Archive for January, 2010

Home, but not home

I’m back from Mars, but my head’s still in a strange space. This will probably continue for some time.

I’ve been spending some of my time doing catchup chores, like clearing out my spam traps (I have five, for my various accounts) and unpacking and doing laundry. Most of the rest of yesterday was spent working on a Keynote presentation (Apple’s answer to PowerPoint) of my Mars mission. It’s going to be mostly photos. I have 2500+ photographs to sort through and in two passes I got them down to the 1000 best and then the 400 best. I really need a 100 best and 30 best for various purposes. And that’s not to mention the videos.

Most other daily stuff isn’t happening yet. I need to take the car to the shop (battery died while I was gone) and vote (deadline is today) and answer some important paper mail and clean the kitchen and stuff like that there, but it’s hard to concentrate on Earthly life.

The new MDRS crew is going great guns, fixing the shower and water heater and fourth rover which have been out of commission for a long time, putting up GPS tracks on Google Earth with their heart rates and everything, and finishing the erection of the radiotelescope. I am so proud of them! You can see their group blog at

Photos from Mars

I posted photos every day during my trip to Mars, but for technical reasons I could only post them to LiveJournal rather than here. Here’s a link to all of my photo posts on LJ (about 6 photos per post). Enjoy!

MDRS-88 sol 1 photos
MDRS-88 sol 2 photos
MDRS-88 sol 3 photos
MDRS-88 sol 4 photos
MDRS-88 sol 5 photos
MDRS-88 sol 6 photos
MDRS-88 sol 7 photos
MDRS-88 sol 8 photos
MDRS-88 sol 9 photos
MDRS-88 sol 10 photos
MDRS-88 sol 11 photos
MDRS-88 sol 12 photos
MDRS-88 sol 13 photos
MDRS-88 sol 14 photos
MDRS-88 sol 15 photos

MDRS-88: Grand disjunction

Woke up in the hotel in Grand Junction, and even though I’m no longer in an isolated station in the middle of the desert I felt very alone. I miss my crewmates. Had another hot shower to the point of wrinkled fingers. Aah.

Didn’t have a great breakfast. My waffle stuck in the waffle maker, then I spilled a whole cup of coffee getting the creamer out of the fridge, and by the time I got that cleaned up the torn-up waffle was cold. Fox News was babbling away on the TV, talking about how a nun had been saved from being run over by a train and a dog was rescued from floodwaters on the L.A. River, and I reflected just how much I had not missed the news from Earth. About the only news I did catch was the fact of a horrible earthquake in Haiti, but the news was… well, it was so irrelevant to us that it might as well have been on another planet.

I realized only later that I hadn’t had to take full responsibility to clean up the coffee spill. It simply never occurred to me to ask anyone else to do it.

While I ate my cold waffle I pulled out my iPhone to check my email. But as soon as I connected to the network, the very first thing I pulled up was the MDRS webcam. All the new kids were gathered in the kitchen area; looks like they’re doing the dishes together. Good for them. Then I read my email, and the first couple of messages were between the new crew and Mission Support (crew members are included on the hab mailing list for the previous and following rotations as well). The crew was asking about how to get the water heater in the kitchen working (it isn’t working because there isn’t one; we heated water for our sponge baths on the stove) and Mission Support sent them a reminder about getting your daily reports and photos in on time. And while I was reading a trivial little exchange about getting a network hard drive set up on the hab laptop I started sobbing, right there in the Best Western’s breakfast room. I can’t really describe my emotions at that point. Loss? Homesickness? Relief? Exhaustion? If it’s homesickness I’m not sure whether it’s for Portland or Mars. Whatever it is, I’m crying again right now as I type this.

It’s now 9:00 AM and my flight home isn’t until 4:00 PM. I could go to the airport now and try to get on standby for an earlier flight, but that would be a hassle and I’d most likely wind up spending the day in the Grand Junction and/or Denver airports rather than home with my sweetie. I have a lot of things to do on my computer anyway, and my hotel room has a nice desk and fast free Internet, so I’m just going to stay here until my scheduled departure time.

