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Martian Boot Camp

My two weeks on “Mars”
October 20, 2008

The Utah desert isn’t known for surprises. Even in February, it’s hot in the daytime, cold at night, and windy. With few people or towns, the night sky brims with stars, and daylight reveals endless quiet vistas of dust, rocks, and distant hills.

Phillip Cunio (left) and his MIT colleague Zahra Khan, SM ’08, test the portability of the Smart Small Logistics Container in the Utah desert.

So the two-story white tin can perched between two ridges near ­Hanksville stands out. Built by the Mars Society in 2001, the Hab, as it’s known, houses scientists and engineers testing equipment and operational techniques that might be used in another, far more interesting desert: the red, rock-strewn surface of Mars, where the temperature can fall to -87 °C, and dust storms can last for days.

Last winter, I did field work for MIT’s Space Logistics Project at the Hab, testing Ramses (an acronym for “rule-based analytic asset management for space exploration systems”). Ramses combines radio frequency identification (RFID) and Web technology to keep tabs on supply items intended for use by a Mars station crew. Designed to simplify daily housekeeping tasks by ensuring that nothing is ever lost, Ramses would also allow ground crews on Earth to see exactly what was being used on Mars as they stocked items for resupply missions.

My main task was trying out the ­sensor-equipped SSLC (Smart Small Logistics Container). So I tagged a few dozen items (including paper products, hand sanitizer, and a stash of chocolate), stored them in the SSLC, and tested its ability to “see” them and to communicate with a remote database when they needed to be restocked. I also worked with fellow graduate student Arthur Guest (back in Cambridge after his own stint in the Hab) to coördinate software fixes needed to connect the SSLC to Ramses. And I ran experiments for the Space Logistics Project (spacelogistics.mit.edu) and the Space Systems Architecture Group and filed reports with our industry collaborator, Aurora Flight Sciences. In my free time, I used Skype to call classrooms in Florida, Saskatchewan, and Boston to talk about life on “Mars.” Even after the crew and I explained that no, we weren’t really calling from space (a call from Mars would be subject to at least an eight-minute delay), the students were happy to hear from us and eager to learn.

Being able to do that kind of outreach was satisfying, but my stay also meant missing important things back home, including my wife’s birthday. (The crew cheered me up by baking a cake and helped me improvise a birthday card to show her over the Hab’s webcam.) And being at the working end of such an involved supply line proved a little intimidating–especially when I caught a stomach virus and wound up shivering on the floor while the crew’s medic conducted checkups and conferred online with a doctor experienced in telemedicine. Fortunately, I recovered after a day, and we chalked it up to the food. We ate primarily freeze-dried rations, which would be standard fare on a mission to Mars. I was the first–and last–one brave enough to eat the scrambled eggs and bacon two days in a row. After switching to a more varied mixture of rehydrated powders (liberally sprinkled with Tabasco sauce), I was able to complete the field research that would find its way into papers my colleagues and I recently submitted for publication.

Life in the Hab was as much like being on Mars as possible, even down to our spare-time activities. We kept track of “simulation breaks” (events that could occur safely on Earth but not on Mars), scoring them as “kills” on a whiteboard. For instance, removing one’s simulated space suit to hunt for fossils counted as a kill. One crew member racked up several kills by opening both airlock doors simultaneously, which would have ended a real mission abruptly. Living with a half-dozen other scientists and engineers also led to spirited conversations about such things as the realism of popular science fiction and whether we’d go to Mars (as we’d all love to do) if we had to stay there for the rest of our lives.

I’d say yes, as long as my wife could come too. And I know she would. I made sure to ask her before we were married.

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