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.

My Very Own Tesla

I’ve been a Tesla fan since the Roadster was unveiled in 2006. I’ve been an electric car fan since before that, but no one made a good electric car, or one that was easily accessible. I think with Tesla’s current success, the bit automakers are seeing that was a mistake on their part.

Electric is sexy. I should know, I’m an electrical engineer.

Many people push electric because it doesn’t produce exhaust, it’s quieter, it’s better for the environment… But not me. Those are all nice, but I want an electric car because they are better. An AC motor beats a gasoline engine hands down, every time. You know when you press the gas, and your car has to “rev up”? Electric doesn’t do that. You get 100% of the torque as soon as you need it.

No waiting until you are at 3,000 RPM, no turbos, no transmission to shift the torque… Electric gives you the full power of the car when you need it. And Tesla isn’t shy about showing this capability off. Their fastest Model S can go from 0-100km/h in 3 seconds, putting it in super-car territory. It’s that sort of engineering that tickles me where I love to be ticketed. Damn good engineering.

To that end, I got up early on March 31st and headed to the mall at 4:30 AM to line up to buy a car. I was 9th in line as some people had camped overnight to secure their spot. I estimate about 80 people were lined up behind me when the doors opened at 9:30 AM. As it turns out, a few hundred thousand people around the world also lined up to buy a car they had never seen and will have to wait 1.5 years to get.

Doors are open and pre sales for the #model3 are being sold. 80 in line #yyc #model3yyc

A photo posted by Zac Trolley (@zactrolley) on

So, now I play the waiting game. It’s been 8 years waiting for a Tesla model that I could afford, I think I can wait a little more. This time when I play with the online configurations, I won’t be dreaming, I’ll be choosing colors on my dream car.

Mars One Round 3

Today the Mars One Round 3 candidates were selected, and I was not among them.

It was nearly 14 months ago when I was first chosen to be a Mars One candidate; part of the 1058 in Round 1. Since that time my life has changed quite a bit. I’m a much more capable person now, I’ve had experiences that I otherwise would have not done. The past 14 months has been an adventure for me and I’m going to take what I’ve learned and continue that adventure.

Since learning that I was a candidate for the Mars One mission, I’ve spoken to hundreds of adults and thousands of kids about Mars and space exploration. I spent 9 weeks at the International Space University increasing my knowledge about everything space. I’ve gained new skills I’m not about to stop now. While the decision is disappointing, it’s reassuring to have an answer. Now I can fully commit to other endeavours that I was unsure about.

I’ve signed up with the Alberta Science Network and I will continue to talk to people about Mars and space exploration. I have a new job and I will be honing my project engineering skills. I will continue to physically train myself and set ever higher goals.  I will continue to support Mars One and any mission that brings people closer to the surface of Mars and exploring our solar system. 2015 is going to be a busy year and I’m absolutely looking forward to it.

Eating Crickets

I’m a fussy eater. I’ve heard about humans consuming crickets, and I imagine the bug scene from Indiana Jones.. ew… bugs….

But they are really nutritious, high in protein, and have a low ecological footprint. Bugs have also been suggested as a source of protein for space settlements, because getting a cow into a rocketship would be hard.  But the idea of biting into a bug creeps me out. Then I heard about cricket flour, a substitute for flour in regular recipes and I was curious. I’m always looking for ways to get more nutrition into my body, and making my cookies better for me sounds like a fantastic plan. I got a bag of flour as a gift, and I tried it out in a recipe.

IMG_20150118_150032

Nutrition info on cricket flour

My usual recipe calls for 2 cups of flour, so I did one cup crickets, one cup whole wheat flour. Everything went just like making normal cookies.

They turned out really well!

They turned out really well!

They are really good. This first experiment went well, and I’m looking forward to trying more. Getting the most nutrition into each bite is important when you have limited space, like on Mars. I might as well get use to it here on Earth. Getting healthy on the way doesn’t hurt either.

De-Orbiting from Space Camp

It’s been a month since I finished the 9 week course in Montreal with the ISU. Since then it has been a bit of a struggle getting back to my “normal” life. The school calls it de-orbiting and is a common occurrence with participants. Because the schedule, pace and tone of your life for those 9 weeks is so different than what you are use to, coming back to your life can feel very alien. That’s been true for me.

My summer was amazing. I spent it with some of the most amazing and positive people I’ve ever met. Everywhere you turned there was a group of people discussing interesting things, having a drink, laughing and making plans to change the world. We would be up at all hours, trading stories from our countries, comparing experiences, asking questions and literally doing rocket science on napkins. It was immensely inspiring.

