Archive for January 23rd, 2010

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.