MDRS-88 sol 15: Re-entry

The day dawned clear and cold, with most of the snow melted and the ground mostly frozen rather than muddy. By noon it was about half dry, squidgy in a few places but no impediment to travel at all.

Spent the morning packing, taking a last few pictures and videos, and doing a few bits of paperwork, but mostly just waiting for Crew 89 to show up. I put on my space suit for the last time, to get a video of the process; I walked up to the Musk Observatory for the last time, to get one more set of photos of the splendid view; I walked around and got a few pictures of things that had come to be important for me without ever being photogenic, like the Engineering shed. I said a fond goodbye to my radios, my faithful rovers, my trusted backpacks — even cantankerous #4. I gave Laksen a signed copy of Space Magic. I must confess I got a little teary-eyed.

Crew 89 was about an hour late, which made us even more pleased to see them when they finally showed up. Even better, they came in a huge 4×4 that would easily handle any rough roads and could accommodate all our luggage. They came in with a huge load of food, including many things that had run out early in our mission or even before we arrived. Lucky bastards!

We spent about three hours in hand-over meetings, walking them through the hab’s systems and answering questions. Having written the Quick Guides, I could answer questions about areas I never even handled. They seem like a smart bunch, but so naive in the ways of Mars. They intend to do jazzercise every day and have a clever plan to get showers which seemed horribly overambitious to us, but hey, if they can make it work, more power to them.

After the traditional group photos on the front porch, we drove off, leaving the starry-eyed young’uns to make their way on Mars. They have an exciting and challenging two weeks ahead of them, but I’m sure they’ll find their way just as we did, and in two weeks they will be the old hands, doing the same for Crew 90.

In any endeavour, from running for the bus to serving a tour of duty, one naturally paces oneself, conserving energy and attention to last as long as necessary. If this were a three-week mission I’m sure I would be much more ready to go on at the end of two weeks than I am right now, but as it stands I am completely spent and more than ready to go home. I am so very glad we didn’t have to spend even one additional night at the hab.

We had a little excitement not long after departing the hab, about which I’ll say no more. Then we got a panicked phone message from the commander of Crew 89, saying that a jacket and wallet had been left in our car and he was running after us in New Blue. We were not pleased at the delay, but it would have been churlish to keep driving, so we waited by the side of the road for about half an hour until he caught up and got the missing jacket (the wallet was not in the car; I hope it turns up). If we’d been able to call him back, though, I think we might very well have left the jacket hanging on the milepost 152 sign and kept going. Do not get between the outgoing crew and their showers.

Once we made it out to where I had proper cell phone service I checked the hab webcams on my iPhone. The new kids seemed to be settling in nicely, but there was a weird moment when one minute they were all at the table and the next they were all gone; a few minutes later they’d returned. A sudden crisis, or did they all just go out to look at the stars? We may never know. It’s very weird looking at the MDRS webcam and seeing other people in “our” hab. Imagine seeing live video of your own kitchen with a different family in it! Surprisingly addictive to watch.

After a stop at Wal-Mart to return a few unused items and buy some souvenirs, we had one last dinner together — real meat, and non-dehydrated vegetables, and soda pop, and wine, and all the water we wanted, just for the asking. Heaven. Bianca had to go back after visiting the loo because she realized only after leaving the bathroom that she could flush the toilet. I washed my hands in warm water for the first time in two weeks, and also saw myself in the mirror for the first time in two weeks (I caught a lot of sun, apparently, because those spots aren’t washing off). We reminisced and cracked in-jokes at the expense of the new crew and generally acted like crazed prospectors just returned to town.

