Archive for January, 2010

MDRS-88 sol 11: Completions

We had a busy day planned today, so as soon as we all finished breakfast (oatmeal again for me) we got straight to work. Diego, Laksen, and I took off for the final set of suited trials of the “determination of error in biological sampling due to EVA suit constraints” study. Laksen did his first, then headed back to the hab while I did my two. These weren’t as much of a pain as the first two I did, because I’m more experienced in the suit and in the specific skills needed for this plant-gathering task. Though I did seem to collect my pencil more frequently than I did some of the plants. I took lots of pictures of Laksen’s trial and of Diego looking for extremophiles in the rocks while waiting for Laksen to finish.

Once I was done with my suit trial I headed back to the hab, where I met Laksen and Paul who had just suited up for the final assembly phase of the radiotelescope. With the aid of a drill and a big hammer we got it all done and we posed for celebratory photographs. In the afternoon I wrote up a handoff report for the next crew, who will take over the work where we had to leave off due to lack of the right kind of coaxial cable. (It’s working, and the height is adjustable, but it can’t be raised to the ideal height because the connecting cable’s too short.)

I came in after two and a half hours in my suit to a fine bowl of soup for lunch, and the welcome news that our Internet seemed to be back up to speed. We will monitor our usage closely to be sure the problem does not recur.

After lunch I worked on the radiotelescope handoff report and the Quick Guides for maintenance of the EVA suits and the GreenHab (with Laksen’s help) while Steve, Paul, and Diego went off searching for fossils, with great success. As soon as they got back, Laksen, Bianca, and I hopped on the rovers and went out on another GPS-tracking run, looking for a trail that is called Cactus Road on our map. But the map is three years old and several previous attempts to find it had failed. Perhaps it had washed out. Finally, though, we did manage to find it, and it was a gorgeous run through a spectacular canyon labeled Valles Marineris on the map. (Though I’m told the canyon at Muddy Creek is even more spectacular.) We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, but we’ll try again tomorrow. I’m getting much better at navigating bumpy terrain and stepping over obstacles in first gear, and I’m very grateful to Paul, Laksen, and Bianca for their tolerance and support.

A big wind kicked up today, making the whole hab rattle like rain on the roof, and we can see some clouds that look like heavy weather on the horizon. We made sure to cover the rovers tightly against the weather and take in all equipment from the rover garage. I feel rather proprietary toward faithful Opportunity Girl, my favorite rover, which has served me very well. The rovers, and even the EVA backpacks, have developed individual personalities for me and I will miss them when I return to Earth.

MDRS-88 sol 10: Snow Day

Woke up this morning to snow! A light dusting of snow on the ground and just a bit in the air. Changed the appearance of the place completely — very pretty, though not very Marslike.

The snow threw our plans for the day into a cocked space helmet. The suit constraints study, for example, couldn’t be done because you couldn’t see the plants under the snow. So we brainstormed a bunch of other stuff that could be done, most of it in the hab.

It was at around this time that we noticed our Internet was running exceptionally slowly. We tried restarting the wifi router and the satellite modem, but that didn’t help. We suspected the weather, which was overcast as well as snowy and very cold, but we’ve had overcast before and it hasn’t hurt us like this. We contacted Mission Support — connectivity was present, though very slow — and they suggested that we might have hit our satellite Internet connection’s bandwidth limit. However, even the bandwidth usage page was taking forever to load. Finally I managed to determine that we’d used over 250 MB — more than 5 times our usual hourly usage — between 8 and 9 AM. That might explain why our Internet usage was throttled, but we’d all been at breakfast at that time! We tried and tried to figure out what had been the cause, not to scapegoat anyone but to keep it from happening again. Eventually it seemed that one of us had not managed to completely turn off updates and their computer had perhaps automatically downloaded a large Windows update during that time. That’s turned off now, so with any luck our connection will return to normal speed at midnight tonight and the problem will not recur. I really hope so, because being without reasonable Internet connectivity is a royal pain!

Once we got that issue sorted out — or at least diagnosed — Laksen and Bianca took off on a GPS trail-mapping run and I started work on some more Quick Guides. But what really got us excited was the idea of shooting our official portraits. For a backdrop we set up the Official Flag of Mars (red, green, and blue), a map of Mars, and a plaque about the Mars Society that usually hangs in the airlock, and we prepared to pose in front of it in our space suits (holding the helmet) and in our official crew polo shirts. But then various people wanted to spruce up for their photos, so we kind of lost momentum.

