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Ellen's Spacesuit Diary Day 1 2 3

Day Three

Wow! It worked. I must admit I had little faith (make that no faith at all) that I was going to do anything but boil in that spacesuit in Death Valley. Remember when Kate said that in space your blood could boil when the sun shines on you?

Well, the skies cleared and the sun was shining when we arrived in Death Valley. Not as hot as is typical for Death Valley, but when I put the suit on and zipped it up with hood in place, I felt my body temperature soar. The blasted thing didn’t breathe at all! Why wasn’t it made of one of those high tech breathable fabrics! In any case, I was trying to figure out how I could be stoic about this without falling over, when Jonathan turned on the pump. The vacuum had worked and Kathy had rigged an evaporative cooling system on the car roof by covering a container of water with the red long-johns, which thankfully I wasn’t required to wear, and t-shirt, both soaked in water. As Kate drove us to the test site, the water in the container cooled as wind evaporated the water from the clothing covering the container, thus drawing heat energy out of the water in the container. And Mike had come up with a chemical way of cooling the water too. Brilliantly successful!

Sometimes the low tech solution to a problem is the only one that reliably works! Hurrah! So, Kathy put this cool water, about 20 degrees C, in the fridge container, which we now called a cooler, not a fridge, and then kept it cooled under vacuum. Thus all the effort making the fridge/cooler was not wasted.

It took a mere second or two for me to feel the cool water hit the space suit. Wow! What a difference. It was terribly exciting—almost confusing as I just hadn’t expected us to have both cool water and a working pump. The pump had been too easy, too simply built to work. Again, the simple, relatively low-tech solution worked.

So, I dragged the cart with the fridge along a course in Death Valley. The weak link turned out to be something we hadn’t focused on much--the cart, whose wheels started to splay as soon as I began to drag it over the rough playa. The ground was rugged and dissected by evaporated salts, which we hadn’t expected at all. At one point, I tripped and skinned my hand and knee on the stuff. It was amazingly sharp.

I monitored the temperature in the spacesuit, which continued to drop as the water cooled, thus indicating we had ended up with a reasonable proportion of time the water was in the cooler cooling down compared to time the water was circulating around the suit cooling me off (and warming up before heading back in to be cooled again).

The ironic bit was that just as I had completed the challenged and planted the flag (they convinced me that even I could plant a Union Jack as I was a member of a British team), the pump stopped circulating water. The water in the tubing had cooled the tubing so much that it was no longer malleable enough for our little pump to compress it and force the water forward. Our success in cooling had led to an ultimate breakdown in the system. We hadn’t even considered this as a potential problem even when we faced cold weather issues on Day two.

This just drove home the point that NASA and the companies it contracts, heck, everybody that ever makes something, really has to test it in all conditions and changing conditions, because even though we try, we can rarely predict all the issues involved, even the seemingly obvious ones. It also reinforces “Safety first—always”.

Reflections on Death Valley

You know it is hot when:
you drive with a bag of ice on your lap and the cold of the ice never reaches your skin
you open the door of your car that has been sitting in the intense sun for over an hour and it is cooler than the air outside
water, when poured over ice in a cup, melts all the ice before the cup is full
your sunscreen sizzles when applied to your skin
your car key leaves a heat impression on your hand
the sign on the road says not to run your car air conditioner for fear the car will overheat
walking, you want to get into the shade of the shade in order to get cool
your skin looks similar to that of a lizard because it is trying to get away from itself

Death Valley reached 53 degrees Celsius yesterday at 5pm, about the hottest part of the day. The thin, hot wind makes one’s skin stand up like scales trying to get as far apart from each other as possible. I’m slathered in sunscreen and covered with a hat and sunglasses that set close to my face. It’s windy; at least it seems so. The trees seem to blow in slow motion, picking out leaf by leaf for motion. The hat is good, the sun doesn’t feel like it’s beating me down. It is as if the light and heat go directly to the ground. Thin air, no moisture. I breathe through my nostrils to filter dust and to reduce moisture loss. Every so often the back of my nose and mouth become so dry they reflexively close up as if ocean water has gone up my nose. I open my mouth with a quick gasp before returning to nostril breaths.

As I walk, it is almost as if the air parts before me. I am aware that the air is dry. It is so hot that I can’t tell if it is hot. I almost expect a flame as I enter new patches of air. My skin has a burning sensation, like it is trying to release heat to the atmosphere immediately around it.

Two plants dominate the area, two hundred feet below sea level: honey something and desert holly. The carcass of a dead bird sits dry on the ground. The canyon through which I walk shows signs of mud flows through it. Layers of variously textured sediments indicated lake bottom, alluvial fans, and other deposits. I didn’t look for fossils.

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Ellen suited for space
Scientist's Diaries

How did the rest of the Rough Scientists approach the spacesuit task? Find out in their diaries: