín Torfadóttir, Icelandic geologist, specializing in magma behavior and the first geologist to wear the MS1 in Iceland; Gunnar Gudjonsson, a founding partner and the Chief of Field Operations for the ISA; Daniel Leeb, ISA Partner and Carolina Salas, producer; and Sóley Argrímsdóttir, lead on nutrition and health.
The suit met all of the team’s expectations. Built primarily for more moderate temperatures, the MS1 electrical systems fared well. Except for an overflow of ventilation, which could produce frost bite and fogging in extreme colds, there were fewer issues than anticipated.
“The entire time in Iceland I barely touched the extensive tool kit that accompanies the suit. The challenging thing about a project like this is there is always room for improvement. Is it ready for future missions? Yes. Could it be better with additional work? Yes. So, there is definitely work that I’d like to do,” said Lye.
There are plans to refine the details and create a model closer to emulating a fully pressurized suit on Mars. To learn more, visit www.unexploredmedia.com.