MDRS Crew 188 Post Mission

It’s been three weeks since I’ve returned to “Earth” from my adventures at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) I’ve spoken to many people about my mission there, and I’ve had some time to internalize my own thoughts and feelings. It’s be the digestion of those feelings that have taken up a lot of my head space recently and I wanted to share those thoughts with you. Writing things down have a way of clarifying my internal monologue.

Being on a mission at The MDRS has been a goal of mine for years. I’ve read articles about the missions and read the biographies of those who have gone. I idolized those individuals who had the opportunity to participate in a Martian Analogue mission. I’m still processing what it means to counted among the people who I’ve sought to be with for so long. This introspective change has been difficult, especially when viewed through the lens of my experience. In essence I am now the expert I wanted to become, and I have to define what that means to me.

The Good

The crew was by far the best part of my experience. It is always a joy to spend time with those who share your passion and make an effort to enable you in your own endeavors. I constantly suffer from impostor syndrome and it was amplified by this exemplary crew. Not only was the crew extremely capable, but they were a joy to work with. Listening to their stories and learning from their experiences was the most valuable part of the mission for me.

I had never met any of them before the mission, so I was a bit anxious as to how our interactions would pan out. My flight was delayed, and I arrived at the hotel at around 2am. We had two rooms, a boys room and a girls room. Ryan, our commander, had texted me the room number and had gone to sleep.

Passing out. I’ll get up to open the door when you knock. You can crash in the 1st bed with me I don’t care.

Right away, I knew I had found my people. They were all about the mission and doing what needs to be done. Those who are squeamish or shy won’t last long in a Mars simulation, let alone an actual mission. Knowing that put me at ease.

The crew quickly grew into a small family. In our small space, we had to interact directly with one another and rapidly became accustomed to each other. Over a dinner of freeze dried meats and veg with rice we would discus space policy, international cooperation, our local Mars advocacy efforts, and who just farted. We became like siblings and that provided the opportunity to communicate openly and vulnerably with each other. This allowed us to really understand each other and operate more efficiently.

Touch became an important communication tool as a necessity; a tool that is absent from a normal working space. You had to put a hand on someone back to let them know you were behind reaching for a dish, or helping someone buckle their EVA suit up. This way of operating reminded my of time in the military, where you trusted those around you, and relied on them for your survival. It’s a good feeling.

Going out in the field was a surreal experience. In the simulation, you can’t go outside unless you are wearing an EVA suit. These are backpacks with helmets that are used to simulate a space suit when you are outside. They provide a small amount of airflow to remove C02 and condensation in the helmet. They also have the distinct effect of removing you from the environment.

When you are in an EVA suit, you can’t feel the wind, you can’t hear very well, and you have limited vision. The bulky back back restricts your movement and changes your center of gravity. Your sense are telling you that you are in an alien environment. You can begin to change your cognitive frame of reference, and you begin to believe you are on Mars. This is important, because then you start to internalize your own feelings about being on Mars.

You know it’s fake, but what if it wasn’t? That’s the question you start to answer by imagining yourself there, and analyzing your feelings.

I felt fantastic.

I was on Mars. I was there with an amazing crew. I was waking up every day with the singular purpose of exploring, and maintaining the infrastructure to continue to explore. It was an invigorating feeling, and I can’t wait to feel that way again.

The Bad

The facility is of course, not on Mars. We didn’t have real suits, the air wasn’t actually toxic, and the Hab couldn’t actually fly though space and land on Mars. The preparation to go outside was actually less than working on an Oil Sands site in the winter time. While I knew the infrastructure would be far from mission ready, it was disheartening to see there was no actual flight hardware or system monitoring that would add to the realism of the simulation. Reading past reports, it was clear that the functionality of the MDRS has declined in the past decade. It felt like I was meeting my heroes, and they had flaws I didn’t even consider.

