by Peter Kokh, MDRS Crew #34, The Junk Yard Wars Refit Crew
[This paper was first published in Moon Miners' Manifesto #183,March 2005; It was later presented at the Mars Society Convention 2005 in Boulder, Colorado.]
Both the Mars Arctic and Mars Desert Research Stations (FMARS and MDRS, respectively) established by the Mars Society, have been working magnificently from the beginning to create environments from which we could learn better field exploration techniques. We have been learning what techniques and what equipment, that look good on paper, work in the field, and what does not.
By the simple means of having all crew members wear "space suits" whenever they go outside the Hab, the illusion that they are on Mars thus created is strong enough to induce the crew members' wholehearted participation in the experiments they conduct. Good choice of host terrain with minimal plant life, suggestive in coloration and land forms of what we expect to find on Mars certainly helps. The lack of phone and cell phone service as well as of TV all reinforce the illusion. Understandably, there is no effort to impose 6-40 minute time delays on Internet downloads and uploads (although that would be the case on Mars!) but a token 3 minute delay is worked into communications between the Hab and Mission Support in Denver or Ann Arbor.
We have learned that ATVs, "unpressurized rovers" not unlike the Apollo Moon Rovers used on A15, 16, and 17 are essential: rather than be replaced by larger, faster, longer ranging vehicles with pressurized cabins, they are necessary to accompany the later, much as in a naval fleet, a lot of specialized smaller craft accompany the battleship. Taking it a step further, we have learned that small teleoperated robotic rovers operating on tether leashes from the ATVs or PEVs are enormously helpful. They can scamper up hills and down valleys unnegotiable by the wheeled ATVs and PEVs to greatly enhance the exploration and examination of terrain traversed.
We have learned what instruments are helpful in exploration: GPS units, and software that tells the explorer what route from A to Z will get him to Z in the least time with the least exertion and the least risk. That is something that is not easily determined by visual clues from point A alone. We've experimented with different types of tools to do geological field work as well as biological tools to look for evidence of microbial life.
While much was learned about space suit design and performance in the Apollo experience, we've learned a few more things on Devon Island and in SC Utah. The ingeniously designed mockup EVA suits have brought to light a number of design challenges that must be addressed if our pioneers are to function as efficiently as possible.
We have discovered a few things about the human life support system as well, for example that we only need a third as much water ration per person per day for hygiene maintenance as NASA paper studies had supposed.
We have learned how to better organize daily work schedules, how best to divide the workload, how best to combine work with attention to personal needs and inter personal relations.
In short, the Analog Mars program has helped uncover lessons that never would have been learned on paper. We are helping to contribute to the success of future efforts by NASA and other space agencies.
These efforts have also attracted much publicity, resulting in increased anticipation and support on the part of the public and the media. The Mars Society's strategy has been two-pronged from the outset.
How can we do more, and on a broader front?
At this point, we need to take a look at some serious questions:
Question: What can we do at MDRS to learn more - without tearing down the present hab and building a new one?
Question: What useful simulations can be done in settings that are not "Analog Mars," but which are more easily supported logistically?
Question: What useful work can be done at MDRS - and elsewhere - by other groups who share the goal of preparing the way for humans to establish permanent presence on Mars and other worlds beyond Earth? The past two decades have been ones marked by turf-protectionism, dare we say "turf-rententiveness," on the part of separate space enthusiast organizations and their leaders. Looking forward to a 21st Century marked more by collaboration, what can we all pitch in to help achieve in the area of outpost and outpost activity simulations?
Lessons from a working visit to MDRS
Last August, we announced a new Moon Society project to "rent" MDRS for a two week period in order to conduct a number of Lunar Outpost activity simulations. At first glance, there seems to be a good number of useful things we could do in south central Utah, some relevant to lunar outposts only, others relevant to outposts on both Moon and Mars. But without first hand knowledge of the facility, it would be difficult to plan an effective "Moon Mission." It was important to go see for myself. Having long been a Mars Society member as well, I applied as a "crew volunteer," and with the help of long time friend Ben Huset of the Minnesota chapter, we both secured a spot on Crew #34. This was especially fortunate, as this crew would not be a simulations and research crew, but a "refit" crew: our mission was to replace the Hab's wiring, plumbing, and heating systems -- bring them up to code and solving some major problems: repeated pipe freezing, uneven heating, etc. Crew #34 was an opportunity to learn how MDRS worked from the inside-out as assistant electrician and carpenter.