While we were waiting for the photos to happen, Paul and Laksen decided to go off on another GPS trail-mapping run. It looked pretty darn cold out there but they talked me into going along and I had a great time jouncing along on an ATV across barely-tracked rough terrain. In fact, if you’ve ever been to Disneyland, imagine the Indiana Jones ride over the countryside of Big Thunder Mountain Railway. Only rougher and longer. I quickly learned that on an ATV your suspension system is your knees, not your butt, and after a while I was galumphing across ruts and gulleys with hardly a second thought. It was great fun and we saw some fabulous scenery and picked up some fossil shells as well as mapping out the trail system.

We got back just in time for our crew photos, smiling for the camera in our space suits and polo shirts. Bianca takes the school photos for her kids’ school, so she had the whole thing down pat. It was very familiar, but also kind of surreal, and I think the photos came out great. (Paul thinks I look like Michael Farraday in Lost.) School photo day on Mars.

Today is a cooking day, and we got kind of ambitious. Bianca and I prepared pasta, pesto sauce from a mix, and canned spaghetti sauce beefed up with sauteed onions, TVP, and spices. Bianca also made muffins, which came out great, and Diego popped up with alfalfa sprouts from the GreenHab, which we served as a salad with a dressing of balsamic vinegar and rehydrated onions. A meal fit for a king!

We had an excellent conversation over and after dinner, including Star Trek and Monty Python references, but now it’s time for the writing of reports and other paperwork. With the Internet still throttled it’s going to take a while to submit this so I think I’ll stop writing and send it in now.

MDRS-88 sol 9: The music of the spheres

It’s very hard to believe that we are now more than halfway done with our mission. We arrived at MDRS last Saturday and the next crew will arrive this Saturday. We have been working 18-hour days, so we’re pretty tired, but we’re still excited and we have plenty more to do before we head back to Earth. But the Best Western in Grand Junction is going to feel like the Ritz.

It being Sunday today, we decided not to have our morning briefing at any set time but just to sleep until we woke up. I woke up around 7:30 anyway. We’d turned the heat down last night because it was over 75 degrees F upstairs, but in the morning it was 41 degrees F downstairs. I needed to go to the bathroom, which is downstairs, but I hesitated at the top of the stairs like a cat at the door on a cold day.

Before breakfast I had to go into the EVA prep room to check out something that had been bothering me during the night. We discovered recently that the new radios we just got are much easier to use if you attach them to your suit with a belt clip instead of tucking them in a pocket, but I didn’t know if we had clips for all of them. But after I looked in a few places I found the clips for all six. I also verified that they were all properly turned off and charging — it’s really easy to drop them in the charger in such a way that they don’t actually make contact.

Breakfast was oatmeal with dehydrated mandarin oranges. Over breakfast we talked about how much we wished we’d had some kind of simple, up-to-date one-page checklist and troubleshooting guide for our most important procedures, rather than the detailed and, unfortunately, obsolete manuals we have. I responded to this challenge like a good technical writer and quickly whomped out one-page Quick Guides for the ATVs, radios, and webcams. Quick Guides for the power and water systems will follow as soon as possible.

In the latter part of the morning Laksen, Paul, and I continued setup of the radiotelescope, working mostly in the rover garage. Most of this work consisted of measuring out nylon ropes, tying knots, and drilling holes. We got just about ready to set up the masts when it was time for lunch. I snarfed some ramen noodles (amazingly, Steve didn’t know what they were — I thought every college student in America lived on them) and then headed back out with Paul to continue work, while Laksen and Bianca took off on an EVA to do GPS tracking and photo geotagging of all the trails around the hab. Paul and I got the four masts erected, the guy wires loosely wrapped around the stakes, and the antennas attached to the masts. The adjustable masts are currently at their lowest point, 10′ high, because we don’t have the coaxial cable necessary to reach the antennas at the 20′ height we need to pick up radio signals from Jupiter at this point in its year, but at least we could check out the antennas and make sure they work. And they do! We picked up a signal that seems to be varying with the time of day as the sun’s signal would be expected to do. It sounds like static, but it’s the music of the spheres.