Getting people to Mars requires our test sites to increase in operability, not decrease. Here are a few of the issues I found while doing an engineering survey:

  • Radio communication in the field has a very short range due to the terrain. The repeater broke, and has not been replaced.
  • Water consumption is monitored by eyeballing the tank level, and could easily be automated. The same with energy consumption.
  • The greenhouse could be optimized to provide salads and herbs to the crew.
  • The EVA suits already have a large 12V battery in them, and the suits could be outfitted with location and crew health sensors.

The MDRS it’s self has a huge potential to gather data that could be used for research purposes and provide a more in depth simulation. As an engineer, that’s what I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, the control systems in the Hab were:

  • Solar Power: Control not setup, Generator to be turned on manually when dusk approaches.
  • Water Tank: Visually check tank, manually turn switch to fill.
  • Furnace: Household thermostat, do not touch.
  • Hot Water Heater: Propane on demand, do not touch.

No automation, and very little opperunity to do data collection. No way to build infrastructure knowledge in order to increase the depth of the simulation for future missions.

The Ugly

As I’ve generally found in my life, really ugly problems come from systemic issues. I only had limited exposure to the management of the MDRS, but I believe the lack of technical expertise dealing with the MDRS on a day to day and mission to mission basis is accelerating the deterioration of the facility. Myself and the crew got into several disagreements with Mission Support during the mission around technical issues. The crews that usually occupies MDRS are around the Undergrad level, and my fear is that they just do what they are told. This would create many of the unsafe conditions that I found, and there could be many more. When Crew 188 began investigating the infrastructure of MDRS, we got push back from Mission Support.

  • The 1000 gal propane tank gauge is a percent gauge, but Mission Support is reading it in PSI. This creates confusion and a misunderstanding of how much fuel is left.
  • I found several damaged extension cords, including one that had their grounding plug cut.
  • I suggested moving the electric ATV’s to a location that would not require backing up when leaving the Hab, but this was overruled.

These minor issues display a misunderstanding of technical safety that could result in a serious incident at the MDRS, and that is extremely worrisome. During the MDRS 188 mission there was a propane leak in the Hab, causing a direct risk to our crew. The leak was never fully investigated during our stay, and Mission Support’s concern over this issue varied wildly depending who we were talking to. The responses from Mission Support swung from “evacuate immediately” to “you are imagining things”. It became clear there were no established procedures or technical manuals to follow in a situation like this. If there had been proper monitors and automatic systems in place, this issue would have been caught long before it became a risk to the crew. Unfortunately, adding on that capability to the MDRS does not seem to be a priority.

Analog missions are dangerous. The crew is isolated and stressed. They are in an unfamiliar environment and require proper technical support to be effective and safe. This will be a critical part of Martian analog missions as the complexity grows.  Crew safety will become more and more important as the analog missions become more complex. Not long after our mission, there was an incident at the HI-SEAS where an accident halted the mission. Safety concerns aren’t limited to the MDRS. This is an issue that all analogue sites need to deal with.

The Conclusion

I am very happy that I was able to be a part of MDRS 188. I was able to meet outstanding people who share my passion for Mars and space exploration. The relationships that were forged have strengthened my resolve and widened my Mars community. I’m looking at the negative parts of my experience as an opportunity to grow. Getting to Mars is going to take a lot of people and a lot of effort, and we need to start working together if we are ever going to achieve our goals.


MDRS Crew 188 Day 0

Later this week I will be flying to the Utah desert to be a part of the Mars Desert Research Station Crew 188. I am very excited, as being a crew member of MDRS has been a goal of mine for many years. For many of those years I didn’t think it would be possible, that little old me would get to go on such an adventure. I’m very happy to have exceeded my expectation.

