Archive for January, 2010

MDRS-88 sol 3: In sim

Last night I went out after dinner to admire the stars. When I was a kid I didn’t understand about stars twinkling, because when you live in a city you can only see the very brightest stars and they don’t twinkle visibly. But here there are billions of stars, they are big and bright and they twinkle most merrily. But when I got back to the hab… the inner airlock door wouldn’t budge! I knocked but got no answer. I walked back around to the Engineering lock and found Paul and Laksen doing their engineering rounds. They had locked the front door not knowing I was outside and were extremely apologetic.

When we awoke this morning we were officially “in sim.” I arrived on Mars while I slept! Kind of like a cruise ship, except without the luxury, natives, and air.

As I was getting dressed I stubbed my toe on the milk crate provided as a step to get into my upper bunk. It was still hurting a while later so I took off my shoe to inspect it and found it bleeding. Bianca, our Health & Safety Officer, was concerned about infection so she treated it with peroxide and mecurochrome and bandaged it. It still hurts a little — only a little, but I feel really stupid to have injured myself (albeit trivially) on my first day on Mars.

After a breakfast of oatmeal with reconstituted dehydrated fruit, we had the commander’s briefing and a briefing from our Health & Safety Officer. We do have procedures for emergency medical aid here, but we hope not to have to use them. (Stubbed toe doesn’t count, even if it’s bleeding.)

Our first official activity in sim is to establish the controls for our study on Determination of Error in Biological Sampling due to EVA Suit Constraints. “Control” in this case means surveying several patches of desert for plant life, while not wearing EVA suits. (Even though we are in sim, we have special authorization to perform this activity without suits. We were supposed to run the controls yesterday, before the start of sim, but most of the day was consumed by the power problem we had.) The “experimental” runs of the study will perform the same task while wearing suits.

We had two working sessions today, with two teams going out in each session. As it happens I was randomly selected to participate in only one control and four experimental runs, so I went out only once. During the first run I was the only person in the hab. I checked in by radio every 20 minutes with the teams on the surface, updated the MDRS Twitter feed, and tried to diagnose the malfunctioning webcam in the EVA prep area (to no avail). I also effected a temporary repair on EVA helmet #1, which has a cracked visor. Duct tape to the rescue!

For my control run, I had a nice walk out to the study area, a square of desert marked out with flags where my job was to identify as many different plant species as possible, count the number of plants of each species, and collect a small sample of each plant, all in twenty minutes. It was kind of fussy work and I can tell that it will be much harder in an EVA suit (which I will have to do four times… oy). At the end of it I just dumped the samples out on the ground — the point of this exercise was just to measure the number of samples collected in the time allotted rather than to actually use the samples. I could really identify with the Mercury/Gemini astronauts who got angry with the scientists who treated them like lab animals.

When we were done with that, Paul was really agitating to do a proper EVA, and we finally got the go-ahead for that with about an hour of light left. We helped each other on with our suits, went through the airlock, and stepped out on the surface.

What. A. Blast!

The goal of this first brief EVA was just to gain experience walking and driving in the suits. We were out for 40 minutes, including a hike over gently rolling terrain and ten minutes on the rovers in the immediate vicinity of the hab. I was grinning like a fool the whole time and Bianca got some awesome pictures.

Now I really feel like the first science fiction writer on Mars!

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.

MDRS-88 sol 1: Arrival

Awoke bright and early for breakfast with the crew. Bianca Nowak, the final crew member to arrive, did not have an easy trip from Belgium, culminating in the failure of her luggage to arrive with her. The airline promises that it will be here later today and they will deliver it to the hab’s mail drop at the Hollow Mountain convenience store in Hanksville, about 3 miles from the hab. (Hollow Mountain is, in fact, carved into a mountain; some of the walls inside are raw rock. Fascinating!)

