Snow Cruiser, Moon Buggies, Mars Tractors

NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS's image: a Perseverance Mars rover selfie made from 62 individual images taken by a camera at the end of the rover's robotic arm, later stitched together. (April 6, 2021) from NASA, used w/o permission.
Perseverance on Mars. (April 6, 2021)

I started writing about the Antarctic Snow Cruiser, “one of the colossal engineering flops of history”. Or, my opinion, a basically good design that was rushed into service.

The Snow Cruiser and Little America III reminded me of imperial ambitions and a massive attitude adjustment, the Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series, Moon buggies and Elon Musk.

Make that Moon buggies and looking ahead to permanent bases on the Moon and Mars. And why I think living in Minnesota is okay, even if humans aren’t “perfectly adapted” to my home state’s environment.

Designing for Antarctica, and a Little History

National Land Imaging Program 's (ca. 2014) From USGS, United States Geological Survey, used w/o permission.
Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth.)

Antarctica’s winters are colder than Minnesota’s. And its summers aren’t much better, with temperatures staying below freezing. Which is why Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition, or the Antarctic Service Expedition, took along the Snow Cruiser.

The Antarctic Snow Cruiser's crew. Left to right: diesel mechanic C. W. Griffith, commander Dr. Franklin Alton Wade, radio operator Felix L. Ferranto, Snow Cruiser airplane pilot Theodore Argyres Petras. (September 20, 1940) From United States Antarctic Program, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Antarctic Snow Cruiser and its crew. (September 20, 1940)

The Snow Cruiser had been designed by the Armour Institute of Technology’s scientific research director, Dr. Thomas Poulter.

Poulter’s plans for a self-contained — and mobile — Antarctic base arguably began when he and two others rescued Richard Byrd during a 1934 Antarctic expedition.

By the time Poulter and the others got to Byrd, at a meteorological station a few hours from their base camp, he needed medical attention. More than the base camp could give.

Carbon monoxide was Byrd’s problem. Fixing the meteorological station’s heater didn’t take long, but airlifting Byrd out meant waiting two months.

I gather that Poulter started designing the Snow Cruiser shortly after he got back to Iowa.

Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition, AKA United States Antarctic Service Expedition, had the Snow Cruiser as part of its equipment. But the U. S. government didn’t earmark money for building the thing until six months before the departure date.

Departure for Little America III on the Ross Ice Shelf was in November of 1939, so by the time the Snow Cruiser was ready for testing, it was summer in North America. Poulter and the Armour Institute of Technology had no snow available for testing their Snow Cruiser

They did, however, have access to sandy land. They figured that sand might act like snow. Which it does, sort of. But sand is also a great deal denser than snow, and doesn’t act just like the stuff that’s about a foot and a half deep outside my window.1

Antarctic Snow Cruiser: Whipped Together in Six Months

Thomas Poulter's Snow Cruiser: a mobile research center, built near Chicago in 1939. AP image, via The Drive, used w/o permission.
The Snow Cruiser; built at the Pullman Company, Chicago. (1939)

I can see why someone called the Snow Cruiser “one of the colossal engineering flops of history”, since it slid off the road at least once on its way to Boston.

But I see it as a basically good design: and a case in point for not rushing through a new technology’s testing phase.

Although outfitting an Antarctic transport with treadless tires strikes me as daft, I also remember when we stopped using tire chains and started using snow tires. I checked, by the way: folks in Iowa, where Dr. Poulter was born, do get snow in the winter.

Tire chains, a sort of chain mesh wrapped around a tire, have been around at least since Harry D. Weed’s 1904 “grip-tread for pneumatic tires” patent. I haven’t tracked down who invented snow tires, or when that happened, and that’s another topic.