Then the hotel — just a Best Western, but oh so luxurious with its soft soft beds and clean white sheets and acres, just acres of space. Waiting for me at the front desk was a surprise package from Kate: gingerbread astronauts (with red sugar Mars dust on their boots) and computers and space shuttles and stars and red-frosted planets Mars. I love my sweetie so much. We shared the cookies all around, hugged and shook hands and promised to stay in touch, and I cried a little again. Might see some of them tomorrow at the airport, but we have to assume this is our final goodbye.

Finally, after settling into the room, dealing with some email questions from the new crew, and a long phone call to Kate, came the eagerly-awaited moment: a long, long hot shower, with real soap and everything. I washed my hair three times and scrubbed myself all over with a washcloth until I felt actually clean. I stayed in there until my fingers were all wrinkled. And I flushed the toilet too, just because I could.

And now to sleep, in my soft warm luxurious motel bed. Tomorrow I return to Portland and my beloved and much-missed snookie.

This is David D. Levine, Space Cadet For Mars, signing off!

P.S. You can track Crew 89’s progress on their group blog at

MDRS-88 End-of-Mission Summary Report

Here’s what I submitted to my commander for his End-of-Mission Summary Report to the Mars Society.

MDRS-88 Mission Summary
David Levine

Background information: David is an award-winning science fiction writer who worked for 25 years as a technical writer, software engineer, and user interface designer for Tektronix, Intel, and McAfee. He came to MDRS looking for the “telling details” that make stories believable, and got not only that but an amazing adventure as well.

Journalism: David fulfilled his primary mission as Journalist by posting almost 10,000 words of daily reports to his blogs on,, and, along with over 70 photos (N.B. photos were small, only 20-80 KB in size). He also posted several brief status updates per day to his Twitter and Facebook readers. These updates reached nearly 2000 “friends” (registered readers) and an unknown number of unregistered readers, and received over 100 comments. He also took over 700 photos and 25 video clips, some of which will be used in future outreach, public education, and publicity opportunities. After returning to Earth, David will write articles and essays about his experience at MDRS, as well as fiction incorporating the things he has learned here, and attempt to place them at national publications. He will also speak about his experience at science fiction conventions and other venues.

David also maintained MDRS’s official web presence by selecting and uploading the crew’s daily photos (despite many technical issues), managing the MDRSupdates Twitter feed, and fixing and maintaining the webcams. When we arrived at the hab we had only 3 working webcams; now all 6 are working, and all are level and pointed at interesting things. These are all important public-relations and outreach elements of MDRS’s mission.

Engineering: In addition to his journalistic duties, David used his technical background to assist Laksen and Paul in keeping the hab and rovers running. He participated in the daily engineering rounds, diagnosed and repaired electrical and plumbing problems, and made sure the radios were properly stowed and charging every night.

David took responsibility for the EVA suits, making sure that all backpacks were properly charged and straps tightened after each EVA. When we arrived we found only five working backpacks and one badly cracked helmet; David repaired the helmet and replaced a dead battery to bring us up to six functional suits, then fixed hoses, replaced fuses, repaired cables, and unstuck zippers to keep all six suits running for the whole rotation.

David also used his technical writing skills to create a series of one-page Quick Guides to help get new crews up to speed quickly on the hab’s systems and to offer fast, focused answers to their questions when things go wrong. These are intended to be the documents we wished we’d had when we first arrived. They have been emailed to the Mars Society and to the next crew; laminated printouts will also be handed over to the next crew, and the “Quick Guides.doc” file has been left on the hab laptop so that it can be updated by future crews.

Other: David also worked on the reconstruction of the radiotelescope (much of this work was done in EVA suits), rode along on GPS tracking runs, and participated as a research subject in the food study, suit constraints study, and hab architecture study.

MDRS-88 sol 14: Cleaning up

Spent a big chunk of last night with Paul, sitting around a bucket of water in the lab cleaning mud off our boots with a toilet brush and talking about how to become a for-real astronaut. Just about everyone here but me has taken serious steps toward becoming an astronaut, and it sounds like it’s even harder than getting a novel published. They have so many applicants and the requirements are so stringent that the tiniest problem — or no probem at all — can knock you out of consideration. In fact, it might just be that the easiest route to becoming an astronaut is to become a US Senator, like John Glenn. That’s a position you can obtain with no qualifications but a substantial bank account.

