My Mars One Relationship

A recent article by Rae Paoletta got me thinking about Mars One again. She does a very good job of laying out the difficulties Mars One has had, and stay mostly neutral before slanting to the obvious negative angle. I have a complicated relationship with Mars One that isn’t as negative as everyone else’s and I wanted to explain why.

Do I think Mars One is going to make it to Mars? No.
Do I think Mars One is a scam? No.

I’m Canadian. This means in order to work for NASA or it’s contractors I need an ITAR clearance before I can be hired. While not impossible, it’s lengthily and costly. Anyone who needs to get clearance better be worth the trouble, and compared to the Canadians who are, I am not. I’m middle of the road, and middle of the road does not get special consideration. I had been fascinated with Mars since I was a kid, but there was no clear path as to how I could become a part of a Mars mission. I was terrible at school and there were zero space opportunities that I could see from Western Canada.

When I hear about Mars One in 2011, before it was even asking for applications, I was apprehensive and interested. In Rae’s article she outlines many of the technical issues that Mars One had failed to address, and this was already apparent in their very early days. However, they were making bold claims, and they were not based in the US, and did not require ITAR. This meant that I had a shot. I put in an application without any real hope of making it. In 2013 I was told that I had made it.

Mars One: Round Two

Mars One, for all it’s faults, did instill me with confidence that I could be part of a Mars mission. After this announcement I had many interviews, put on public talks to hundreds of people, applied to the International Space University This began the planning of my trajectory to Mars. For me, Mars One wasn’t the end, but the beginning. It was my foot in the door to the space community. It wasn’t a very good foot in the door as the program was ubiquitously shunned in the space community, but it was more than I had before.

Mars One did one amazing feat, and that was bringing Mars settlement into the public sphere. I do not believe popular culture would be as accepting of Mars as it is without Mars One. Andy Weir’s novel The Martian was self published in 2011 and was picked up by a publisher in 2014. I think it would have taken a lot longer had the public not been acclimatized to Mars via new coverage of Mars One.

I have a complicated relationship with Mars One. I don’t think it’s a scam. I think they are completely honest in their drive to get to Mars, I just don’t think they have the skill to do it. I also don’t think they deserve all the bad press they get. They are honestly trying, and to put them down means that other, more capable people may shy away from trying their ideas. Without Mars One, I wouldn’t be where I am today. They may not get me to Mars, but they are the catalyst that started my journey.

 

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.

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.

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.

Trappist-1

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.

test

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.

Taxi

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.

SpaceX is going to Mars

This last Tuesday at the 67th IAC conference being held this year in Guadalajara, Elon Musk announced his plans to send people to Mars. Musk’s intent on going to Mars is no surprise, he created SpaceX to do just that. But the “how” wasn’t disclosed until this week. Below is the computer rendition of the trip to Mars he is currently designing.

This is very exciting for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s a plan owned by SpaceX. There are many plans our there, and have been for 60 years. They all have their pros and cons, but the most important thing you could do is choose one, and run with it. This is the plan they have chosen.
  2. There were signs of engineering being done. There wasn’t too much new presented for those who know the field. But, Musk did say the rendering were build from CAD drawings and the engineering issues are being worked on. There is an effort being made to build the hardware.
  3. The size. This was the most amazing part by far. The rocket he is planing to build is HUGE! It will be the most powerful vehicle ever built. It will have 100 people per launch, with 42 main engines on it’s first stage.

05-szdamgm

Here is a side by side comparison to the Saturn 5 rocket. It is over three times heavier with three times the power. Amazing is the only word for it. It’s so powerful that SpaceX changed it’s name from Mars Colonial Transporter to the Interplanetary Transport System, because they plan to fly it to Jupiter’s moons, asteroids and other planets in addition to Mars. This is the rail road for our solar system.

When this craft takes of for the first time, it will be like nothing humans have ever seen before.

I can’t wait.

Mining the Sky

When I’m involved in conversations about resources, there is a phrase that I love to use.