I suspect that the Snow Cruiser wouldn’t have been nearly so spectacularly unsuitable for its intended purpose, if Poulter and all had been given more than six months to turn a good idea into a service-ready Antarctic vehicle.2

Little America III and the Snow Cruiser, Briefly

Radio operator Sergeant Felix Ferranto thawing out the Antarctic Cruiser's wheelhub motors with a Primus blowtorch. (August 23, 1940) From United States Antarctic Program, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Radio operator Sergeant Felix Ferranto thawing out the Antarctic Cruiser’s wheelhub. (August 23, 1940)

The Snow Cruiser’s story isn’t all bad news. It was loaded on the USCGC North Star, and only destroyed part of the ramp built by the United States Antarctic Service Expedition (USASE) while offloading the thing in Antarctica.

Nobody got killed while demonstrating that, even with extra tires and jury-rigged tire chains, the Snow Cruiser wouldn’t cruise. But it would back up. Slowly.

Despite the Snow Cruiser’s performance deficit — and learning that the expedition’s M2 Light Tank and T3E4 Carrier sank in snow — USASE got most of their jobs done.

There wasn’t a relief crew when they pulled out of Little America III in 1941, since World War II had started. But they did leave equipment and supplies behind, in case the two bases they’d set up could be used again.

Since then, the Snow Cruiser has been spotted twice: once in 1946, and again in 1958.

The ice sheet Little America III was on has cracked, forming several massive icebergs. Poulter’s Snow Cruiser might still be buried in ice and snow, but it’s probably now at the ocean’s bottom.

There’s more to the Snow Cruiser’s story, although I suspect many records are still in Chicago-area archives and scrapbooks. I recommend these resources:3

Learning From the Past: Halley VI

BAS/M.Krzysztofowicz's photo: Moving Halley Base (2016)
Moving one of Halley Research Station’s eight modules. (2007)
 BAS/P.Bucktrout's photo: Halley Base's hydraulic leg and ski system. (2016)
Fitting sheets under one of Halley Research Station’s hydraulic leg-and-ski system. (2007)
PAS photo: moving Halley Base central red module. (2016)
Moving Halley Research Station’s central module. (2007)

Poulter had a good idea with his Snow Cruiser. Working in Antarctica is less dangerous when you can bring your shelter along. That’s partly why the current British Antarctic Survey (BAS)’s Halley Research Station, Halley VI, is mobile and modular.

Like Halley I through V, it’s on the Brunt Ice Shelf.

Since the ice shelf is slowly moving toward the ocean, buildings set on the ice would eventually go adrift as debris on icebergs.

The buildings for Halley V had hydraulic legs that kept them above the snow. Halley VI’s design added skis to its modules’ hydraulic legs. The modules aren’t self-propelled, but tractors can pull them to new locations.

Halley VI and its tractors aren’t as fast as the Snow Cruiser. But the design works, and has been moved successfully since its official opening in 2013.4

Natural Resources, Naval Bases and Empires

Walter Crane's Map of the British Empire. (1886) Map of the British Empire, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.
The British Empire in 1886, allegory and all.

Before moving along, a little about why the USASE went to Antarctica. And what happened to Poulter’s idea of a mobile Antarctic base.

Ishvara7 at English Wikipedia's map: Empires of the world, 1910. (2007) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.I haven’t verified it, but I’m pretty sure that the United States federal government wanted a slice of Antarctic territory.

Aside from abstract benefits, like status, folks had good reason for thinking that Antarctica had significant natural resources. Buried under a continent-wide glacier, but still valuable.

And there were strategic benefits to having naval bases in the far southern hemisphere.

Memorial service at Urakami Cathedral.So how come we’re not hearing political hissy fits over whether the Territory of Byrdland in Antarctica should be the State of Byrdland?

Basically, being imperial was what cool nations did when the 20th century began.

By 1945, when survivors were digging out from occasionally-radioactive rubble, a remarkable number of national leaders decided that maybe we should try something new.

