Last month the Mispillion Art League, in downtown Milford, hosted John Mollura as he shared stories and photos from his trip to Antarctica in 2008. A test engineer at ILC Dover, a business in Frederica, DE most famous for their design and manufacturing of NASA’s space suits, John has spent the last 15 years helping in the research and development of equipment that could make planetary exploration possible. Selected for the United States Antarctica Program in 2008, Mollura and his colleagues got a taste of what living on other planets may feel like as they tested an inflatable habitat in the unforgiving condition at the end of the Earth.
The importance of this inflatable habitat was highlighted in the recent award-winning film The Martian, as Matt Damon’s character lives out his days waiting for rescue in a habitat similar to the ones ILC Dover has developed. The habitat is constructed to give shelter to astronauts on other planets that will allow them to live on the surface of the planet instead of inside a shuttle or capsule. The habitat would include living quarters and room for a laboratory for experiments but would also need to be condensed in packaging that is small enough to fit on a space craft during travel.
Although any test site on Earth includes several elements of interplanetary settlement that can not be replicated, Mollura states that Antarctica is a “perfect test bed for NASA.” “It is cold, composed of crushed volcanic rock; it is a great analog of what Mars is like.”
Just getting there was an adventure in itself for Mollura and the rest of the crew. Beginning the journey on a 30-hour commercial flight to Christchurch, NZ, they then boarded a military plane for their 7 hour flight to Antarctica, where they landed on an runway made of ice. “I remember stepping off the plane and being blinded by the light,” said Mollura. “When I hit the ice and heard it crunch beneath my boots, I knew I was not home anymore. The landscape was so massive, primitive and it was so quiet.”
Due to the harsh conditions, John and his colleagues would work 12 hours each day to ensure that each individual was getting as much work done during the short time they were there. With 24 hours of sunlight, Mollura and his friends made the most of their experience and enjoyed rock climbing after their work, sometimes until 2 am. “The sound of walking and talking there was swallowed up in the vastness,” said Mollura. “It reminded me of the Wild West; no hospitals, all dirt and mud roads and maximum exposure to the elements.”
While spending a week on one of the least traveled continents on Earth, Mollura made sure to take photographs of his experience. “The beauty was found in the vast starkness, I found it very peaceful,” he said. “It is interesting to think that this is what it used to be like everywhere, just you and the wild.”
Mollura likes to remind individuals opposed to spending money on research for space programs that many times the technology developed during research processes can produce information and technology that can be used here on Earth. Although allocations for space travel and possible settlements has been decreased by the United State government over the last several years, the technology developed for livable habitats, ILC Dover is now using for infrastructure protection to prevent damage from hurricanes and other massive natural disasters. “The research has very tangible benefits to earth-based applications,” said Mollura.
At the end of each presentation he gives to the public, Mollura leaves his audience with a photograph of a solitary boot print in the snow. “I tell them that when I born, the doctors said that I would never walk; now my footprints are on the surface on Antarctica,” said Mollura. “I encourage them to boldly face challenges that they might not think they can overcome. I want my story to show that with faith, hope and love, and a healthy dose of hard work, you can reach your own unknown lands that you never thought possible.”