The Earth has a resource problem, but humans don’t

The theory behind this statement is that the universe is unimaginably abundant, yet we restrict our views to the ground. If we wanted, we could collect any resource we needed in infinite amounts from the solar system. Mining the sky isn’t a new idea, but it has yet to penetrate into venture capital thinking and investment. Individuals who want to exploit this resource have long lobbied for laws that allow a company to exploit resources from space.  These individuals have often put their own money and effort into companies to commercialize space mining, creating companies like Shackleton, Moon Express, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries.

There are major hurdles before this becomes a reality. The perception is that technology may be the largest barrier, but in reality it is law holding back the commercial exploration our solar system. The Outer Space Treaty, brought into law in 1967, guides most if not all space activities today. This treaty was drafted before humans steeped on the moon and long before UAVs were children’s toys. We’ve come along way, but the principles of this treaty are still in effect. A few of those principals are:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Here’s the catch, the treaty says that object in space are the province of all mankind and cannot be owned by anyone. For example, under UN law, no one may own the moon. This has been interpreted that entities can’t mine these resources, since how can you mine something you don’t own? Also, how can you sell these metals once you mine them, if you can’t own them? If I have a mining machine in space, I can land on an asteroid. I can perform experiments, I can take samples and I can even bring these samples back to Earth. The samples remain the “province of all mankind” so I can’t sell them, I can only study them.

The Apollo missions is the only example we have of this behavior so far. The NASA astronauts returned with 842 pounds of moon rocks between 1969 and 1972. Many of these samples have gone missing over the years, and some have turned up for sale in black markets. You can’t legally own the moon rocks as a private citizen, because the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t allow for it. However, you don’t have to look far to get into grey territory. For example, if you find a meteorite on the ground on Earth, that originated from the moon, then you can keep it.

This grey area was recently given some contrast when the US government passed a law expanding what US companies are allowed to do. The law now says:

‘‘A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.’’.

The problem is that the applicable law forbids this action. Some agree, others don’t.

 

It’s true, that a company doesn’t own international waters, but can still use them to fish. In that way, space is an analogy for international waters. However, fish will grow back if responsible methods are used, not so much with rocks. The same boats can also fish in the same waters, different equipment can’t mine the same ore.

However, I also said that the resources exist in near infinite quantities. In that respect, there is room for everyone.

There was a Google Hangout on this very subject. I got a version of my question asked at the 13:50 mark.

The people involved are clearly passionate, and spent a lot of time working on this. This law is a fantastic step, don’t get me wrong. However, I don’t think it’s the slam dunk some are making it out to be. Many of our terrestrial notions of how we operate will need to be adapted for space, and the laws will change to suit this. The change will take time, and this is the ever important first step.

The next steps are going to be even more interesting, and I for one, can’t wait.

Blue Origin to Space! Sort of.

On November 23rd, Blue Origin launched a rocket to an altitude of 100 km (where space begins) and landed it. It’s the landing part that’s amazing. Rockets, historically have been built on missile technology. And missiles are not built to be retrieved after. That means 99% of all rockets are one use only. Imagine if every plane was one use only, how expensive flying would be. Well, that’s why getting to space is expensive. This is great news.

However, Blue Origin is only traveling at sub orbital speeds. Their craft, New Shepard, reached a speed of Mach 3.72, or 1.2 km/s. To get into LEO, you need to be going about 8 km/s. The ISS travels at 7.66 km/s, so you need to be going at least that fast to dock with it. Blue Origin isn’t going into space with the ability to stay there, it’s just going really really high.

So, articles with titles such as “Jeff Bezos 1-0 Elon Musk: Blue Origin New Shepard lands successfully” piss me off. These are two different things. SpaceX is going after the ISS and Mars, where Blue Origin is not leaving Earth. The propagation of misinformation  in the media is.. staggering. We should know this. People should understand what an orbit is. Elon thinks so as well.

So, this is a great step for space flight, no doubt about it. But it isn’t what the media is making it out to be.