We’d planned a fossil-hunting EVA in the late afternoon, but the geotagging EVA got back later than scheduled and we didn’t think there would be time to reach the fossil bed and return before dark. I was disappointed, but then Paul and Laksen invited me along on a second GPS run, looking for a trail the first run had failed to find. We did manage to find and tag the trail, and I had a fun time on the ATVs and saw some spectacular scenery. Thanks guys!

Dinner tonight will be Kung Fu Chicken, the first dehydrated meal we had and still the tastiest we’ve tried. We’ve all worked up a good appetite today and we’re really looking forward to it.

MDRS-88 sol 8: Picking cotton on Mars

Oatmeal for breakfast today, immediately after which I suited up and headed out with Diego for his study on “Determination of error in biological sampling due to EVA suit constraints.” Each trial in this study consists of one test subject spending 20 minutes going over a patch of desert and identifying, photographing, counting, and taking samples of each different type of plant found there, either in a space suit (experiment) or not (control). There are 5 patches of desert and each of us is doing all of them, randomly selected as to whether each is suited or non-suited. The luck of the draw was that I was scheduled for one non-suited trial and four suited.

I did the non-suited trial at the beginning of the mission, and today I did two of my four suited trials. Man, what a pain! The gloves are the worst part. Imagine taking a photograph, writing down a brief description, breaking off a bit of plant, and stuffing it in one of several plastic bags, all wearing heavy winter gloves. (You are also juggling the camera, clipboard, and plastic bags in your hands, which is not the way I think a real biological survey would work, but that’s neither here nor there because we did it the same way in both trials.) The helmet makes it hard to see, the backpack makes it hard to balance, and all in all it’s painstaking, tedious, hard work — stoop labor on Mars. The worst part is when Diego throws all the samples away at the end of each trial (we aren’t measuring accuracy, only number of samples collected). And I have two more suited trials to do. I can really see why the astronauts in The Right Stuff despised the scientists so much.

Right after I got back from that, I joined Paul and Laksen in the lab to work on the radiotelescope. We think we’ve thrashed out a workable design for an adjustable support structure that can be constructed using the materials at hand, and when we finished work yesterday we made sure all the relevant bits were taken inside so we could do as much as possible in the lab. We got the cables measured and cut, and later today we plan to drill the holes and tie knots so that we can do an EVA tomorrow morning and just set the thing up. Wish us luck.

Lunch was canned corned beef, which looked disgusting to me, but Bianca sauteed onions and added tomato powder and spices and served it over mashed potatoes and it was pretty good.

In the afternoon I was still kind of beat from the suit study in the morning and I decided to not participate in any EVAs and take care of some other business. I backed up my computer, rearranged my Monster Bag (there’s no place to unpack it, so I’ve just been digging in it for everything I need and it’s all gotten horribly jumbled up), vaccumed the lab (just to beat back the encroaching dust a bit), and took a nap. But when I saw the cool photos and videos everyone brought back I regretted not having done another EVA today.

While everyone else was returning from their EVAs, I cooked dinner. Usually at home I work from recipes, but Bianca’s an improviser and after consulting with her I whomped up something I’d call Tofu Enchilada Style: sauteed dehydrated onions, tofu, a package of enchilada seasoning, canned spaghetti sauce, and dehydrated cheese served over a mix of white and brown rice. It was darn tasty, actually, but the real hit of the meal was the muffins Bianca made.

Our daily reports at are supposed to include photos, but they take 24 hours to be posted when it’s working and it hasn’t been working lately. In fact, we only have photos posted for 1/11 and 1/13, plus two (of the seven we submitted) for 1/14. We’ve been going back and forth with Mission Support on this, but the webmaster’s on vacation and nobody else has the necessary passwords to address the situation. Frustrating. (I’ve been posting photos on my personal blog but they’re not the same ones.)

MDRS-88 sol 7: Engineering

Today started with the now-usual ATV warm-up run. We had gorgeous weather again today, despite the fact that snow was in the forecast — for some reason the weather we’ve been having has been much drier and warmer than forecast for Hanksville, just three miles away. (Mind you, it was 14 degrees F when I got up. Brr!) Because the weather was nice and the trip back from Engineering is so scenic, I stuck my camera in my front pocket with the lens sticking out and took a short Rover-Cam video. It’s not quite level but otherwise turned out quite well. Like the other videos I’ve mentioned, I’ll upload it to YouTube after I return to Earth.