We checked out of the hotel and drove out to the hab, stopping at Wal-Mart on the way for some supplies. (Yes, Wal-Mart. Not much in the way of alternatives here.) The drive from Grand Junction to Hanksville took about three hours and treated us to some spectacular views. The terrain was mostly snow-covered but as we approached the hab it became more and more Mars-like, especially after we passed Hanksville. We did get slightly lost in that last stretch — we were following a vague and extremely sketchy map drawn on the back of a cash register receipt by the clerk at the Hollow Mountain — but we were only half an hour behind schedule when the white cylinder of the hab, familiar to all of us from photographs even though we’d never been here before, peeked out from behind a rust-colored rock formation. Excitement! Our new home and a new adventure begins!

The current crew (MDRS-87) greeted us warmly and gave us a whirlwind tour of the hab, complete with safety instructions, an EVA suiting demo, a short hike to a nearby fossil bed, and instructions on dealing with the temperamental ATVs (every one different from the others). Because we are not yet “in sim” we were able to bring our bags in and do other necessary chores without having to put on our space suits. Also, by happy coincidence, we were just in time to help install the new generator, which we hope will solve the power problems that have been bedeviling the last few crews. (Most of the work on that was done by DG, a local resident who is instrumental in keeping the hab running.) The shower, however, is definitely dead for the duration, as is the telescope. Alas.

The departing crew clearly had mixed feelings about leaving. Although they were doing a little happy dance at the thought of big greasy hamburgers in Hanksville and hot showers in Grand Junction, they seemed a little misty-eyed as they piled into the van and headed back to Earth.

We all looked at each other. “We’re on Mars! Now what?”

Well, “now what” consisted of hauling our massive load of Stuff up to the residential level, eating the surprisingly tasty meal of freeze-dried chicken and corn the outgoing crew had prepared for us, and discussing our plans for the next day and the next two weeks. Steve and Bianca then drove into town (using “V’ger”, our Plymouth Voyager “pressurized rover”) to pick up Bianca’s baggage and all the food we will be eating for the next two weeks, while Laksen and Paul performed an engineering walk-through and inspection of all the hab’s systems and I got set up with Twitter (@MDRSupdates) and fixed up the web cams ( When Steve and Bianca returned, we all helped load in the groceries. The sun had set, and I got my first view of the vast and magestic desert sky. Oh wow.

We don’t plan to begin sim until Monday. Tomorrow (Sunday) we will do a lot of necessary prep and setup that will be much easier without space suits, including running the control for a study to determine how much EVA suits impact our efficiency.

We aren’t really on Mars yet. But we’re definitely a long way from home.

MDRS-88 sol 0: Grand conjunction

I’m not quite all the way to Mars yet. This is as planned. Currently I am safely ensconced at the charming Best Western Sandman Motel (which Diego, from Colombia, calls “a road motel like in the movies”) in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Kate dropped my Monster Bag and I off at the airport at 5:45 this morning, where the MB weighed in at 50.2 pounds — a hair over the limit but the agent let it slide. If I want to bring home any Mars rocks I’m going to have to leave something behind.

After an extremely uneventful security and flight experience I had a decent lunch at the airport in Denver, where I spotted fellow Marsonaut Diego Urbina by the many space-related patches on his laptop and backpack. He was not scheduled to be on my flight, but he’d missed his connection in Houston yesterday and then his flight from Denver to Grand Junction was canceled, so he was on standby for my flight. Fortunately he got on, as did his luggage, and we shared a shuttle to the hotel.

We both took a nap after that (I’m running on about three hours’ sleep here) and then met up with Paul McCall and Laksen Sirimanne for dinner, over which we had a humorous, round-robin discussion of the early days of the mission. They’re all great guys, very talented, very interesting. Diego is serious about becoming an ESA astronaut and I think he has a shot at it. Laksen is committed, brilliant, and humble. Paul is quiet and sincere — a real All-American type. After dinner we met Stephen Wheeler, just arrived, and talked over plans for tomorrow and the following week. The final member of our crew, Bianca Nowak, was to arrive later (she’s probably here by now but I haven’t met her yet).

It is FREAKING COLD here. Currently 0° F with a bit of wind and some snow and ice on the ground. Even wearing long underwear, jeans, a flannel shirt, wool socks, a nice wool sweater, a down jacket, and my Tilley hat with the ear flaps I was still shivering when I was outside. Tomorrow I’m switching to heavier long undies and the ugly but warm WWII-surplus wool pants. Could be worse, though — it’s way warmer here than the real Mars (not to mention having way more air).