Internet is back up and running at full speed today, thank goodness. It went down again this morning, and I volunteered to go out and clean the dish, but while I was putting my boots on it came back up by itself. Apparently I have become so mighty an engineer that just the threat of a visit from me is enough to make balky equipment cooperate.

On the flip side of that equation, backpack #4 — the one that wasn’t working when we arrived, and whose battery I replaced — never did charge all the way up and Mission Support recommended I try completely discharging it and charging it for 24 hours. I did so yesterday… and it reacted to this treatment by dying altogether. I was extremely annoyed to be leaving the next crew with a dead pack, after managing to keep all six running for my whole rotation. But after another 12 hours it seems to have mostly recovered: the light is yellow rather than green, and it doesn’t blow air quite as forcefully as the others, but it’s at least usable. Given another 24 hours of charging it might even be all the way up to 100%.

We had more snow overnight. Bianca and Diego went out for an EVA in the snow but Laksen and I were more cautious; we stayed inside and worked on the Engineering Rounds Quick Guide. This completes the series of Quick Guides — the planned Power Systems Quick Guide could not be completed because we haven’t seen DG this week. I also wrote up an email detailing the problems we’ve had with our Internet connection this week, with lessons learned and open questions, and mailed it to Mission Support. I hope future crews will find these documents useful.

With the snow and mud, I’m concerned about the next crew making it up Cow Dung Road (really no more than a trail) from the highway to the hab, but if they get the 4WD vehicle from the rental agency as they are supposed to (we didn’t) they should be okay. It’s been clear and cold all day here, but there are threatening clouds on the horizon and at the moment the wind is blowing so hard we can feel the whole hab shake. Every once in a while there’s a frightening crash as ice comes cascading down from the hab roof.

This week has been a real lesson in You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone. We had such gorgeous weather for the first week and a half and we didn’t think it would ever change, but since Wednesday it’s been completely different — much harder to work in and much less conducive to beautiful “Marsy” photographs. I’m glad we made good use of it while we had it, and I hope it clears up soon for Crew 89. The same goes for fast and reliable Internet, come to think of it.

We spent the middle of the day cleaning up the hab, the major part of which was sweeping and vacuuming up the dust that has gotten everywhere since the last cleaning. We also organized the tool benches in Engineering and the EVA room, and cleared off the counters in the lab… yesterday those were valuable geological samples, but today they’re just rocks. When Diego asked what he should do with his unneeded samples, I said “Throw ’em out the airlock!” I have never before had the opportunity to say that for real. Bianca even cleaned up the muddy rovers. When we were done the place looked fabulous. Oh, it’s not spotless — this place will never be really clean — but it’s much cleaner than it was, and we think even cleaner than it was when we first arrived.

In the afternoon, we laid various contingency plans to make sure Crew 89 actually makes it out here to relieve us despite the snow and mud. We have a powerful four-wheel-drive vehicle, New Blue (I referred to it as V’ger earlier but V’ger was replaced by this better vehicle), which we can use to drive out to the main road and pick them up if the car they get from the rental agency isn’t up to the task. We also made a large sign saying <– HAB so they won’t miss the turn-off we missed when we came in. We are in email communication with the new crew and we’ll make final plans before they leave the hotel tomorrow morning.

Dinner tonight was a repeat of some of our favorites from earlier in the mission: salad of fresh alfalfa sprouts, corn, and onions with a balsamic vinaigrette, and vegetable couscous. Tomorrow we will treat the newly-arrived Crew 89 with something dehydrated, as is traditional (at least, that’s what Crew 87 did for us, and let me tell you we appreciated it).

I think we’re leaving the hab in excellent shape for the next crew and we eagerly await their arrival tomorrow.