About 10 months ago, I got an email asking for applications from ISU alumni for the MDRS mission. Ever the optimist, I threw my name into the hat, hoping to get a support position for the main crew. As this was my first direct involvement with the MDRS, I didn’t expect to be chosen for the primary crew. That’s exactly what happened, and I was chosen as a back up crew member and began helping with the planning of the MDRS 188 mission. As fate would have it, A primary crew member was unable to make the commitment, and had to drop out. NASA needed his attention, and I got his spot.

I got to replace a NASA scientist on a Mars simulation mission. I’m still rolling that fact around in my head…

It never hurts to throw your name in the hat, you never know what will happen.

Discrediting reporters is more important to Blasie Boehmer than the truth.

In our media-saturated, post-truth world, people in power are trying very hard to shape our opinion. They want us to take their word and never look into things for ourselves. Take this example:

Blaise Boehmer is a communication specialist and works with Jason Kenney. Here he claims that Janet French is making things up about what Mr Kenney has said. But if you watch the video for yourself, Mr Kenney does say he thinks the NDP is cutting history from social studies. From the video:

The NDP is rewriting our school curriculum […] Now, if you go thorough this [curriculum] outline you’re gonna see every conceivable theme about political correctness. Lots of political ideas and content that they want to inflict on young people, but no reference to the critical subjects that help to develop what I would call civic literacy, to help young people become knowledgeable and responsible citizens, no reference to Canadian history, no reference to Alberta history or to parliamentary government, confederation, the rule of law, economic literacy, none of that but the worst thing is this. In their entire 13-page social studies draft outline they don’t mention once Canadian military history […]

His words are very clear. He wants his supporters to believe that the NDP is removing history, especially Canadian military history, from the curriculum. That’s exactly what Janet French said, and what Mr Boehmer denies happened.

For the record, here is the Draft Outline. It is a high level document that lists desired learning outcomes, rather than specific programs of study. It’s the standard way the Albertan Government outlines educational material.

For example, to understand “Stories of place and knowing the land and how it sustains us foster a sense of belonging and personal and collective responsibility to be stewards of the land” Grade 10 students will explore the theme of “To what extent do perspectives on relationships with the land influence resource use and approaches to development?” You can use all sorts of current and historic examples to explore this topic. In no way does this outline suggest schools stop teaching history.

The current political play book is to lie to the public’s face, and hope we don’t notice.

The Wheel of Time

Recently, I finished reading the last book in the Wheel of Time series. While walking home, I saw a copy of the book in a Free Library on my street and picked it up. I was reminded that I hadn’t yet finished the last book, and felt an immediate compulsion to do so.

I read the first book over 18 years ago, while on a student exchange in Japan. The book was a gift, and I brought it with me across the ocean tucked in my luggage. Doing so was costly, as I had to give up precious clothing space.  Being 16 and on my own in Japan had a profound effect on me, and so did the first book of the series, The Eye of The World.

The story is an epic high fantasy with hundreds of characters, different cultures, unique creatures, and a world incredibly rich in details. The books have over 10,000 pages in total, containing more that 4 million words. The first book was published in 1990 but sadly the author didn’t live to finish the series. Robert Jordan died in 2007, but left an extensive set of notes so the books could be finished.

Knowing the themes as well as I do, his death fits oddly well with his writings. Below is the first paragraph of the first book:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, and Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of time.

But it was a beginning.

The Wheel of Time deals with cycles. Death and rebirth, the balance of light and dark, the internal struggle we all deal with day to day. The theme of a beginning rather than the beginning is pervasive and repeated over and over.

I’m still trying to parse the final words of the series:

There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the tuning of the Wheel of Time.

But it was an ending.

In 4 million words, this was the first time an ending was explicitly mentioned. On the last sentence, on the last page, of the last book with the author long dead.

When I think about that, I’m filled with loss and hope at the same time. It seems to me this is exactly what the author was trying to convey the entire time.

Cassini’s last flight

If you’ve ever looked at pictures of Saturn in awe, you have the Cassini space craft to thank for that.

The Cassini probe reached Saturn in 2004 and ever since then has been providing us with stunning images and fantastic science.