Necessarily designed as inexpensively as possible, and assembled as quick as possible to meet season use and publicity timelines, MDRS suffers as a result in some areas:
We cannot simulate a closed life cycle environment at MDRS, even with a much more thorough biospherics module than the present GreenHab which recycles gray water from sinks and showers for use in flushing the toilet -- MDRS leaks like a sieve. It is not a sealed structure, and it would be cheaper to build a new one than to seal it effectively.
Air recycling and thermal management are not the only two casualties of the leaky hab. Dust control is all but impossible. Mouse control is a lost cause with a two inch gap under both front and rear hatch doors, besides oversize holes for pipes and conduits passing through the hab wall, and poorly sealed, uncaulked portholes, and a loose laying Plexiglas door over the roof emergency exit hatch that flaps in the wind.
We cannot easily conduct Adequate Shielding Exercises - First, the site is owned by BLM, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and our conditions of use require us to tread lightly on the site. Moving around large volumes of soil might not fly. Even should we get a "variance," shielding the Hab would be a daunting proposition. It is too tall. Sandbagging the Hab dome alone would be insufficient and futile. A spread out, one story "Mars Ranch" structure, set on or into the local surface, would be much more practical to shield.
And this situation is regrettable. While in Utah, we are not subject to the same cosmic radiation and solar flare threats from which Mars' explorers and pioneers must seek shelter, our "Field Season" is unnecessarily shortened by the impracticalness of cooling the MDRS Hab from the fierce summer desert heat.
On the Moon and Mars as well as in Utah, the principal co-benefit of shielding is thermal equilibrium. Face it, Mars' surface is as cold, or colder than Antarctica. Yet a few meters down, the soil temperature is the same year around, though the equilibrium temperature there is much lower than it is on Earth or on the Moon. Thermal equilibrium is the principal design benefit of underground housing on Earth. Soil-sheltered habitats simply make sense, however uninteresting they may look to the photographer or artist. And we do need to simulate this, to uncover design challenges that are surely lurking. For in fact, while we do have considerable experience from building earth-sheltered homes here on Earth, they are not designed to the same set of constraints we will face on the dry Moon or on wet Mars.
The Hab has been designed for expansion.
The Mars Desert Research Station Hab structure was designed with two EVA hatches. The rear one has been used principally for quick access to the generator and diesel fuel station, to the propane tank, and to the water tank. But from the outset, this extra exit was looked on as a point of future expansion. Now the time may have come to take a new look at this option -- for on Crew #34, all these utilities have been relocated to a new area, shielded from the Hab by a thirty foot hill. That barrier provides quiet (the generator is a major noise contributor, day and night) and safety: should any of the fuel sources ever catch fire or explode, all of them would in a chain reaction -- the hill provides safety from the fireball that would result. Note: Crews 33 and 34 also installed a superior grounding system, a real feat in the low-conductivity soil, following the ideas and methods, .and using the tools developed by a young volunteer from Caracas, Venezuela, Gregorio Drayer, under his supervision.)
Expansion modules, hard-shelled or inflatable, if designed in one-floor or "ranch" fashion, might support emplacement of removable (sandbagged) soil shielding. This would provide a test of the thermal-equilibrium benefits and a basis for redesigning future analog Habs.
The Hab now supports some activities that get in the way of one another. While it is important to design multifunction space that will see more round-the-clock use, it is equally important that these multi functions not interfere with one another. My choice for first candidate to move to new added expansion space is the workshop-tool-shop-fabrication area which could include an area in which to experiment with making things out of the local soil (even if it is chemically or mineralogically a poor analog of soils on Mars.) These activities are currently hosted by the Lab Science area.
