Our simulated Mars mission has reached its midpoint.  In my last post, I thought that the snowy conditions here at MDRS would be just a short term anomaly in our mission. However, after 4 consecutive days of snow, my crew and I are having to re-think the strategy for our mission. When humans go to Mars, they'll also have to contend with inclement weather. Dust storms in particular could halt or severely limit EVA operations for days or weeks at a time.

Yesterday we decided to do an emergency rescue operations EVA. Carla and I spent the morning constructing a sled out of materials we found at the Hab. The wooden sled had two runners made of PVC pipe and a rope to pull it from a rover or by hand. While we were busy carpenters, Darrel and Luis re-built and installed the carburetor for one of our rovers, Kiri edited our first two YouTube videos, and Mike got the radio telescope software working. It was a productive morning. By lunchtime, we had a sled, a nearly operational fourth rover, our first two mission videos, and were ready to collect radio astronomy data.

We awoke yesterday to a beautiful white blanket of snow covering MDRS and its surroundings. In our morning crew briefing, we decided not to attempt a rover EVA in the snow. Instead, we opted to focus mostly on indoor projects like organizing and testing equipment, taking inventories, and writing. However, the snow beckoned us outside, and we all ended up crunching through the powder for more than an hour in the morning to enjoy the view while doing the daily engineering checks. Kiri found some interesting concretions on the hillside near MDRS. The snow continued to fall throughout the day.

By mid-morning, the internet was down, presumably because of snow buildup on the satellite dish. We decided to brush off the snow on an EVA rather than break sim to do it. Luis wanted to collect some fresh snow samples to complement the older snow samples he had obtained on EVA 6 yesterday, so we decided to clear the satellite dish on our way to do EVA 7. We went outside, cleared the snow, and were ready to trek cross-country in search samples when Carla and Luis urged us to go inside to retrieve their sunglasses. The reflected light off the snow was just too bright. We had to endure 5 minutes of re-pressurization to go inside and collect their glasses followed by 5 more minutes of de-pressurization to go back outside. This is how EVA 8 was born.

After three and a half days at the Mars Desert Research Station, my crew and I have settled into a routine familiar to any Mars pioneer. Every morning we have a meeting to discuss the day's activities. Then we break up to finish any chores, projects, or EVA preparations. In the late morning, the first EVA commences. While that team is out in the field, the others are back in the Hab working on other things and finding some time for exercise. In the afternoon, we switch so the other three people can go on an EVA while the first three stay back in the Hab and try to get caught up on their tasks. You can learn more about MDRS living here.

Boredom is the last of our worries. As I learned at FMARS, overwork and information management are concerns. By dusk when we're all back inside, it's a mad rush to get all of the reports written by 8pm when Mission Support comes online. It usually takes most of the night to sift through all of the photos, select the best ones to post online. We never have time to finish everything on our to-do lists, so we have to prioritize what is most important and leave other things for later.

We do manage to carve out some time for fun too. Yesterday was Mike's birthday, and in honor of the occasion, Carla cooked a tasty chocolate cake. Mike blew out the candles and nearly set half the crew on fire when the powdered sugar ignited. After a good laugh (seeing as no one was hurt), we opted to spend the rest of the night playing Trivial Pursuit. It was a good crew bonding experience.
My first full day at the Mars Desert Research Station has been very productive. We've completed all safety and engineering checks and conducted our first two EVAs. Donning the spacesuit again felt natural to me. The crew is getting along great, and we're keeping up with all of our duties so far. There are many similarities and differences between MDRS and FMARS. In general, MDRS is more well-worn but also more institutionalized. It has more infrastructure too such as the GreenHab and Musk Observatory. I'll likely devote a future post to comparing the two mock Mars habitats.

For the past two days, I have been at the Ground-Based Geophysics on the Moon workshop in Tempe, Arizona (aka: "LunarGeo2010"). This meeting is the first of its kind to bring together planetary and terrestrial geophysicists to review what we learned about the Moon from past geophysical studies and to plan future studies - robotic and human.

