Archive for January 11th, 2010

MDRS-88 sol 2: Infant mortality

We had a whole bunch of prep and setup on the schedule for today, our last out-of-sim day. But Mars has its own agenda.

(Sidebar: “Out of sim” means that we don’t have to wear space suits outdoors or keep the airlock doors shut at all times. We’ll be “in sim” starting tomorrow.)

The hab is full of strange noises at night — whirs and thumps and gurgles — making sleep difficult, but eventually I put in earplugs and got a pretty solid night’s rest, finally getting out of bed around 7:00. I understand the ISS is also very noisy.

Paul made us pancakes for breakfast (using the last of the Bisquick and syrup, alas) and Bianca added a nice fruit compote made from dehydrated apples and berries. Then Laksen and Paul headed out for their first daily engineering round (surveying system status and performing maintenance). While they were doing this, I busied myself making name signs for our doors with the crew logo on them (hey, it’s a tradition). A while later they radioed in from Engineering to tell us they were going to shut down Kitty, the new generator, to check its oil, and we shouldn’t be alarmed if the power flickered a bit as the backup batteries took over.

(Sidebar: “Engineering” is a wooden shack full of oily equipment at the other end of a rocky path from the hab. In sim, we pretend that the shack is a bubble and the path is a pressurized tunnel. In addition to Kitty, the new generator that was just installed yesterday, this shack contains Casper and Wendy the old generators and Honey the backup generator.)

Okay, we said. And then the lights went out completely. Also the Internet, the heat, and everything else.

That wasn’t so bad, we thought; how long can it take to check the oil on a diesel engine? But the outage went on and on and on… eventually Laksen and Paul came in with some disturbing news: having shut down Kitty, they were unable to restart it; they didn’t know why the backup batteries hadn’t kicked in; and they’d tried switching over to Honey but that didn’t do the trick either.

With the Internet out, we had no way to contact Mission Support, and none of us have cell phone service here. Steve tried walking up to Observatory Ridge in hopes of catching a signal, but no dice. Finally Steve, Laksen, and Paul took V’ger into town in hopes that they’d be able to find DG at Hollow Mountain.

Through all of this I was feeling very much like a passenger, or maybe cargo, rather than crew. All I could do was sit and wait while the hab grew slowly colder. But after a couple of hours, V’ger came back with the sainted DG, who gladly came out on Sunday to get us up and running again. At least we were able to give our brave engineers a hot meal of chili and rice, which Bianca and I had prepared.

(Sidebar: V’ger is our Plymouth Voyager “pressurized rover” and DG is a Hanksville local who is absolutely essential to the continued operation of MDRS.)

It turns out that Kitty was keeping the hab running but was not charging its own battery, so when it came time to restart it, the starter didn’t turn over. Meanwhile the backup batteries, which were supposed to take over when Kitty shut down, had become completely discharged because the inverter (which is more than an inverter, it’s the brains of the operation and quite old and demented) had gotten confused by all the changes when Kitty was installed yesterday. The same demented inverter refused to accept that the power from the backup generator, Honey. Having diagnosed the problem, DG reconfigured the system so that Kitty is powering the hab and charging the hab’s batteries, and there’s a trickle charger plugged into Kitty charging Kitty’s battery. He’ll be back tomorrow or the next day to try to de-jury-rig this setup, but in the end we’ll probably need a new inverter.

Having gotten power back up, we tried to accomplish as many of our planned tasks for today as possible. I helped Laksen and Paul finish their engineering rounds, including pumping swampy-smelling gray water from the collection tank into the GreenHab, where it will be purified by running through several filters and three tanks of aquatic plants before being used to flush the toilet. Diego and Bianca went out to do the control (non-EVA-suited) on an experiment to determine the impact of EVA suits on efficiency of gathering biological samples, and Steve and Paul went out to examine some strata, looking for likely sites for microfossils.

(Sidebar: We can’t get the gray water clean enough to drink or even water edible plants with, but in a real Mars base such recycling would be necessary.)

As part of the engineering round, Paul got the Spirit rover, which had earlier failed to start, up and running, and Laksen and I each got to take it for a test run. Neither of us had ever been on an ATV before and it was deemed a good idea for us to try it once without the encumbering space suit. Paul offered me a radio to call for help in case I got in trouble, but I declined: “Don’t worry about me doing anything crazy. I don’t DO crazy.” “Dude,” he said, “you’re on an ATV in the middle of Mars.” “Woo-hoo!” I replied, and took off. I didn’t go all that far or all that fast, but it was still a thrill and the terrain is magnificent, alien, and very Martian.

(Sidebar: We have three ATVs, called Spirit, Opportunity, and Viking 1. A fourth ATV, Viking 2, is out of service.)

So we didn’t accomplish as much today as we’d planned, but we did get a lot of useful stuff done. Tomorrow when we wake up we will be in sim — on Mars for real!

Well, for analog, anyway.