The news from the current MDRS crew is mixed. They all had colds but they’re feeling better today. The main generator is still down but the backup and batteries are holding out. The frozen pipes got thawed out but it looks like the shower is out of commission for the rest of the season, so it’ll be nothing but sponge baths for us. And the telescope isn’t going to be fixed any time soon so we will try to get the half-assembled radio telescope up and running instead. Doing this in space suits will be an interesting challenge. It’s Man vs. Machine and Man + Machine vs. Mars! (Apologies for sexist language, but it was necessary for the alliteration.)

Tomorrow we drive out to the hab and our adventure begins in earnest!

P.S. Check out the MDRS Webcams at

What would you do if you knew it was your last day on Earth?

Well, here’s my to-do list for the day before my departure for Mars:

  • Deal with all mail (not done)
  • Do dishes
  • Get money
  • Buy wool pants, sweater
  • Call hotel for airport shuttle
  • Read The Real Mars, return to library
  • Turn on international roaming for Kate’s phone (not done)
  • Yoga (skipped class)
  • Resubmit latest rejected story (not done)
  • Make appointment for furnace tune-up
  • Clear camera memory card (not done)
  • See China Design exhibit at art museum (museum closed by power outage)
  • Fold laundry
  • Pick up comics from Excalibur (not done)

Kate and I also had a nice Indian dinner and watched Shaun of the Dead. And now to bed… early early flight tomorrow.


Bags are packed, I’m ready to go

Well, I think that's everything... now to see if it'll fit in... on Twitpic

Well, that’s just about everything I’m taking with me. It all made it into the bag, just barely, and the bag is just barely under the airline’s size and weight limits (assuming I can trust my yardstick and bathroom scale). I still need to buy a few things — I wore my wool tux pants the last time I did cold-weather travel but for Mars I think I want someting a little less formal — and the computer and other tech gear aren’t packed yet, but basically I’m set for my early-Friday departure.

I got some good news and some bad news from Mars today. The good news is that I will be allowed to post using Twitter from MDRS, both as myself (@daviddlevine) and as @MDRSupdates. The bad news is that the hab’s telescope has broken and most likely won’t be fixed until after our rotation. This is a disappointment — though it’s definitely in keeping with the history of Mars exploration, which includes as many failed as successful robot probes — and we’re trying to find out if there’s any other equipment we can use in its place.

One more day!


Anxious and busy preparing for an early Friday departure. The radio station in my head keeps playing “Rocket Man,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and the theme from “Das Boot.” Here’s a random collection of the stuff that’s been rattling around in my head.

Yes, I’m anxious, even though I know I don’t really have anything to be worried about — apart from lost luggage, bitter cold (tonight’s forecast low: 8° F), and the possibility of rolling over my ATV and dying of a fractured skull in the Utah desert. (I had to sign a disclaimer which said, among other things, that I acknowledge that riding on an ATV in the desert wearing a pretend space suit is stupid dangerous.) They’ve had 87 of these two-week rotations so far and I’m sure nothing serious will go wrong. Right? (But I’m not packing any red shirts.)

I’ve been reading The Real Mars by Michael Hanlon and it’s fascinating. If you’ve been wondering “why go to Mars anyway?” you might want to gnaw on this: satellite observations of Mars show surface features which seem to indicate that in the past the planet had substantial quantities of surface water. (There are other theories to explain these features, but this is a commonly-accepted one.) But Mars is now far too cold and airless for liquid water to exist on the surface. If Mars was, indeed, once warm and wet enough for rivers and lakes, what caused its climate to change? The answer to this question could help us to understand, and possibly reverse, our own global climate change. And despite the sophisticated robots we’ve sent, we need close-up hands-on observations by human beings — with their nimble fingers, excellent senses, and ability to change plans on the fly — to really understand the early history of Mars.