Astronaut Jack Schmitt gave the first keynote address. He related his experiences doing active seismic experiments during the Apollo 17 mission.  He was the only professional scientist to ever visit the Moon and holds the record for the most EVA time spent working outside on another planetary body (22 hours).  The Moon is the only place in the solar system where humans have carried out ground-based geophysical studies such as seismology, heat flow, electromagnetic soundings, and gravity.  Without the data Schmitt and his Apollo colleagues collected, we would know significantly less about lunar interior and history, and by extension the rest of the solar system as well.

Astronaut Drew Feustel was also at the meeting.  He presented his work helping to develop the Planetary Exploration Geophysical Systems (PEGS), which is a rover that collects seismic and other geophysical data for rapid subsurface reconnaissance.  He's tested the system at Meteor Crater and in Antarctica.  Feustel logged about 21 hours of EVA time fixing the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-125, which was featured in the Hubble's Amazing Rescue Nova special that I saw at the AGU meeting last month.  Feustel is slated to fly again on STS-134 later this year.  I spent some quality time talking with both Schmitt and Feustel about their experiences, and I'm honored to have met them.

3 generations of astronaut geophysicists (alt pic)

My bags are packed, and I'm ready to go. I can't believe the time has finally come. Today I'll begin my journey back to Mars. I'm not headed to the real Mars, of course - not yet. Instead I'm going to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. Like my FMARS adventure last summer, MDRS is a simulated Mars habitat owned and operated by The Mars Society. Below is the Commander's Welcome message that I posted to our crew blog:

Welcome to the MDRS Crew 89 website! I hope you enjoy following our mission and learn something about what it takes to live on Mars. My name is Brian Shiro, and I am the Commander for the 89th crew of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). My crew and I will inhabit the simulated Mars habitat (the "Hab") from 23 January through 6 February 2010. Previously, I served as Geophysicist on the 2009 FMARS-12 expedition, and I am very excited to be commanding my first mission on analog Mars.

In the three months since The Mars Society first selected all of us for this amazing opportunity, our crew has gotten to know each other over many emails and phone calls. We have planned an exciting lineup of research projects encompassing astronomy, biology, engineering, and geology. The common goal underlying all of our efforts is the advancement of human Mars exploration. I don't want to spoil the surprise for you, so you'll have to tune in to this blog or check out our daily reports and photos for more.

On to Mars!

For the remainder of the week, I'll be at the LunarGeo2010 Meeting in Tempe, Arizona. I'll try to write a post about that experience before I go to MDRS.

While the devastating Haiti earthquake was happening, I was on top of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano at the NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO).  Mauna Loa is the world's largest volcano, and if you measure it from its base on the seafloor, it's the world's tallest mountain too at 17,170 m (56,000 ft).  The massive mountain comprises half the Big Island of Hawaiʻi and amounts to about 85% of all other Hawaiian Islands combined.

Below is a picture of colleague Roger Gernold and me at the MLO with Mauna Kea in the background.  If you squint, you can see the Mauna Kea Observatories on the top of that mountain.  We went to the MLO to scout for a location to install a new seismic station to record ground shaking from earthquakes.  This will help us better characterize earthquakes and to issue faster and more accurate tsunami warnings in Hawaiʻi.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is looking for four people with the right stuff to be the country's first "vyomanauts" (Vyoma = 'space' or 'sky' in Sanskrit.). The pool of eligible applicants includes 200 Indian Air Force pilots. The agency expects to narrow the field to the four finalists by 2012. The new vyomanaut ASCANs will train in an ISRO astronaut training school in North Bangalore. Two of the four candidates selected will fly on India's first manned space mission in 2015. If the success of the Chandrayaan-1 lunar mission is any indication, ISRO may be ready to support its own human space program. Maybe one day they'll even go to Mars.  You can learn more about the selection and the mission here.

In 1984, Rakesh Sharma became India's first citizen in space as a cosmonaut on an 8-day mission to the Soviet Salyut 7 space station. His backup Ravish Malhotra trained for the mission too but never had the privilege of joining the 100 mile club. Nagapathi Bhat would have been the second Indian in space as a Payload Specialist on the STS-61I mission, but it was canceled in the wake of the Challenger disaster. His backup Paramaswaren Nair also never flew. Indians had to wait until 1997 to see their second countryman in space when Kalpana Chawla launched on the Columbia Space Shuttle.  She logged over 31 days in space on the STS-87 and STS-107 missions. Tragically, she lost her life in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

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