A real Greenhouse engaged in food production as well as gray and black water recycling should be next. The principal impediment to growing food at MDRS is that the site is occupied only seasonally, primarily because of the desert summer heat, which could be managed by living undersoil. But that facility still could not recycle the air of the leaky Hab (one reason winter season heating bills are so high.) It must be added, however, that even if we overcame the heat problem in this fashion, the volunteer supply is not great enough currently to handle year around operations, unless skeletal crews are used in the summer season.
What else needs to be simulated?
Simulating Human Crew Systems: No matter how good our equipment is, no matter how well we have developed our procedures and processes, the most important system of all, because it is central to everything else, has been simulated only on a hit and miss basis, with the result that lessons learned, while valuable, are trivial in contrast to the need. We must not downplay simulation of human crew systems.
Simulating the Mars Frontier Diet: There has, in fact, been a hit and miss effort to simulate the kind of diet Mars Pioneers will surely face: freeze dried foodstuffs from Earth rehydrated with water from Mars, supplemented occasionally by fresh produce from the garden, and possibly by not too frequent treats of Talapia filets: Talapia are a species of fish which thrive reasonably well in gray water systems integrated with greenhouse food production. The problem at MDRS is that individual crew members vary greatly in their willingness to go that far in simulating the Mars experience. All too frequently, their shopping trips in Salt Lake City where they gather to begin their mission, end up with a lot of menu-buster treats. The pioneers on Mars will have no such luxury.
Simulating Frontier Recreation, Art, and Hobby Options: In after supper free time, if there is any, crew members at MDRS can read, play games, watch DVDs. In fact most are busy at their laptops. Simulating realistic frontier recreation and hobbies is something that can happen at MDRS but seems to have been given no real emphasis. We contributed a Mars analog version of the age old African classic game known by various names from tribe to tribe, and most commonly in the west as Mancala or Oware. The board was crafted from wood, but painted to simulate Martian ceramics. A "pit and pebble" class game (rated as one of the nine best of all time in strategy), our version has been dubbed Craters & Blueberries. We also took a look at Scrap and Trash generated at MDRS. On the future frontiers, such humble materials will jump start frontier arts and crafts. See our report on page 8.
Simulating Ergonomic Alternatives: Ergonomics is important for good crew morale and efficient operations. A major opportunity was missed by the decision, in designing MDRS' interior, to copy the layout of the FMARS arctic facility. A clean slate redesign, finding new solutions to the same design constraints, would have yielded useful ergonomic information, comparing experiences at the two stations. The interior of the Euro-MARS station slated for Iceland, has indeed been redesigned from scratch, and whether it has the blessing of the Society's founder or not is immaterial.
You can not learn if you don't vary the conditions of the experiment. It is that simple.
Happily, the Aussies are proposing a Hab that is not of the double tuna-can stack variety, but going back to an earlier design for a more horizontal, easier to shield structure.
Hab Interior Ergonomics: Getting back to my recent visit, I had hoped to get input from my fellow crew members on what they would change about MDRS, if they had a magic wand: what areas could function better by mutual isolation, which by being collocated more closely. What functions of common areas would be better served by having a dedicated space to themselves? What activities, not supported by the current design should be worked into any proposed expansion. Alas, we seldom had free time after dinner. We were always behind in our refit schedule and worked often into the wee hours before hitting the sack. I was able to get only minimal feedback.
We hope to develop a questionnaire that future crew mission commanders can circulate on a voluntary basis, and thus get a wide spectrum of input. And by also circulating feedback forms to past crew members, we may get some return. Unfortunately, such debriefing will suffer from the staleness of memories. But it is also possible that some former crew members will have better digested their experiences and be able to pick out and identify things that bothered or irritated them that they might not have been able to "put their finger on" in a classical "fresh from experience" debriefing. Both fresh and digested experiences are helpful.
At MDRS, the interior of the Hab is very poorly simulated, along with living conditions. In the recent "refit" mission, we had no time to attend to even a partial facelift. There are materials other than wood and drywall that would simulate likely interiors at not too much extra expense. Right now, that is not a priority, though the money could be easily raised separately.