MDRS-88 sol 13: Rainy day fun on Mars

Spent most of the morning on paperwork, one way and another. We have to do an end-of-mission summary report, and most of us spent much of the morning working on our sections of it. It’s really rather amazing what we’ve accomplished in the last almost-two-weeks. We’ve done some serious science, we’ve had some amazing adventures, we’ve become experts at things that we’ll never do again. (Unless we return, of course — there are quite a few people who’ve gone on multiple MDRS rotations — but even if we do return, things will have changed.)

I helped people with wordsmithing and such, and as we were working on the brief personal biographies for each section I was struck once again by what an amazingly qualified crew we have. Laksen has four advanced degrees and is a VP of a major biomedical company; Bianca represented Belgium at International Space Camp; Paul was a semifinalist for the “academic Heisman” award; Diego is well on his way to being an ESA astronaut. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to be part of this crew.

Despite the fact that much of yesterday’s snow is still around, Paul, Laksen, and Bianca took off on a GPS-tagging EVA. The mud was terrible, though, and they soon had to turn back. I prepared hot cocoa for the poor chilled Marsnauts. Paul’s radio came back from the EVA muddy and nonfunctional, but once I scraped the mud out of the little USB port on the bottom it came back to life. (In the process I also discovered tht these radios have a powerful LED flashlight built in. Good to know about in case of emergency.)

In the afternoon it began to rain, making the already horrendous mud even worse. Also, our Internet connection is currently limited again, even though the bandwidth usage report shows that we did not use more than the usual amount of bandwidth yesterday. (I’ve asked the Mars Society to contact HughesNet and find out what’s going on but haven’t heard back yet.) So with horrible weather outside and no Internet to speak of, I pulled out the game Set and taught it to Bianca and Paul. They are both very smart people and caught on immediately — in fact, they both beat me handily.

It’s snowing now. The snow is building up on the satellite dish and at the moment we have no Internet at all, so this report may not go out until tomorrow, but I’m going to try to send it now just in case.

(Later:) Well, that didn’t work. Diego brushed the snow off the dish and that brought the signal back, but it went back down to zero again within 20 minutes. At the moment I’m watching the signal meter wobble between 2 and 4, which is not enough to get a lock on the satellite. So nore more Internet until the weather clears.

The feeling of isolation I am feeling right now is, I think, the most important thing I’ve gotten from this experience. The dust and the mechanical failures and the sound of breath in your space helmet are all part of the Mars experience, but I don’t think that any smaller-scale simulation could have given me this very genuine feeling of complete isolation and self-reliance. We are a long, long way from home and from anyone who could help us, and we are reliant on the materials we have here and our own wits to survive, and even though we are not actually on Mars the situation is similar in emotionally important ways. It’s not just our current situation that makes me feel this way; I’ve felt it the whole time, but right now I’m feeling it very keenly.

This feeling makes me more adventurous, more willing to take risks, and it also makes me more what I call “protagonisty.” Protagonists don’t just sit around or wait or expect other people to do things. They try to better their own situation; they take actions that affect the plot. Making your protagonist more protagonisty is an important way to make a story more engaging; making yourself more protagonisty is an important way to improve your own life.

It was being protagonisty that got me here, and I think the same is true of all the other people here. I’ve been a lot more protagonisty in these two weeks than I usually am — leaping in to fix things, trying things that might have a downside, seeking forgiveness rather than permission. It’s been an important life lesson to me and I hope to hang onto it for at least a while after I get home.

But I am ready to go home now.

I sure hope this weather doesn’t stop crew 89 from getting here on Saturday…

(Later:) Okay, Paul’s going out to try brushing the snow off the satellite dish again…

MDRS-88 sol 12: Snow Day on Mars

You know, given enough time you can get used to just about anything. Even though sleeping in the hab is a lot like trying to sleep on a park bench with an idling semi nearby, I’m now getting at least seven solid hours of sleep every night. My hands have gone from being so rough that they catch on my sweater to just being dry. And although I can’t claim that I don’t notice when I’m wearing a space suit, the feelings of claustrophobia and the harsh oppressive sound of my own breathing have vanished from my perceptions completely. The daily engineering tasks have become second nature, and crises that would have dominated our day in the early part of the mission are now taken in stride, with all of us leaping into immediate action so that no serious consequences occur.