After our morning briefing I tackled the EVA room webcam, which has been down since before we got here. The camera itself is in a difficult location to reach, at the end of three USB cables. I checked all the connections, unplugged and replugged it, rebooted the system — nothing. So, suspecting that perhaps one of the cables had been gnawed by Martian mice, I un-duct-taped the camera from the wall and plugged it directly into the computer. This resulted in all sorts of uninformative Windows errors and also knocked the printer offline. I tried all the USB troubleshooting steps I could think of — no dice (though I did get the printer back up and running). Finally I gave up and decided to put the camera back where it had been, just so it wouldn’t get lost among all the other bits of miscellaneous computer hardware here. But when I plugged it back into the third extension cable, I heard a little bing-bong from the computer. I looked… and it was online! I have no idea what I did but I’m not going to mess with success. I taped it back up and, with Bianca’s help, got it pointed at what I hope is an interesting part of the EVA room. (Bianca and I are both on the short side, so if you see the taller Marsnauts walking around with their heads cut off that’s why.) So we now have six working webcams, up from three when I arrived.

Once I got done with that I helped Laksen pump water around. We have to haul out an electrical pump to move our clean water from the trailer in which it is delivered into the external tank next to the hab, and then run a separate pump to get it from the external tank to the internal tank in the loft. We also have a third pump to move gray water from the underground tank in which it is collected into the greenhab, where it is filtered and processed by duckweed and water hyacinths until it is clean enough to use for flushing the toilet, as mentioned earlier. The gray water is then moved from the greenhab to the toilet via a hand pump, which takes quite a bit of effort, whenever you want to flush. This is one reason we say “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” We also fired up the heater that keeps the pipes under the bathroom from freezing. Maintaining human life is all about water — too much water, or water in the wrong place, can be as much of a problem as too little, even on Mars.

After a nice lunch of rehydrated noodles with vegetables, courtesy of Bianca, I sat down with Laksen and Paul to continue work on the radiotelescope. We spent about half the afternoon designing the guy wires that will keep the telescope’s masts vertical and properly positioned; this involved a lot of basic trigonometry and quite a bit of figuring out what we have in terms of hardware, rope, and cable. This took enough time that we did not get out on the surface today for this project.

In the late afternoon I went out on a geological EVA with Steve and Bianca, looking for microfossils. As I had no idea what to look for, and wasn’t brave enough to climb up as high as Steve, I just picked up interesting-looking rocks and took photos. The light was excellent and the photos came out very Marsy. I took some videos too.

Most MDRS missions have only one engineer. We have three, in effect — Laksen is the official engineer, and Paul and I are both handy with tools and available to help. For myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time on engineering tasks because I don’t have a scientific mission and because I enjoy solving problems. It’s great for me because anything I can do in this area is a bonus — nothing was expected of me coming in. I understand that life on the International Space Station is similar: broken equipment and daily maintenance can easily take over the whole day. But with the three of us working on maintenance and repairs, we can actually get ahead of the game and leave the hab in better shape than when we came. This is very satisfying to me.

MDRS-88 sol 6: Life on Mars

Today started out much like yesterday, with a quick trip out to Engineering to warm up and gas up the ATVs. The weather was gorgeous, clear and crisp but not too cold, and even on that short ride I was struck anew by the sere beauty of this alien place. If it’s nice again tomorrow I’ll try to take a video.

After breakfast and morning briefing, Paul, Laksen, and I put our heads together over the bits of the radiotelescope in the science lab. As in the movie Apollo 13, our challenge is to make this fit into that using only this stuff. In our case the available stuff is a little more than they had in the Apollo capsule but it’s still weirdly limited. The radiotelescope consists of four twenty-foot masts holding up two dipole antennas, and they have to be braced with guy wires, but we don’t have wire, just rope (and it’s several different varieties of rope scavenged from various other projects); we don’t have turnbuckles or eye bolts; and we don’t have all the tools we’d like, but we do have an entire large plastic container full of various kinds of adhesive tape. It’s like trying to do a home remodeling project at your beach house, if your beach house were too far from the nearest town to buy anything you left at home.

