Zac Trolley

How can Canada benefit from civilian space travel?

It’s bound to happen.

A business man boards a rocket to travel across the world in a matter of hours. An artist books a zero g flight to shoot a music video. A middle manager saves up her vacation money to see the curvature of the Earth. At some point in the very near future, regular citizens will begin to travel in space for pleasure and business. This will create new business, ideas, technologies, and public opinions about who we are as a people.

Once space travel is open to the average person, we will see incredible change in our society. Canada needs to have a role to play in this new frontier. It’s not quite clear what that is yet. If we want to be a part of this future, we need to start planning for it.

This November, the Canadian Space Society will be holding it’s annual summit. This is the exact forum for this sort of discussion. I will be moderating a panel about this very topic at the summit. Some of the questions I hope to answer are:

  • How does Canada’s international role change with public access to space?
  • How does Canada bridge the gap between today and our desired future?
  • What expectations do Canadian youth have of space professionals to bring about this change?

What role do you see Canada playing?

Water on Mars!

A paper published in Science presents the data used to determine the existence of an underground Martian lake. The scientists took information from the  radar instrument aboard the ESA Mars Express between May 2012 and December 2015 and came to the conclusion that there is a body of salty water under the south pole of Mars.  If this is indeed liquid water, it would have to be extreamly salty to be a liquid at the Marian poles.

Context map: NASA/Viking; THEMIS background: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University; MARSIS data: ESA/NASA/JPL/ASI/Univ. Rome; R. Orosei et al 2018

Before everyone gets all excited, this is indirect proof of water, not direct proof. It is a huge step in finding water, as we now know where to look! The next step would be to send a drill to look for direct confirmation that there is water. The InSight mission has a drill on it, but it’s mission is seismic, so it won’t be testing for water. However, the mission uses the same lander chassis as the Phoenix mission in 2008 that landed in the north pole. Using the leanings from InSight and Phoenix, we could have a water drilling lander up and running in no time! 🙂

Water is essential to any human mission to Mars. It’s also a building block for life as we know it. In Russia, scientists drilled into the ice at lake Vostok to a depth of 3,400km.  The found life in ice that had been sealed off from the atmosphere for millions of years. It’s completely possible that there are tiny bacteria locked away in this Martian lake

I don’t think it’s going to be a hostile zombie parasite like the movies. I’d settle for something harmless.

 

The flying aircraft carriers of the 1930s

The 300th episode of the 99% Invisible was about airships.  More specifically, it was about the R101, a ridge airship developed by the British. This airship was one of the grandest airships ever build and the podcast goes into great detail about it’s history and construction. The podcast also mentioned several other famous airships in that era and describes the decline of their popularity. What was missing from the podcast was any mention of the USS Akron or the USS Macon.

These two ships were flying aircraft carriers. Like what the Avengers have.

They were surveillance aircraft, created to locate enemy naval fleets. They carried a compliment of three Sparrowhawk biplanes that could fly out on a mission and return to the airship to refuel. The USS Macon was able to track the cruiser USS Huston while it was traveling to Hawaii with FDR on board. These airships represented the might of the US Navy and would have revolutionized warfare had it not been for the hubris and impatience of the Navy.

The Akron had several accidents involving weather. The tail fins weren’t properly re-enforced and heavy winds and the ship was vulnerable to changing pressures. On April 3rd 1933 this was proven fatal as the Akron flew into bad weather and crashed in the Atlantic.  The Macon did not receive the upgrades that the engineers wanted, as the Navy officials were worried that the program would be canceled if the sister ship could not be shown to be operational. Before the Macon could be fulled tested and hardened against weather conditions, it crashed in 1935.

It is the view of some people that if these ships had survived and were operational in the 1940s, Japan would not have been able to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Mars in a Decade

This past week, Gwynne Shotwell spoke to the TED audience in Vancouver. At the end of her talk she said she believed SpaceX would be sending people to Mars within a decade. Elon is known for his super aggressive timelines, and Gwynne is the one usually reeling them in. If she says 10 years, that’s a whole different ball game. Mars is closer than it’s ever been.

Below is the TED Talk video. It’s well worth the watch.

 

 

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.

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.