Back home in Calgary, things are much the same as when I left. My task now is to take the enthusiasm that I’ve gain over the summer and apply it in my everyday. Take the momentum of the summer and use that to, well, change the world.

Talking about Mars – Coast to Coast

My 32ed year on the planet earth has been very eventful to say the least. On my birthday, Dec 30th, I found out that I had been shortlisted for the Mars One mission to colonize Mars. Since then, I’ve been very busy assimilating that into my day to day on top of everything else that goes on during a normal life. Very early on, I started talking to people about Mars. Mars has been an interest of mine for many years so it wasn’t that difficult. I would much rather tell a story than recite facts and figures and for the first time I got to tell my story about Mars.

I was on twitter talking about going to schools and talking about Mars when the Engineers of New Brunswick invited me to their AGM. Their keynote speaker was talking about Life on Mars and they were kind enough to extend an invitation so I could hear him speak. Being the lead scientist for the Curiosity mission, he had some great information to provide. As well as all the normal questions I had for him, Dr Meyer and myself closed the hospitality bar the last night talking about Mars, science and other stories. It was amazing. I was also able to talk to other engineers about the mission. There were two other Mars One candidates in attendance, so there were many questions between sessions. It was great speaking to my peers about the mission and really solidified my resolve that this was the right course of action. It’s a real litmus test to be able to convey your ideas and convictions to experts and I had a very warm reception on the east coast.

A few weeks later, I was on a plane flying to Vancouver to do a mini speaking tour there. I have some friends there that were able to set up talks at a half dozen elementary schools and two universities. I usually talk for 20 minutes and answer questions for another 20. One day I did this 8 times, and by the end I was exhausted. At the same time I was truly amazed at the enthusiasm for exploration that kids have. Their questions are always more fun to answer. An adult question are usually framed around “what if something goes wrong?” where kids ask questions that sound more like “is it possible?”

In addition to speaking to some 300 people about Mars I was able to catch up with some friends, have a fantastic few nights out and get on a west coast radio station. Being able to spend your day talking about the things you love is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

The week after that I was off to Manitoba to present to a university audience. I had my own timeslot and everything. The Dream Big week had a wide talent of speakers of Professors, students, professionals and myself. Other attendees included the current and past president of the Canadian Space Association, CEOs of aerospace companies and of course the keynote speaker, Neil deGrasse Tyson. This experience was surreal. For the first time I wasn’t going to a place to talk to people, they were coming to me. I had people in the audience with decades more experience and a collection of PhDs asking me about Mars. You can listen to the audio below.

I could not have imagined in 2012 this is what I would be doing in 2014. I love talking about Mars and space exploration. It’s been exhausting and stressful on my mind, body and wallet to travel and organize these events. It’s also been rewarding in ways that makes it all worth it. I can only hope my 33ed turn around the sun will be filled with as much excitement.

Space Studies Program

I’ve been accepted into the International Space University Space Studies Program! I am incredibly excited about it. It’s a 9 week crash course into everything space related. The program aims to solve the ever present problem of “you don’t know what you don’t know”

I get all smiles just thinking about it. The concentration of space geek is going to be amazing! I just have to come up with the funding… space school is not cheap.

Victory Dance

I was reminded last night with in conversation at a restaurant about my Victory Dance. Not that I ever forgot about it, but I was reminded that not many people know about it. I want to work in the Space Sector in some capacity, that’s my dream. For a dream to become a reality, it needs a plan, goals and rewards. A year ago, I bought a bottle of scotch as my victory dance. It’s a bottle of Blue Label.

Blue Lable

The plan is, once I feel that I’m where I want to be, I open this puppy up and share it with those around me. Victory doesn’t happen solo, it takes support from those around you to get where you want to go. It’s a constant reminder that I am not an island, I am capable of great things and my friends and family can help me do great things.

The inscription says “MOVE ZIG!” a reference to the video below. Watch it, FOR GREAT JUSTICE!

Doughnut Rock

No, it’s not a new type of fast food, it’s a rock that mysteriously appeared on the Martian surface right in front of Opportunity. Lucky for me, I have a team of people looking our for me. The folks on the X92.9 morning show left me this voice mail.


This is what the rock looks like.

Mystery Rock

 

No one knows what it is, or what’s it’s doing there. The current theory is that it was kicked up, and we are seeing the side that’s not been exposed to the Martian atmosphere. That tells me that Mars it much more interesting that what the pictures show us. We won’t know for sure unless we go there and check. Even if it is deadly alien bacteria, it’s still really cool.