Another thing we did this morning is that we decided the hab was getting pretty scruffy, so we buckled down for a couple hours of cleaning. If you saw on the webcam that Bianca, the only woman, was mopping the floor on the residential level, please be reassured that the guys were sweeping and vacuuming like mad in the lab and the EVA room (where the webcam is still out of order — sorry, I’ll look into that soon, I hope). We also took out all the garbage and discards, scrubbed the toilet, and swept out the airlocks. The place looks much, much better now and we’ve instituted a strict shoe policy (no outside or downstairs shoes upstairs) to keep the dust from getting into the residential areas. It’s a bit like being Japanese.

After a really thorough cleaning we were ready for a good hot lunch. As it is a “cooking” day, we could fix whatever we wanted… though, again, it’s a matter of making this fit into that using only this stuff. We have nothing fresh, very little meat and very little that isn’t dehydrated. We wound up with a very nice creamy wild rice soup, chili, and mashed potatoes with cheese. Hot and filling.

Most of my afternoon was spent in a space suit, just outside the hab, setting up the radiotelescope. We started by driving lengths of pipe into the ground to act as bases for the masts, using what I call The First Tool: a big rock. Then we drilled holes into the masts in some places and attached pipe clamps in others so that we had somewhere to attach the guy ropes, measured and cut the guy ropes, and erected one mast. But as soon as we got it up we realized the antenna’s coaxial cable is not long enough to reach the antenna at its new height. We took measurements, took the mast back down, and called it a day; an unknown number of days of work remain, but we are optimistic that we can finish it before the end of this rotation. If there’s more coaxial cable in the hab somewhere.

I was pretty wiped out after that and I declined to join in the afternoon’s geological EVA. While they were gone I recorded a brief video tour of the hab, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, and caught up on some paperwork. Steve, Bianca, and Laksen came back with some great pictures, lots of geological samples, and the story of having run into a couple of local tourists who were just pleased as punch to get their pictures taken shaking hands with a real live Martian. Steve’s microfossil search achieved success: he found a fossil ostracod! Diego also found life this afternoon, specificially endoliths (cryptoendolithic algae) in some minerals he collected this morning.

Then came the time of staring into the cupboard and wondering what to fix for dinner. We found a box of couscous and Bianca got the brainstorm to prepare a vegetable couscous. We rehydrated onions and sauteed them, added broccoli, corn, peas, and carrots rehydrated in water with a couple boullion cubes, and topped it off with half a can of tomato paste and a variety of spices. Served over couscous cooked in the water we drained off the vegetables after rehydration, it was really really good. We also had “blueberry” muffins that Paul fixed from a Jiffy boxed mix. Best dinner yet, and great conversation over it as well.

Unfortunately that dinner took rather a lot of time to prepare, so I didn’t get around to writing my report until quite late. I have to submit this in the next five minutes or Mission Support will be unhappy with me, so off it goes!

MDRS-88 sol 5: Water on Mars

The plan for today was to split up into teams morning and afternoon. In the morning, Diego and Bianca would perform the first experimental (suited) trials of the ergonomics study while Paul, Laksen, and I did a preliminary survey of the radiotelescope from the pressurized tunnel (i.e. path to the greenhouse). Then after lunch, Steve and Bianca would go off looking for microfossils while Paul, Laksen, and I began actual work on the radiotelescope.

What actually happened was that after Paul, Laksen, and I filled up the ATVs’ tanks and checked their oil and tires, we went to pump water from the trailer in which it is delivered into the hab’s external tank and the pump wouldn’t run. It had been fine yesterday…. I tried unkinking the hose and poking at it in various ways, up to and including a complete disassembly, but still it would only hum when plugged in. At one point when we had it disassembled it began to spin, and we cheered and put it back together. Naturally once it was back together it wouldn’t work any more. Fortunately we have enough water in the tank for several days so this isn’t an immediate crisis, and right after lunch the water pump began working again, apparently all by itself. We went out and filled the tank right away, as long as it was working. (I still don’t trust it long-term).

While I was working on the pump, Laksen looked for the source of water we’d seen leaking out from under the hab. It turned out that the U-bend under the sink in the science lab had come loose — someone in some previous crew had put a bucket under it, but we’d been using it unawares and it had filled up and spilled over. There was ice at the back of the cabinet and water on the floor as well. Laksen started to look for PVC pipe cement to reattach it but I thought I remembered that gluing a U-bend in place would be bad — you need to be able to get it off to clean out the trap — and that it should be possible to just finger-tighten the joint. Turned out the gasket in the joint was in backwards, and once reversed and finger-tightened it no longer leaked (well, maybe seeped a little). We did manage to get about a half-hour in on the radiotelescope, reading over the documentation and surveying the current state of construction.