And that’s yet another topic.5

Tractors Ho! The Moon and Mars

Detail, Chesley Bonestell's illustration: 'At end of two-week-long Lunar day, convoy of tractors....' Collier's, page 45 (October 25, 1952)
Chesley Bonestell’s illustration for ‘The Exploration’, Collier’s, page 45 (October 25, 1952)

From 1952 to 1954, Collier’s published their “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series: including Dr. Fred L. Whipple and Dr. Wernher von Braun’s “Man on the Moon: The Exploration” (October 25, 1952).

With their caterpillar tracks, the tractor-trailer rigs look more like today’s Antarctic vehicles than the 1939 Snow Cruiser. Apart from having pressurized cabins.

Maybe I should capitalize “caterpillar”, although I suspect that name has gone the way of the Zipper. And I’m wandering off-topic again.

Anyway, the Whipple/von Braun article’s moon tractors used cutting-edge-and-beyond technology: of the early 1950s.

“…tanklike cars equipped with caterpillar treads for mobility over the moon’s rough surface. The pressurize, cylindrical cabins hold seven men, two-way radio equipment, radar for measuring distances and depths, and a 12-hour hour supply of oxygen, food, water and fuel. Power is supplied by an enclosed turbine driven by a combination of hydrogen peroxide and fuel oil (oxygen escaping from the hydrogen peroxide enables the fuel oil to ignite)….”
(“Man on the Moon: The Exploration”; Dr. Fred L. Whipple, Dr. Wernher von Braun; illustration by Chesley Bonestell; Collier’s (October 25, 1952))

Seven decades later, I could make fun of the article’s hydrogen peroxide and fuel oil tractors rumbling across a craggy landscape lit by green Earthlight. But I won’t.

Shadows cast by Lunar mountains have sharp, crisp edges, and look rugged. Since there’s no air or liquid water on the moon, thinking that Lunar landscapes would have lots of sharp edges made sense.

Apollo 11's photo: Earth. (1969) via NASA Johnson Space Center, used w/o permission.Luna 2 didn’t reach the moon until 1959.

We didn’t get the first up-close images of Luna until Ranger 7 in 1964.

In 20-20 hindsight, maybe more scientists could have predicted that micrometeorite impacts will, given time, erode jagged peaks into the now-familiar undulating and undramatic Lunar landscapes.6 But they didn’t.

We didn’t realize how blue Earth looks, either.

Collier’s, 1954: Martian Tractors

Fred Freeman's illustration: 'Advance party, after landing on Martian in ski-equipped plane, prepares for trip to equator....' Collier's, page 28 (October 25, 1952)
Fred Freeman’s illustration for “Can We Get to Mars?”, Collier’s, page 45. (April 30, 1954)

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Perseverance: annotated image, showing the mission's first sample depot location: where the Mars rover will deposit a group of sample tubes for possible future return to Earth. The depot location is 'Three Forks' in Jezero Crater. (August 29, 2022)Fred Freeman’s illustrations for the Collier’s “Can We Get to Mars?” article were a pretty good match to pictures our robot explorers have been sending back.

That’s not terribly surprising, since Martian surface conditions aren’t quite as unearthly as Luna’s. Both planets have obvious atmospheres, for starters.

What the advance party in “Can We Get to Mars?” was doing is another matter.

“…The landing of the first plane will be made on the planet’s snow-covered polar cap — the only spot where there is any reasonable certainty of finding a smooth surface. Once down, the pioneer landing party will unload its tractors and supplies, inflate its balloonlike living quarters, and start on a 4,000-mile overland journey to the Martian equator, where the expedition’s main base will be set up. … At the equator, the advance party will construct a landing strip for the other two rocket planes. (The first landing craft will be abandoned at the pole.)…”
(“Can We Get to Mars?”, p. 28; Dr. Wernher von Braun, Cornelius Ryan; Colliers (April 30, 1954))

Again, I could make fun of von Braun and Ryan’s armada of 10 ships and three landers. But I won’t.

Back in the 1950s, assuming that the first folks landing on Mars would have limited or no information based on orbital surveys or robotic landers made sense.