Must be almost time to go home.

Even though we’re only in the middle of our second week here, we feel the end of our rotation breathing down our necks. The new crew arrives Saturday, and we need to spend Friday cleaning up and doing our end-of-rotation paperwork, which means that today and tomorrow are our last two days in sim. Fortunately we have completed all of the suit study trials, have collected a bunch of rock samples for the microfossil and extremophile studies, and have finished work on the telescope, so we are in good shape, but there’s still plenty of data analysis to do on those projects and lots of GPS tracking and geotagging yet to do.

And then we woke up and found the ground covered with snow from the front porch to the horizon. We thought Monday was a snow day, but that was really just a heavy frost and it was all gone within hours. This was SNOW — at least a couple of inches of fluffy white stuff. Quite a shock after yesterday’s blue skies and 50-degree temps.

And then the Internet went down! Trapped in a tin can, miles from civilization, and NO INTERNET!? Surely we would be shortly reduced to eating our own shoes! Fortunately, power-cycling the satellite modem a couple of times brought our connectivity back. We learned a few things from that incident that I documented in the Quick Guide.

Even with the Internet back we weren’t sure what to do — the fossil-hunting and GPS-tracking EVAs that we’d planned out last night weren’t going to be possible with everything covered with snow. But Paul pointed out that we really needed to warm up the rovers so they’d be ready for tomorrow.

So we did. We made sure those rovers were good and warmed up. I believe the technical term is “Yee-Ha!”

Laksen and I came in while Paul, Diego, and Bianca were still warming up the rovers; I fixed corned beef hash for lunch while Laksen dealt with his daily engineering tasks. Then the gang came in to the traditional welcome beverage for those who come in from the snow, which is hot cocoa. Except that since this bunch is from Florida, Texas, Colombia, Sri Lanka, and Belgium, none of them knew about this tradition and I (from Wisconsin) had to explain it to them. They enjoyed the hot cocoa, though.

After lunch we saw that the sun had come out and the temperature had climbed to 47 degrees, so Laksen, Bianca, and I decided to try a GPS tracking run — we’d stick to the main road and keep our speed down for safety. At first it was delightful, motoring across the fresh crisp snow, which sparkled in the sun and provided a delightful contrast with the red rocks and blue sky. But as we got further down the road and the temperatures continued to climb, the dirt beneath the snow changed to mud and the going got kind of nasty. We were slipping and sliding all over the place and the rovers’ wheels were kicking up great quantities of brown and red goo; climbing hills turned into a real trial. I got stuck at one point, and Bianca had to take over my rover to get it out, but then I remembered the first lesson of driving in snow — Don’t Stop, Don’t Slow Down — and from then on I was fine. Still, it was pretty unpleasant, and then we couldn’t find the next stretch of trail in the snow, so we decided to bag it and head back to the hab.

When we got back from that and cleaned up as much as possible, I worked on the Quick Guides. I have 9 one-page guides completed (ATVs, radios, webcams, white water system, black water system, gray water system and GreenHab, Internet, communication with the Mars Society, and EVA suit maintenance) and 2 to go (power system and engineering rounds), but I decided to print out and laminate what I’ve got. I also emailed them to a bunch of folks at the Mars Society and I hope they will be helpful for future missions.

Then it was time for dinner. I whomped up a batch of fried rice with tofu, miscellaneous vegetables, and rehydrated egg whites, which wasn’t bad despite the fact that we’re all out of soy sauce. Meanwhile Bianca rehydrated some cauliflower, topped it with Hollandaise sauce and rehydrated cheese, and popped it in the oven. It all came out delicious; just the thing for the end of a snowy day.