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David Levine's Mars Journal: Preflight

Posted 12/25/09 - 1/7/10

I'm going to Mars!

Well, not the actual Mars. But pretty darn close.

As faithful readers will no doubt recall, back on December 7 I posted a blog entry in which I listed my space travel wish list, starting with an actual stay in orbit ($35 million) and ending with a zeppelin ride ($500). #2 on that list was to participate in a simulated Mars mission (cost unknown, time commitment substantial).

See, the Mars Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the exploration and settlement of Mars, maintains a couple of simulated Mars habitats -- the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah and the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) in Canada -- where volunteers perform real research on geology, astronomy, and medicine in a simulated Mars environment (complete with space suits).

Well, my old college friend Steve Sywak commented on that post that he knew someone in the Mars Society. We exchanged emails about this, the end result of which was that on December 22 I sent an email to one Ed Fisher wondering if there was any possibility of me spending a week or two on "Mars". He replied on December 23 that he was no longer involved with the Mars Society but "I'm sure they would be interested in your application for a crew position. ... The current season is underway, so you would probably need to wait for next season; however, it can't hurt to apply now, because sometimes there are crew cancellations for various reasons."

The application process was quite simple but it did call for a resume, and for a variety of reasons I hadn't updated mine since 2001. However, with the benefit of distance and a "what the hell" attitude, the usual resume-updating angst was absent and I was able to update it (and shorten it from three pages to two) in only about an hour. I sent off my application to the Mars Society on the evening of December 23.

I awoke on December 24 to an email from Artemis Westenberg of the Mars Society. Even the little snippet of the message I could see in my inbox made me go "Guh?!"

I have no idea how flexible in dates you are
but for crew 88 we indeed have an opening (9-23 January 2010)
the lady who was supposed to be part of that crew works at Johnson Space Center in Houston
and her bosses told her very recently that she can not be part of that crew this season
I have read your resume and would like to invite you to be part of that crew
I took a few hours to think about it, but really there was no question. I accepted the invitation at noon on December 24 and bought my plane tickets that night.

So in less than two weeks I will be on my way to "Mars" (actually a stretch of desert near Hanksville, Utah), where I will spend two weeks as a member of MDRS crew 88. The other members are Commander Stephen Wheeler (Professor at DeVry University, Texas); Health Officer Bianca Nowak (High School Teacher, Belgium); Astronomer Paul McCall (Graduate Student at Florida International University, Florida); Biologist Diego Urbina (Electrical Engineer, Bogota, Columbia); and Engineer/XO Laksen Sirimanne (Biomedical Engineer, California). My own crew position is Journalist. I don't yet know what experiments this crew will be performing or exactly what my duties and responsibilities will be. This has all happened so very fast and I don't anticipate it's going to slow down soon. I'll keep you posted.

You know the character who joins the mission at the last minute? The non-expert -- under-trained, ill-prepared, and in over his head -- who gives the reader someone to identify with and the author a perfect excuse to info-dump? Well, that's me.

I am excited, honored, and rather stunned.

For more information on MDRS, please see the MDRS web page, especially the press kit and photos. Laksen has a blog and has posted information on the location of the MDRS.

My mind is strangely bifurcated. On the one hand, I have two weeks to prepare for a two-week camping trip in the desert with five people I've never met, and there are lots of practical details to arrange.

On the other hand...



Anxious and busy preparing for an early Friday departure. The radio station in my head keeps playing "Rocket Man," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and the theme from "Das Boot." Here's a random collection of the stuff that's been rattling around in my head.

Yes, I'm anxious, even though I know I don't really have anything to be worried about -- apart from lost luggage, bitter cold (tonight's forecast low: 8° F), and the possibility of rolling over my ATV and dying of a fractured skull in the Utah desert. (I had to sign a disclaimer which said, among other things, that I acknowledge that riding on an ATV in the desert wearing a pretend space suit is stupid dangerous.) They've had 87 of these two-week rotations so far and I'm sure nothing serious will go wrong. Right? (But I'm not packing any red shirts.)

I've been reading The Real Mars by Michael Hanlon and it's fascinating. If you've been wondering "why go to Mars anyway?" you might want to gnaw on this: satellite observations of Mars show surface features which seem to indicate that in the past the planet had substantial quantities of surface water. (There are other theories to explain these features, but this is a commonly-accepted one.) But Mars is now far too cold and airless for liquid water to exist on the surface. If Mars was, indeed, once warm and wet enough for rivers and lakes, what caused its climate to change? The answer to this question could help us to understand, and possibly reverse, our own global climate change. And despite the sophisticated robots we've sent, we need close-up hands-on observations by human beings -- with their nimble fingers, excellent senses, and ability to change plans on the fly -- to really understand the early history of Mars.

For some reason, Mars was weirdly omnimpresent in my life even weeks before I knew I'd be going. My favorite ride at Disney World? Mission: Space, a simulated flight to Mars. The last book I read before getting the email? Mars Crossing by Geoff Landis. The last Dr. Who episode I watched? Waters of Mars. And I'd been thinking for quite a while that our upcoming trip to Australia feels a little like a visit to a recently-colonized Mars.

The MDRS-88 Executive Officer, Laksen Sirimanne, has posted the research goals for the mission (which I helped write) on his blog. You can see bios of the crew, and read the daily reports from earlier rotations, on the MDRS web site. And you can see a nice collection of photos of MDRS over at PopSci.com.

I think I have all my ducks in a row for blogging and such. I should be able to post here once a day, but I won't be able to read LJ, Twitter, Facebook, or email. There's a special email address you can use to contact me if it's important, which I will be sending out to my email correspondents shortly. (If you don't get that email in the next day or so and you think you need it, feel free to email me and ask for it.)

Friday's coming soon. Zero hour nine 7:45 AM. Better get packing.

Bags are packed, I'm ready to go

Well, I think that's everything... now to see if it'll fit in... on Twitpic

Well, that's just about everything I'm taking with me. It all made it into the bag, just barely, and the bag is just barely under the airline's size and weight limits (assuming I can trust my yardstick and bathroom scale). I still need to buy a few things -- I wore my wool tux pants the last time I did cold-weather travel but for Mars I think I want someting a little less formal -- and the computer and other tech gear aren't packed yet, but basically I'm set for my early-Friday departure.

I got some good news and some bad news from Mars today. The good news is that I will be allowed to post using Twitter from MDRS, both as myself (@daviddlevine) and as @MDRSupdates. The bad news is that the hab's telescope has broken and most likely won't be fixed until after our rotation. This is a disappointment -- though it's definitely in keeping with the history of Mars exploration, which includes as many failed as successful robot probes -- and we're trying to find out if there's any other equipment we can use in its place.

One more day!

What would you do if you knew it was your last day on Earth?

Well, here's my to-do list for the day before my departure for Mars:

Kate and I also had a nice Indian dinner and watched Shaun of the Dead. And now to bed... early early flight tomorrow.


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