Given extrapolations of that era’s technology, we could have sent a scouting mission to orbit Mars, collect data and return to Earth. And then send an expedition like the one described in Collier’s.

But that didn’t happen. And probably won’t.

JPL/NASA's Figure 6. Mars 2020 flight system in the Launch / Cruise Configuration. (2014-2017) used w/o permission.Maybe von Braun, Ryan and most of the other scientists realized that semi-autonomous robots could be exploring Mars within seven decades.

If so, they may also have seen convincing non-scientists that exploring Mars was possible — as a sufficiently massive job.

And that transitioning perceptions of robots from pulp magazine mechanical minions to real technology was a task best left untried.7

Luna, 1971-1972: Moon Buggies

Commander Dave Scott's photo: Apollo 15's Lunar Roving Vehicle after EVA 3. Near Hadley Rille and Montes Apenninus at the edge of the Mare Imbrium. (August 1, 1971)
Apollo 15’s moon buggy. (August 1, 1971)

About 19 years after the Collier’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” series began, the Apollo 15 mission’s equipment included a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Which arguably sounds cooler that Moon buggy.

I’ll freely admit that Poulter’s Snow Cruiser and Collier’s pressurized tractors looked more impressive than the LRVs.

Apollo’s Moon buggies looked like a couple of lawn chairs strapped to a golf cart.

But — and I think this is an important point — the Moon buggies worked.8

Next Stop: Mars?

NASA/Pat Rawlings' artist's concept: 'long-range exploration on the surface of Mars using pressurized rovers.' (2007)
“Mobile Home”: pressurized Mars rover, imagined by NASA/Pat Rawlings. (2007)

Eugene A. Cernan's photo at the Taurus–Littrow landing site on the Moon. Harrison H. Schmitt standing near a boulder during Apollo 17's third extravehicular activity (EVA-3). (December 13, 1972) NASA Photo ID: AS17-140-21496Apollo 17’s Moon buggy carried Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt around the Taurus-Littrow valley in 1972.

Nobody’s gone to Luna since, although it looks like the Artemis program will get the ball rolling again.

Within a few years we may, finally, have a permanent base on another world.

That, in turn, will make sending crewed expeditions to Mars easier. I’d be astounded if we don’t establish permanent bases on Mars. And, eventually, spare folks the long Earth-Mars commute by letting them settle there. Maybe within the next century.

I think that makes sense. But some folks don’t.

Colonization Of Mars Practically Impossible, Says Greek-American Space Expert
Paula Tsoni, Greek Reporter (February 11, 2023)

“Greek-American space exploration scientist Dr Stamatios Krimigis told a TV interview on Thursday that the colonization of Mars is practically impossible, at least for the next 200 years.

“Speaking to journalist Nikos Chatzinikolaou on Greek private network Ant1 TV, Dr Krimigis opined that Elon Musk, a passionate advocate of the colonization of Mars, hasn’t realized the actual difficulties of such a venture….”

I think Dr. Krimigis has a point. Right now, we haven’t developed all the technology we’ll need for living on Mars.

The Mars 2020 mission’s MOXIE oxygen generator, for example, is just a prototype. It works, but must be scaled up: a lot.9

And there are other practical issues involved with living on Mars.

“…If they were to colonize Mars, humans would need shelters dug at least one metre underground to protect themselves from such events [solar flares and coronal mass ejections], he added. And while that could perhaps be feasible in 200 years from today, it will not be so ‘in Elon Musk’s era.’

“He does believe though that a manned mission to Mars could materialize in the next decade….”
(Paula Tsoni, Greek Reporter (February 11, 2023))

On the other hand, going underground isn’t the only option for protection from radiation.

“Actual Difficulties” and the Mars Ice Home

NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch's: Mars Ice Home concept; by NASA's Langley Research Center, Space Exploration Architecture, Clouds Architecture Office. (2017)
Mars Ice Home concept: Langley, Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office. (2017)

The Mars Ice Home would provide a “cozy” living area inside what’s essentially an ice/carbon dioxide tank.