While lunch was cooking, I also ran up to the Musk Observatory to see if I could fix the #1 webcam there, which was completely washed out even when the sun wasn’t shining directly into its eye. Poking around at the computer there, I stumbled into a deeply-buried settings screen where all the contrast, brightness, and gamma controls were seriously messed up. A simple press on the Restore Defaults button brought the camera back to life. Go me! There were three working webcams when we arrived and now we have five. I’ll tackle the sixth when I get a chance.

For lunch we had split-pea soup from a mix, with dehydrated peas and corn and some yummy yummy TVP added. It was actually pretty tasty. We Marsnauts are research subjects in a food study, where we alternate cooking and non-cooking days and fill out a survey each day about how we liked them and what our current mood and energy level is, and today is a non-cooking day. On non-cooking days we eat only rehydrated foods (the sort of thing you would find at a camping or survivalist store); tonight’s dinner is Texas BBQ Chicken with Beans. Some of these dehydrated meals are really good. (They’re also expensive.) On cooking days we can cook whatever we like from what is available — which is, more often than not, something else pre-prepared. One night I got ambitious and made a stir-fry of tofu, rehydrated broccoli, and rehydrated onions, served over real rice. It was pretty good, in my opinion, but I don’t think it was good enough to justify the time it took.

Our time is fully occupied here. The days are filled with EVAs and various maintenance and repair tasks, and the evenings are largely taken up with the daily reports we have to file with the Mars Society, planning the next day’s activities, and blogging. Blogging is a serious activity here — it’s public outreach. Diego and I had blogs before being selected for this mission. Laksen started blogging after he was selected, and Paul and Bianca both started blogging after they arrived here. Only Steve is blog-resistant.

After lunch we suited up for our radiotelescope EVA. The radiotelescope we have here is a very simple one based on designs provided by NASA’s Radio Jove project ( It just consists of a pair of dipole antennas — basically two parallel wires — which can receive a signal from a powerful radio source such as Jupiter or the Sun. The height of the two wires above the ground determines the angle in the sky where the antenna is focused, and right now that height is fixed to the position of Jupiter when the telescope was first constructed (it’s since moved). We’re replacing the poles that hold up the wires with telescoping assemblies so the telescope can be “pointed” at different parts of the sky. Two of the poles were replaced by the previous crew and we’re going to try to finish the job. Today we managed to get the two fixed-height poles taken down and all the necessary parts moved into the lab; the next step is to build the telescoping poles.

Almost immediately after that EVA Paul and Laksen decided to go out on one more EVA to check out some repairs we’d made to the suits. I was tired, but when Paul invited me along I said “I’m never going to have this opportunity again” and I suited up with them. We’re getting pretty good at the suiting process and it went quickly; we then took ATVs a short way away and climbed up a mesa. It was cool to be walking across the stripes you can see from the hab, and the whole thing felt exceptionally Marsy. The view was spectacular, but I pooped out before reaching the summit, alas. I rested on a rock while Laksen and Paul climbed to the top and got some great pictures.

After everyone got back from their various EVAs we sat down at our computers to prepare our daily reports and began boiling water for dinner. So ends another day on Mars.

Liveblogging Mars (updated)

If my updates are only whetting your appetite, here are some other sources of up-to-the-minute information on MDRS-88:

Addendum: I rock

After dinner I fixed both of the space suit backpacks that came back from EVA with problems. One of them had a fuse that wasn’t making proper contact (just removing and replacing it fixed the problem) and the other had a spade lug that had worked loose from the battery.

Flush with that success, I looked at pack #4, which had been dead since before we arrived. With Paul and Laksen’s help I determined that the battery itself was not taking a charge. We replaced it with a similar battery we found in the cabinet and it seems to be good to go.

I didn’t mention in my earlier report that we had a problem after today’s second EVA where one person’s space suit zipper jammed really badly. Paul managed to get the occupant out, but only by tearing a couple of zipper teeth out. I used my science fiction convention costuming experience to get that zipper working better by rubbing a candle along its length.

