It was dark, and the headlights flashed unusual rock shapes with twisted and jagged shadows. The drive up to Mona Loa was quiet the moment we started up the Volcano slopes. The quiet was not unlike the silence I observed in people prior to deployment in Afghanistan. Soldiers reflecting on the mission ahead, and the people they are leaving behind. In this case, very similarly, a group of scientists reflecting on their scientific mission, and the loved ones they left behind for four months. I tried cracking a few jokes to lighten the mood, but they fell flat and the only response I got what a somewhat distracted chuckle.
Upon seeing the habitat, our new home the mood changed to excitement. We were finally on Mars. The habitat and mission that we have been consumed by for the past year, were finally real. The habitat itself is simply a work of art, both inside and out. We could not have been happier.
It was late, and we sorted out equipment and our gear. We found our bedding and made our beds. After that, we settled in for our first night’s sleep.
We declared ourselves to be in Partial Simulation for the first week here. This is where the simulations allow for real time communication and outside human interaction to trouble shoot engineering issues. We decided to keep all the windows covered. None of us want to see the outside until we go outside in space suits.
Then we started unpacking. Boxes upon Boxes, upon Boxes. Containers of food are opened and we started the day taking out the food items. Sian organized us into kind of an assembly line. The food was unpacked by Oleg, Kate, and Yajaira, and then located on the inventory list. The food item would come to me for scanning into the inventory system. We are using a phone app called “Prep and Pantry” to handle our food. Each food item is scanned in with its bar code and then scanned out. Angelo would then distribute the food as evenly as possible into monthly bins. This continued from 9am to the late evening, and we did not finish.
More unpacking. Towards the end of the day we had the vast majority of the food finally unpacked. The food was subdivided further into piles of containers for each month. Food for four people, for six months is a lot of food as it turns out. I finally was able to start organizing my tools and work area in the robot garage.
Then, we encountered our first malfunction. The generator suddenly stopped. Being the Engineer, it is my job to track down these problems and find out what is going on. I asked the crew what they were using for electricity. They had just finished cooking lunch, but the most power consuming item was the induction burners, and they were turned off prior to the power outage. Only thing else on were lights. I checked all the breakers. None of the breakers were popped. I talked to Angelo, the crew commander and we decided I would have to break simulation to go outside and look at the generator. It was something I really did not want to do. I had been inside for three days, and as far as I was concerned Mars was just outside. I could not gear up in a space suit as it would take too much time. We also did not have radio communication. Knowing it was the last thing I wanted to do, I went outside.
The location prime for a Mars simulation, the scene before me was incredible I tried hard not to look around at all. I kept my eyes low to the ground, and made my way to the generator. To my surprise the generator was still running. Power was being drawn off the solar cells. However, the battery was low.
I was not shown how to use the generator yet, so I had no choice but to wait for a member of mission support to come. What follows were hours of technical trouble shooting trying to figure out the problem. After some time on the phone with support we were told that the inverter in the generator was likely blown. A new one would have to be built over the weekend, and flown in from California. In the meantime we would need to get a gas generator. This was brought to us late in the evening and installed. We were on half power capacity at 120 V for the moment. We would be able to lay out cables to give 240 V supply the next morning.
The next day we continued to unpack, sort food, and everything else to get ourselves settled into the habitat. Morning meetings were talk of the upcoming food study. The Principle Investigators (PI) of the study asked me to program a scale to record and take photos of our food. Many comfort items were installed in our rooms, bathrooms, etc. Power was upgraded to 240 Volts at 30 Amperes, a fair amount of power to work with.
The nights are quite cool here, especially in the evening. Crew members hovered around one of the electrical heaters for warmth and wore sweat shirts and toques. I’m enjoying the fact that the habitat is starting to come together. I got my room sorted out, and I got my workspace set up finally. I even managed to find a little time to program today.
This day we had the flow meter installed on the water pump. The habitat is outfitted with a variety of sensors that feed real time data back to a server on Earth. The beauty of these sensors is that we have the ability to watch our power consumption in real time. Once we are settled in further I will map out the power consumption of every item in the habitat. We also have realized the CO2 levels are high. We are hitting values as high as 1500 ppm (parts per million) in our living area. CO2 levels are a health concern starting at 600 ppm. High levels of CO2 in the blood can lead to Hypercapnia. It turned out that the air vent at the top of the habitat is sucking air from in-between the insolation and the outer shell of the dome, and we came up with a plan to fix this.
The graph above shows the CO2 cycle in the habitat. CO2 levels fall from the previous day over the evening. Crew members start to get up around 08:00. This causes a sharp increase in CO2. The CO2 levels will increase until around noon. On this particular day the CO2 levels peaked at just less than 1200 ppm. This is almost double the acceptable levels of CO2. After seeing this we knew something had to be done to make the system work better.
In the evening we had our first habitat movie night, we watched “The Abyss”. The difference between a Mars habitat, and a Habitat in the depths of the ocean, are not too different in many respects. They share an outside world that is deadly without the proper equipment. They have to keep their habitat safe from the outside world coming in.
Sunday, and it is the crews first day off. We work intense and fast the entire week. It can be a bit stressful and frustrating because there is so much to do. However, we are all hard workers and plow through it easily. I enjoy the day by writing my first blog (The one you are reading now) and shooting some video to send home.
Oleg and I construct and install a ring to go around the ventilation fan on the ceiling of the dome. We hoped that this would fix the CO2 problem. Before installing the collar around the fan, the CO2 reading was just under 1000 ppm. After we placed the collar on vent the CO2 levels fell down to 450 ppm. We have been watching it all day, and it seems to be stable. Many of the crew members commented on feeling better, and I have had more energy today.
The above graph shows the CO2 levels from today. Once again, the CO2 levels started to rise and we hit about 1100 ppm (The spike up to 1600 ppm is from me examining the sensor up close). I and Oleg installed the fan collar around 11am. You can see a sudden sharp drop in CO2 levels. After this the CO2 levels have fluctuated between 450 ppm and 700 ppm. This is a very good improvement in the air quality of the habitat, but we will work on getting it better.