If this mission to Mars were a football game, this is the moment when we would stop the clocks, huddle, and take a moment to switch goals. In sports, and in life, these enforced breaks are arbitrary, but useful. In football, even if you can’t stand the ensuing commercials, it’s a good time to run to the restroom or refresh your beverage. In life, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what the rules have been, how well they’ve served the team thus far, and if the goals do, truly, have to be moved for the next three quarters to play out smoothly.
All this is to say that yes – things on sMars are going well. We’re still up here at 8000 feet, and, for all things, grateful to be. The weather was cold and dark for weeks, causing us to bundle up and tread the energy line carefully. A few days ago, some repairs were made to the hydrogen system, and VOILA- the sun came out. It’s been shining brightly for days. Even the legless horses of the fog, so fond of flocking around our dome every sunset, have been huddled in the valley below. Also, for the first time since the mission began, we received a robotic food resupply. Cooking had become increasingly creative as the weeks went on. We were down a couple of kinds of dehydrated meat, some veggies, and gluten-free flour. While the number of things you can make using only a few ingredients is truly remarkable, it’s good to have regular flour and dried fruit again. Even without powered eggs, which didn’t make it into the delivery, we were able to make a giant cookie for Cookie’s 30th birthday (which, obviously, had to happen).
Like the cooking and the weather, over the length of the mission, the science playbook has been evolving. Just recently, we repaired our long-range antenna. Now we can hear the crew up to a kilometer away. As we’ve grown more dexterous at traversing the broken landscape – avoiding the sharp shards of frozen lava, or finding and following the flows that look like thick ropes or even strips of concrete – we’ve been able to locate large skylights. These are essentially the collapsed roofs of giant lava tubes that run for miles in every direction. Some of them have crumbled in such a way that we can get down into them. That’s useful for a lot of reasons – not just adventure and excitement, but also for safety and science. On real Mars, as we’ve discussed, living underground is a lot safer than above it. Mars crews will have to locate, explore, and characterize good candidates for safe places to built settlements, even temporary ones. It would be great if we could send robots down to scout subterranean living locations in advance. Sadly, as the “helper” android at Fukushima so eloquently proved when it failed after 3 hours, when robots go down a hole, they don’t often come back up again. In this part of the solar system, if you want to walk, climb, crawl, survey, integrate information, and report back to the team, humans are still #1.
The end game of our current geology mission is to find a skylight big enough for all three of us to take shelter during a radiation event. We need to find these holes in the landscape, measure their width and depth, assess the safety of entry, and plot the fastest course from our habitat to the skylight. After the radio antenna repair, that’s coming along nicely. We can now hear crews even when they’re out of line-of-sight to the habitat, which happens not infrequently when you’re spelunking on sMars. For the rest, we’ve got crops growing like gangbusters, our food cultures produce more than we can eat if we’re not careful, and the crew has recently learned how to rescue someone who’s been through a rapid decompression. That’s a post for another day – coming soon! – but I promise, it was pretty cool.
Other challenges remain, though, and they’re pretty much the same ones that any Mars crew would face. The administration wants us to do more, and so do we, but there are only so many hours in the day. Everything takes longer here – not just the science, but washing dishes and clothes, and making basic repairs to the hab. Then, because our dome is only 1000 sq feet, and most of that is head space, we’re producing far more compost than we can possibly use. Mark Watney was able to farm with mostly his square footage, and so would I, if there weren’t 5 other people here and a second story built into the structure. It’s not just human-made compost we make several pounds of every week, either. We make at least a large coffee can full of food waste. We could put it all to use, but don’t have the physical space in which to do so.
Building temporary greenhouses is our next big project. As with everything else, it’s just going to take time – and, tools, many of which we don’t have. Think about it – at the moment, we can only launch 2 tons of mass to Mars at a time, at hundreds of millions of dollars per launch, and a maximum landing accuracy of somewhere within a six mile radius. Let’s be clear: being able to hit a circle six-miles wide on a moving target that can be up to 200 million miles away is VERY good. We’re getting better at launching and landing stuff, too. Once the LDSD works, we’ll be over 2 tons and down to a little less than 2 miles. The question still remains: How many tools do you pack into that 2.8 ton package? 5 Hammers? 150 Nails? A dremmel, glue gun, a single sazall? A 3D printer, a lot of substrate, and stuff to sharpen it up with? These are some very good questions, and we aren’t close to the answers. What I can tell you is that if we’re going to put our compost to good use to grow green food in “space”, we’re going to need a lot more space – space with heat, light, and air pressure, none of which are easy to come by, and all of which require scarce resources like tools, material, and time.
It’s not an easy play, but Mars was never meant to be. As our mission enters the second quarter, we face the three opponents I just list above, and, beyond that, a very mean-looking offensive line. As tough as scaling up production on external greenhouses might be when you only have a few hand tools and a cordless drill, it’s work, and humans tend to do better with work to keep them occupied than without it. While second quarter will no doubt see more projects and more challenges to strive for, seek, find, and not yield to, we’ll also be approaching a psychological milestone. It’s sort of the metaphysical equivalent of sailing towards the horn of Africa. Back in the seafaring days, there was a well-justified fear of the place. Ships would founder there, fight impenetrable storms, and go to ground. Near the end of the second quarter, space crews have historically encountered a period in the mission marked by depression and listlessness. For all we might run out of power, have unexciting diets, and be pressed to do more then humans can physically do, none of these daily realities is more menacing that the possibility of this problem, known as third quarter syndrome.
I can’t see that happening here – not with this crew, who works, plays, dances, and makes movies (now on Hulu, and coming soon to the BBC!) to the point where we very nearly burn out. I also won’t deny the power of historical precedent. So we’ll celebrate the holidays cheerfully, work on as many new projects as we can without wearing ourselves out completely, and try to stay more than on top of our game as we enter the second quarter. We’ll look forward to half-time, try to hit our stride right at the end of the second quarter, three months from now, and, just maybe, make a little history along the way.