Acoustics: The individual staterooms share the same floor as the wardroom common space: without any acoustic insolation, this is a problem for those early to bed and early to rise. Ear plugs are one way to cope. But this is a problem that could have been lessened with good design and involvement of an acoustics specialist. In fact, the Hab is a very noisy environment, and that can only dampen performance over the long haul. Relocation of the generator behind Engineering Hill has removed offender # one, however.
Logistics is important. For MDRS, Salt Lake City, the nearest major air hub some 240 road miles to the north, serves as the staging point. (Denver and Las Vegas are both 400 miles distant. Grand Junction, CO at 160 miles is only a regional airport with higher air fares.) From Hanksville, the nearest hardware stores are 115, 160, 188 miles distant. Now remoteness from urban areas does have its advantages. It helps set the scene psychologically. And the MDRS clear moonless nights offer an awesomely star-spangled, Milky Way dominated gasp of what it must be like to be suspended in space, or on Mars or the farside of the Moon.
Dust Control: A determined effort to identify all the holes and gaps in the Hab outer wall and bottom floor should be made, and a master plan developed to seal them with durable materials that blend in. A stop can be built into the hatch thresholds that will do away with the 2 inch gap along the floor that remains when the hatch is closed. And above all, let's put out the call for a donor to cover the need of fabricating new porches and steps and apron approaches to the steps out of grating. When it rains even a little, the plant-free surface turns to mud, and with only wood and plywood surfaces guarding the entryways, transport of mud inside is guaranteed. That the Society does not have enough money in its general funds is no excuse. If it's worth doing, and it is, we must ask for dedicated funds, special donations. People give more when they know it is going to something specific the importance of which they can appreciate. The porches and steps are a prime example of a false economy,
Maintaining "Sims" (doing all outside activity in EVA spacesuits; staying on Analog Mars): Remoteness of hardware supplies from lumber to electrical, plumbing, and water supply needs was a major challenge for our "refit" mission. But simulation and research missions are designed to be more self-sufficient. However, the crew members on hand may be minimally capable of meeting various equipment and other emergencies and reliance on intervention from nearby Hanksville is openly accepted.
We are making no progress towards simulating real Mars frontier isolation from Earth.
MDRS is dependent on regular fuel supplies from outside: diesel fuel for the generator; propane for heating and cooking; and water. In short, we have not yet been able to upgrade MDRS to the point where we are generating our own fuels, Marslike, from the atmosphere, or tapping local water reserves underground. We use only some solar energy, for the GreenHab. We also depend on outside services to repair the ATVs, an all too frequent need. On Mars, the outpost will have to be equipped for such emergencies, and have trained personnel among the crew consist.
That we pretend that Hanksville is a Mars Orbiting Station, and that Salt Lake City is Mars' moon Phobos, does little to simulate real Mars emergencies and real lack of options. There has been some hit and miss effort to document "out of Sims" activities. To minimize these occurrences will take a many vectored approach. And in preparation for developing such portfolio of strategies we will need more consistent, more detailed documentation, both on the part of the Crew Commanders and on the part of our off-piste support people.
These many improvements can only be phased in, one at a time. The important thing is to realize that we must make progress in that direction,
Place for a lower level of "Sims"
Not everything has to be harder. On Mars itself, if all the things that needed frequent and regular attention and access where placed under a shielded, but unpressurized canopy or ramada, those attending to this area could wear lighter weight, more user-friendly pressure suits. At MDRS, those attending to the generator or other outside utility sources are supposed to wear full EVA suits. One of the personal projects I chose for my time at MDRS was to investigate the practicality of a demonstration of this system in Utah. Now that all the utilities have been relocated behind a noise-, fire-, and blast-buffering hill, we at MDRS could assume that they are under such a canopy, and wear designated lighter overalls and a special gas mask to simulate the lighter suit. A study of the ergonomic benefits recorded would give feedback on the value of such an innovation. Walk areas thus protected could be marked with simple color-coded poles, for fabric pretend canopies would not last long in our Earth desert winds.
What can be done elsewhere to compliment the learning exercises at MDRS and FMARS?