Cassini is how we know Titan has rivers  and lakes of methane.

Cassini is how we know Enceladous has an ocean core and ejects water into space.

The enormous wealth of information that this probe has provided is now taken for granted. But good things can’t last forever, and the ageing spacecraft is running out of fuel. NASA has planed and programmed is final mission that will result in the destruction of the probe. even during it’s last moments, it will be transmission information that will unravel the mysteries of our solar system.


It’s an end of an era. There will be no new pictures coming from the Saturn system for quite some time. Cassini has done amazing work for us and has been invaluable in planning future missions. I have no doubt it’s final transmission will be just as valuable as it’s first.

God speed little guy; god speed.

Tucker Carlson vs. Bill Nye (Feb. 27, 2017)

On Feb 27, 2017 Bill Nye was a guess on Fox News with host Tucker Carlson. Depending on what political leaning you get your news from, you will believe very different outcomes from the interview. Before you read anything, watch the video and draw your own conclusions:

What I see is the host asking a very difficult question, believing it to be simple. “What would the status currently be if X had not happened” is very hard to answer in any situation. It also may not be relevant. If you are driving off a cliff, the precise location you would be had you not swerved off the cliff isn’t important information, but Mr Nye does his best to answer. Mr Tucker doesn’t like the answer, and begins to attack his guest’s personal character, not the facts.

If you get your news from the right, your news says “It didn’t end well for the ‘Science Guy.” They even go as far to say that “Bill Nye refuse to answer basic science questions about global warming” There are also articles that paint Tuckers comment “So much of this you don’t know” as having validity.

On the left, the articles say “Tucker Carlson bit off more than he could chew” and “Watch Tucker Carlson lose it after Bill Bye takes him to school on climate change

Neither side talked about the facts, or where they disagreed. They took a few sounds bites and started cheering for their guy. This is absolutely not constructive and is set up to engage their base and increase add revenue. Meanwhile, the problem is still here and we are doing nothing about it. We need to learn how to listen to each other, understand the other persons argument and focus on the argument, not the person.

We have very important issues to deal with, and we are engaged in ad hominem tactics for profit. We need to do better.

To the MOOOON!

SpaceX, the ever innovating rocket company, is planing on sending two people on an Apollo 8 style flyby mission to our moon. Apollo 8 is where the iconic Earth Rise picture is from, and is the inspiration for many environmental movements. The images Apollo 8 brought back let us see ourselves as a blue marble floating in the black sea of space, something no other human in history had experienced. That’s no small feat.


Two people have placed a significant deposit to be flown around the moon.  Only a short 70 years ago, this was something only National super powers could do. The revelation that private citizens are paying their way to a moon trip in 2019 is amazing.  With the social media connectivity that we have now, this event will no doubt be just as culturally moving as the Apollo missions. Their Instagram account is going to have so many followers…

My guess is that Dennis Tito is behind this. He had plans to do a Mars flyby in 2018 but that never materialized. The mission will use the Dragon 2, a crew capsule that will be used to send astronauts to the ISS. The Dragon 2 is also testing systems for the larger Red Dragon that is being developed for crewed Mars missions. A flyby of the moon is a great way to test the life support systems of the Red Dragon and gain valuable data.

Better still if someone is paying for a part of it.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets

In 1992 scientists confirmed for the first time that there were planets around other stars.

Think about that for a second. During all human history, it wasn’t until 25 years ago that we knew that there were other plants then our own. 25 years ago, we got confirmation that the galaxy contains billions of possible worlds. The idea that there are extra solar worlds to visit moved from science fiction to fact just 25 years ago.

Since then, with the launch of new instruments, we’ve been finding thousands of new plants. Some of them are in the Goldilocks zone, (Not too hot, not too cold) where water could exist on the surface. That mean that life as we know it could exits on these plants.  It also means that if the atmosphere is correct, humans could walk around without a space suit. The implications of that alone, is amazing. There could be millions of Earth like planets out there, all with the possibility of life.