Feeling very smug now. Probably I will get myself in big trouble trying to fix something tomorrow.

MDRS-88 sol 4: Mr. Fix-It

Today was a fix-it day for me. After the morning’s briefing I checked over the EVA packs to make sure they were all charged up for the day’s activity, but pack 4 was not charging and not functional. I tried all the basic useful stuff like wiggling the connections but it seems completely dead. It’s probably just a loose connection somewhere. We decided that we could make it through today with only 5 packs. I also attached Velcro to our laminated name tags so we can all have our names on our space suits.

In the second half of the morning, Laksen and I went up to the Musk Observatory, which is out of commission for now because the telescope has failed and been sent back to the manufacturer, to see if we could get the two outdoor webcams back on line. We had been told that the computer at the Musk, which controls those webcams as well as the telescope (when the telescope is there) had failed due to low temperatures. Maybe it did, but it’s a bit warmer today than it was last week and the thing booted right up. However, both webcams were really messed up in their positioning. This might have something to do with the fact that for a camera mount each one was just duct taped to a rock. I un-taped them and re-taped each one’s stand firmly to the shelf on which they sit. We got one camera working properly and the other came up by itself later in the day, when the sun was no longer shining directly in its eye. That gets us up to five working cameras out of six (it was only three when we arrived) and I’ll see if I can fix the sixth and improve the positioning of the second Musk camera tomorrow.

After lunch, Paul, Steve, and I went out on EVA #2. This was Steve’s first EVA and Paul and I, now the Old Hands, walked him through the suiting procedure. We took the three ATVs out to the very end of the trail, which put us within hiking distance of a mineral formation where we had reason to believe we might find microfossils (Foraminifera, Radiolaria and Diatoms). The formation proved to be pretty inaccessible, but Steve bravely clambered up an unstable slope and collected two bags of samples. Steve’s initial microscopic analysis didn’t find any fossils, but he did find a micrometeorite and there are more samples yet to examine. We also got a bunch of fine photos.

This is the farthest and the fastest I have ever gone on an ATV. For safety’s sake we wore motorcycle helmets, with our EVA helmets bungeed on the back rack, but on the way out all three of us managed to have the helmet fall off at some point. Mine suffered a cracked sun shield but that was the worst of the damage, fortunately. This explains why four of the six helmets have some kind of crack in the visor. After the third such incident we switched to carrying the helmets in front of us, perched on the gas tank. It was exciting and a lot of fun, but when the MDRS came in sight at the end of that trip I must confess I said to myself “Hab, sweet hab!” I’m a little achy but feel very satisfied and pleased with myself.

Very shortly after our return Laksen, Diego, and Bianca went out on EVA #3, their first EVA. Paul and I helped them suit up and took tons of pictures. They were all very excited, like kids on the first day of school. Paul and I waved as they rode off into the distance, pleased and proud at our babies leaving the nest. When they came back we helped them unsuit. It was a busy and productive time and I felt very professional, checking each pack to make sure its straps were tight and hoses properly fastened. “Looks like we’ve got an intermittent malf on #3,” I said in my Astronaut Voice. After all this work with the backpacks I felt almost proprietary toward them as I racked them up. My babies! Two of the packs actually came back from EVA #3 with problems, which means we currently have only three working packs. Paul and I will look at the malfunctioning ones after dinner in hopes of bringing at least one or two of them back online.

We had a bit of excitement this evening when one of the crew went downstairs to take a sponge bath at the sink in the Science and Engineering Bay. When this person asked us to not come downstairs for a little bit, we pointed out that there’s a webcam covering that area. Eek! I rushed to cover the camera (without looking) and wound up falling down the last couple of steps. Fortunately I landed well and didn’t hurt myself, no Naughty Bits appeared on the webcam, and we all learned an Important Lesson.

You may have noticed that an ongoing theme of this report, and all other reports from MDRS, is fighting with malfunctioning infrastructure. (And I haven’t even mentioned the fun times we’ve been having with the toilet.) I believe that this is an important part of our mission here — the problems we are having are not the same problems a real Mars mission would have, but the time we spend on problems and the way we react to them are representative of the schedule and psychological problems a real Mars astronaut would have. Certainly the daily struggles of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to survive on the surface of a harsh and unforgiving planet show that persistence, ingenuity, and improvisation will continue to be necessary skills for all kinds of explorers in new environments.