“…after a hard day of work and back to their cozy (and highly shielded) Ice Home bunks…”
(“Ice Home Mars Habitat“, Document No. MIH.ConOps.001, Revision 1.20; Updated for the FY17 LaRC CIF Risk Reduction Study (December 21, 2017))

The design’s interior would probably feel “cozy”. Which reminds me of real estate agent descriptions like “fixer-upper” and “secluded”.

But I think it, or something like it, could work as a home on Mars.

I also think Dr. Krimigis’ assertion that Elon Musk “…hasn’t realized the actual difficulties…” is accurate.

The technology we’ll need to live on Mars is still being developed and tested.

The ‘Musk’ team has already found at least one “actual difficulty”, something that looked like a good idea — but wasn’t.

The SpaceX Starship design started with a very cool carbon composite fuel tank. Now it’s stainless steel. Because that’s more cost-effective, I gather. Stainless steel is also less apt to get damaged by radiation.10

Realizing that part of a new design doesn’t work, and making changes before heading out makes sense. Dithering over budget and then telling developers to rush a vehicle into operation six months before ‘go time’? Not so much.

Opinions, Attitudes and Constants

NASA/Clouds AO/SEArch's illustratinon: Mars Ice Home vertical cross-section. (2017)
Langley, SEA and Clouds Architecture Office’s Mars Ice Home cross-section. (2017)

Dr. Krimigis earned a Ph.D. in physics, studied under James Van Allen and was principle investigator for the Cassini-Huygens mission’s Magnetospheric Imaging Instrument (MIMI).11

I figure he’s right about folks living on Mars needing a meter of Martian soil or its equivalent between themselves and the worst of solar storms. And my hat’s off to him for realizing that it’s a technical issue, which can be dealt with.

Folks with, ah, philosophical objections to rich people and folks living where we aren’t “perfectly adapted “? Here’s an example from last year.

Human Beings Will Never Permanently Colonize Mars or Even the Moon
Billionaires are destroying Earth for a childish fantasy
Jared A. Brock, Surviving Tomorrow (August 8, 2022)

“Billionaires are the worst.

“They destroy jobs.

“They prey on the poor.

“They evade taxation.

“And the most delusional ones think human beings belong in uninhabitable space….

“…Humans don’t belong in uninhabitable space

“There, I said it.

“And I’ll say it again:

“Humans don’t belong in uninhabitable space.

“I believe in this outrageous notion that homo sapiens are perfectly adapted for the planet we affectionately call Earth. Homo sapiens are simply not adapted for lifelong space living, and never will be….”

There’s a lot going on here. I’ll start by admitting that, although not a billionaire myself, I lack a proper revulsion with regard to folks with more money than I’ll ever see.

And I’ve always wanted my boss to be at least wealthy enough to cover my paycheck.

Some Things Don’t Change

Jadrienc's digital matte painting 'across the park'.About money being “the root of all evils”, it’s love of money that’s a problem. (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5)

As for wealth and poverty, sickness and health? Stuff happens.

How much I own isn’t a sure sign of virtue or sin. Neither is being healthy or sick. What I do with what I’ve got: that’s what matters. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828, 1509, 2211, 2288-2291, 2292-2296, 2448, 2540, 2544)

And what I should do is the same, whether I live in Minnesota, on the Moon or Mars.

I should love God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. Everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1789, 1825, 1849-1851, 1955)

We’re not all alike. We’re not supposed to be. But we each have equal dignity. (Catechism, 361, 369-370, 1929, 1934-1938, 2393)

Wealthy individuals and nations can and should help folks dealing with poverty. Giving food and other resources can be a good idea. So is fixing economic and social problems. (Catechism, 1883, 1932, 2439-2441, 2449)

Loving God and neighbors was important two millennia back, it’s important now, and will be important when Sargon of Akkad, Julius Caesar and Dag Hammarskjöld seem like contemporaries.