For some reason, Mars was weirdly omnimpresent in my life even weeks before I knew I’d be going. My favorite ride at Disney World? Mission: Space, a simulated flight to Mars. The last book I read before getting the email? Mars Crossing by Geoff Landis. The last Dr. Who episode I watched? Waters of Mars. And I’d been thinking for quite a while that our upcoming trip to Australia feels a little like a visit to a recently-colonized Mars.

Don’t forget to vote in the What should David take to “Mars” poll. If you read Spanish, MDRS-88 Biologist Diego Urbina asks a similar question over in his blog. The MDRS-88 Executive Officer, Laksen Sirimanne, has posted the research goals for the mission (which I helped write) on his blog. You can see bios of the crew, and read the daily reports from earlier rotations, on the MDRS web site. And you can see a nice collection of photos of MDRS over at

I think I have all my ducks in a row for blogging and such. I should be able to post here once a day, but I won’t be able to read LJ, Twitter, Facebook, or email. There’s a special email address you can use to contact me if it’s important, which I will be sending out to my email correspondents shortly. (If you don’t get that email in the next day or so and you think you need it, feel free to email me and ask for it.)

Friday’s coming soon. Zero hour nine 7:45 AM. Better get packing.

Looking back, looking forward

25 years ago I met a cute redhead at a New Year’s Day brunch. I got her phone number, but did I call her? Not before she called me. We went on a date the next weekend — to the movie 2010 — and didn’t spend a weekend apart for five months. Within the year we’d moved in together. (You can get her perspective on that meeting here (part 1) and here (part 2).)

10 years ago I was a manager at Intel, and miserable. I had an Employee From Hell and I had no one to blame but myself, because I’d hired her; I was under enormous stress which I was transmitting to my employees; and I’d just been turned down for a transfer to a position as an individual contributor in Intel’s Smart Toy Lab, so I felt trapped in a position for which I was manifestly unqualified. I had written a few short stories but not yet sold any, and I was preparing to apply to Clarion. There were other things starting to happen in my life at that time that have since borne strange fruit, but at the time I had no idea how significant they would turn out to be.

The year 2009 for me was Made of Win. Looking backward from here I see a surprise acceptance into the Mars Desert Research Station; a trip to Disney World; winning the Endeavour Award; the Worldcon and subsequent travel in Quebec; joining the Wild Cards consortium; giving a talk at the Library of Congress; many fun conventions, workshops, and fly-ins; and an exceptionally successful year of short story writing, with the most stories written, most stories submitted, most stories sold, and most stories published of any year in my career. I put my butt in the chair and wrote — 250-500 words or an hour of editing or research — every single day this year and it really paid off.

My biggest area of disappointment and frustration this year was my two novels. Remembrance Day was rejected after over a year, and due to an email snafu has not yet been resubmitted (it will go off again in January), while The Dark Behind the Stars languished all year on the desk of an editor who has not, to my knowledge, even looked at it and doesn’t return my agent’s calls or emails. If I don’t hear back on that one soon I’m going to pull it for non-response and send it elsewhere. I really want to be a published novelist, and I’m already working on a third novel, but these absurd (non)response times mean that the effort/reward ratio for short stories is so much higher.

New Year’s Eve was spent with my beloved Kate, the abovementioned cute redhead, preparing and eating one of our favorite festive meals (a garlic-crusted prime rib) and watching… 2010. (We also ushered in 2001 with 2001).

New Year’s Day was a delightful brunch at the new home of the same friends who hosted the New Year’s Day brunch at which we met. It’s so nice of them to throw us an anniversary party every year.

The year 2010 looks busy, with my mission to “Mars” coming up next week (gulp!) and a trip to Australia in August/September, as well as many other fun travel opportunities. My new year’s resolutions tend to be quirky, and this year’s is to read Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin books in order. I have other goals for the year, including a revised pledge to write every day (starting in February), but that’s my resolution.

The next 10 years will no doubt include many surprises. If the last ten years are any indication, currents in my life that are already beginning to flow, if only as a trickle, will become the rivers that course beneath my days ten years from now.

25 years from now, if the fates allow, I will be celebrating my 50th anniversary with my one true snookie. Beyond that I’m not going to even try to predict.