PT_KeplerThat brings us to this week’s announcement about Trappist-1. It’s a a tiny dwarf star with 7 rocky planets. Three of those planets are inside the habitable zone. Our solar system only has 4 rocky plants, so right away this system has more surface, more minerals and resources than we do. It also has three plants that could potentially harbor life, or be habitable for humans.


This sort of stuff blows my mind. Look at Earth compared to these planets, and imagine all the war that goes on over land and resources on its surface. I think getting to Mars would be amazing, but just imagine what it would be like to travel to and live in this solar system. It has magnitudes more than we have, just waiting for us.

Alberta’s Natural Gas – 100 years left

When talking about renewable energy, it’s often said that natural gas, especially in Alberta, is a fantastic transition fuel from coal. Being that Alberta uses a lot of both, it’s an inviting proposition. Natural gas is cleaner, and Alberta has a lot of it. Or so we think.

There are varying estimates on how much methane we have in our province, but it’s in the trillions of cubic feet. That’s a lot.  We extract a billions of cubic feet a day. That’s also a lot. I did the math to try and find out how long our reserves will last. I converted everything to metric, and gave the extraction rate an increase of 1% year over year to account for GDP growth.


Alberta runs dry in 2104. That’s less than 100 years of reserves. If we assume that infrastructure has a 50 year lifespan, we only have two more generations of Natural Gas infrastructure until we have to import all that energy. With this in mind, doesn’t it make more sense to transition as soon as possible and try to extend our natural resources?
So far, we seem content to race towards a cliff.


You can buy a self-driving car – today

On October 19th, Tesla announced that every car it makes will now have the hardware to be able to drive it’s self. If you order a car today, that car has all the hardware needed to pick you up, drop you off, and drive it’s self home, with you in the back seat.  If you watch the video below, the proof of this is around the 2:30 mark, where the car parks all on it’s own.

This is really amazing tech, but it will have a profound impact on our society. An impact that grows in scope the more you think about it.

Parking Lots

They become obsolete.

Why do you need a large parking garage next to every office if every car is driving it’s self home after it drops you off at work? You get up in the morning, shower and get dressed. You take your morning coffee with you and get in your car. On the ride you start answering emails, because you aren’t driving. The car drops you off at work, then goes back home to pick up the kids and drops them off at school. Then it comes back because you have a 10am appointment you need to get to.

The idea that your car will stay where you left it no longer applies. Sure, there will be parking garages, but they won’t have to be close, they could be 5 mins away. No need to drive around looking for a spot at the mall, just get out and your car will drive down the road to an open space, then come back and get you when you are done. All that space can be re-used.

Car Dealers

The car dealership is dead.

Why do you need to keep a stock of cars on a lot, if the cars can drive from the factory to your door? What purpose do the serve? The whole idea is absurd when you think about it. The dealerships know it to, and they’ve been fighting to make it illegal to direct sell a Tesla. Walk by a Tesla store and ask yourself why all manufactures aren’t doing it that way.


The Taxi industry will be destroyed in the next 25 years.

If you can summon a car from a ride share company like Uber or Car to Go, and have that car drive it’s self around, costs fall to the floor. Being that the major cost of any taxi service is paying the person, without a person driving, the cost is much less. That alone will change the entire experience of calling a cab, as there will be flocks of autonomous vehicles lining up near busy locations, all taking to each other in an orderly fashion.

Long Haul Truckers

No longer a human profession.

Speaking of industries that are on their way out, if you don’t have to pay someone to sit in a truck, why would you? Autonomous trucks never fall asleep, don’t need food, they can drive at any hour, and don’t need to be paid. Manufactures are already thinking about this and developing trucks with these capabilities.

The list goes on and on. The world is about to change rapidly, and these cars are on the road now. We just need the laws to catch up so the software can be turned on.