“A Severe Strain on Credulity”

The New York Times editorial, 'His Plan is Not Original;' insisting that rockets need air to push against, so they can't possibly work in space. (January 13, 1920) via timesmachine.nytimes.comThe “Humans Will Never…” op-ed reminded me of other sage advice, from 1920:

“…His Plan Is Not Original

That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

But there are such things as intentional mistakes or oversights, and, as it happens, Jules Verne, who also knew a thing or two in assorted sciences — and had, besides, a surprising amount of prophetic power — deliberately seems to make the same mistake that Professor Goddard seems to make. For the Frenchman, having got his travelers to or toward the moon into the desperate fix riding a tiny satellite of the satellite, saved them from circling it forever by means of an explosion, rocket fashion, where an explosion would not have had in the slightest degree the effect of releasing them from their dreadful slavery. That was one of Verne’s few scientific slips, or else it was a deliberate step aside from scientific accuracy, pardonable enough of him in a romancer, but its like is not so easily explained when made by a savant who isn’t writing a novel of adventure.

All the same, if Professor Goddard’s rocket attains a sufficient speed before it passes out of our atmosphere–which is a thinkable possibility — and if its aiming takes into account all of the many deflective forces that will affect its flight, it may reach the moon. That the rocket could carry enough explosive to make on impact a flash large and bright enough to be seen from earth by the biggest of our telescope — that will be believed when it is done.”
(“A Severe Strain on Credulity”, The New York Times; page 12, column 5 (January 13, 1920) via Wikisource)

“…Humans Don’t Belong…”

Brian H. Gill's photo: South Ninth Street in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. (March 2, 2023)
The view from my front door, Thursday afternoon. (March 2, 2023)

The author of that “Human Beings Will Never…” op-ed has a point. We’re not “perfectly adapted” to living on Mars.

For that matter, we’re not “perfectly adapted” to living in Minnesota.

Right now, Friday afternoon, the temperature next to my skin is about 85° Fahrenheit.

That’s close to the current temperature in Nairobi, Kenya: 70° Fahrenheit. It’s midnight there, so conditions there were closer to my personal micro-environment during the equatorial day.

My ancestors left humanity’s homeland a very, very long time ago, but we’re still adapted to that part of Earth’s equatorial region.12 Apart from a congenital melanin deficiency we picked up relatively recently, and that’s yet again another topic.

I keep my immediate environment comfortable, and survivable, with tech we call clothing, a house and a furnace.

Outside, water is a mineral.

An unprotected human wouldn’t survive more than maybe a few hours. During Minnesota winters, we need — at a minimum — clothing and fire or its equivalent.

Mars isn’t just like Minnesota, but Minnesota isn’t just like equatorial Africa. I don’t see a point in fussing about humans living where we’re not “perfectly adapted” now. And I don’t see a point in declaring that Mars is off limits because it’s not just like Minnesota.

Then there’s the matter of wealthy folks having options I don’t have.

Take William Penn, for example. England’s king gave him development rights to a swath of land in North America: which even then was worth quite a bit.

This was a few centuries back, so Mr. Penn’s property was already in the possession of part of the Delaware tribe. Credit where credit is due, though. Penn seems to have negotiated with the folks.12 And that’s still more topics.

More of my stuff, mostly space exploration and Mars:

1 Climate and technology:

2 Snow Cruiser background:

Wikipedia 'This article needs additional citations for verification...' banner.3 More background, incluidng a Wikipedia page that “needs additional citations”:

4 Hello, Halley VI — or — lessons learned:

5 History and geology:

6 Technology, science and scientists:

7 Mars, mostly:

8 A little Lunar exploration:

9 The Moon and Mars:

10 Looking ahead:

11 Physics:

12 Science, history and being human:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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