The Moon Society looks forward to the day when it can establish its own analog research station in terrestrial locations more suggestive of the Moon's surface than that of Mars. But that is not our concern here. What can de done elsewhere, in any type of host terrain (even verdant farm-scapes and urban cityscapes) that will help us prepare for pioneering Mars (and the Moon)? While exploring the surfaces of other worlds, and examining their chemical and mineralogical makeup may be the most obvious, visible, and high profile aspect of early outpost activity, it is only the above-horizon tip of a largely hidden iceberg. Far more basic will be the successful operation of the systems that sustain the pioneers: life support, including food production and recycling of water, air, and both human and agricultural biomass waste. And the systems that maintain both the physiological and psychological health of the pioneer teams. None of this depends essentially on the host terrain, at least not in ways that require some sort of visible match.
Life support, medical systems, human factors such as ergonomics, food menus, etc. -- all these can be simulated anywhere it is convenient to do so. Logistics: where do the principal investigators live? or where is it convenient for them to visit habitually Where are clusters of volunteers?
These questions are important. In Utah, only one person maintains real continuing presence to help ensure some degree of continuity between crews. Don FoutZ, a local resident of Hanksville and a strong supporter of the Mars Society's analog hab program is on call, ready to train incoming crews, trouble shoot problems with the balky generators, and fickle Internet uplinks, and so on. We are fortunate to have Don. Without him, the Hanksville-based facility would have collapsed after the first season, if indeed it lasted that long. Of extreme importance are both continuity in expertise and availability of critical personal who take ownership of ongoing programs that cannot be adequately managed from Mission Support in Denver.
It would be difficult to run a more ambitious Greenhouse Food Production and Water Recycling system without a principal investigator living nearby. That such a facility serves a crew of six persons engaged in exploring an analog Mars landscape is irrelevant. Whether this be a program managed by staff at some university or college or by a dedicated individual, continuity and dedication both demand that the site be convenient, on a weekly or more frequent basis by the person accepting responsibility, and responsible for the design elements, and with authority to make changes. For "load," such a system could be linked to any living space regularly occupied by the desired number of persons, six or whatever. There is no need for the persons imposing the load (food needs, waste generation) to be involved with Mars simulation activities of any kind, unless some such can be happily collocated.
A medical system designed to meet all reasonably expectable emergencies for a group of six (or whatever) adults could be tested in any isolated small community where access to medical services is extremely limited. Small Eskimo or Innuit villages might do, although most are too easily accessible, these days, by airplane or helicopter.
MDRS is both blessed and handicapped by its remoteness. But Mars will be significantly more remote. All the more reason to go beyond field exploration techniques to pre-develop all the systems that will be needed to survive on Mars long term, without recourse to rescue or resupply.
At sites near stable clusters of dedicated individuals, simulations can be run by long term crews Other groups, inside and outside the Mars Society, can conduct exercises elsewhere that complement work at MDRS:
Fringe Benefits of Multiple Networked Simulation Sites
Distributing the simulation workload will allow the tapping of personnel and organizational resources not now accessible to the Mars Society's Analog Mars Program. That benefit is considerable: more talent, more money, more publicity. This united effort will not be lost on the public nor on Congress which will soon pick up on the signal that "those feuding space groups" finally have their act together.
Geographic dispersal of the effort will also model the development of a multisite, multi-settlement Mars Frontier Economy. That too will help science popularizers sketch out just how a first human mission will evolve beyond flags and footprints into a second human home world.
There are already strong dedicated concentrations of volunteers in the form of focused chapters within the Mars Society, the National Space Society, and the Moon Society that could undertake some useful bite-size project, however humble, in support of the broader effort. SEDS (Students for the Exploration & Development of Space), and other groups might be willing to help. We have grounds enough to launch an Analog Mars "Extension" Program.
Benefits from many simulation exercises will apply with minor adaptations to both Moon and Mars. Others will apply only to one or the other. We call on other Space Organizations to endorse an expanded Analog Simulations Program and seek appropriate ways to contribute to it. This will grow chapters as well as public support. <PK>