Milestones: 90 Days on Mars

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Little milestones mark the progress of any journey. We note the events that happen, the dates on a calender, the mile markers on a highway.

Today is the 90th day my crew and I have lived inside the HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa. The last 3 months have been a remarkable experience.  We’ve lived as astronauts would on Mars, adapting to procedures and habits that future explorers will have to survive the conditions that exist on the 4th planet.

In the time I’ve been in this simulation, I’ve marked the time by the completion of experiments, the addition of new tasks, the daily log entries I make as the mission commander.  At home, I might gauge increments of time based on the days until the weekend, but here on simulated Mars, the weekend is another workday.  In order to maintain the ongoing science and systems, the crew and I must continue rationing food, water, and power in the habitat.  Data is still recorded and analyzed- even if it is Saturday.

In just less than 30 days, the crew and I will exit the habitat module for the last time, and without the limitation of a simulated spacesuit.  This journey will end, and in it’s place, each of us will move forward with our lives and ambitions.  The passage of time will be unchanging, but the milestones we mark it by will be unique.  I don’t know yet what direction my journey will take.  But I hope that it can be measured by achievement the way I have during this mission.

 

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Suborbital Science is just around the corner

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It was announced on June 3rd that NASA’s Flight Opportunities program (NASAFO) has selected one dozen science experiments to be flown aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

This is validation of the “suborbital science” concept.  If you’ve read my earlier post about the Suborbital Applications Research Group (SARG), then you can understand my excitement about this announcement.

Suborbital spaceflight is much more than an adventure sport of the super wealthy.  Like the X-15 hypersonic research program, suborbital vehicles operate in a realm very different from both orbital and aerial craft.  This transition zone, the fuzzy line between atmosphere and space, is largely unexplored.

There exists an incredible diversity of scientific disciplines that can take advantage of the minutes of microgravity that can be achieved during a parabolic sortie.  NASA Flight Opportunities, which is the space agency’s office that manages the process of flying scientific payloads on launch vehicles, has taken advantage of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and the proliferation of new spacecraft. Virgin made available the cabin of their suborbital spacecraft, SS2, exclusively for science experiments on its inaugural test flight to the edge of space. For a list of the payloads selected, click here

Although there have been many detractors to the longevity of the SS2 flight test program, incremental progress is being made.  Every flight provides data from which engineers can improve upon the performance and safety of the vehicle.  Test flying experimental aircraft is a hazardous vocation, and one not tolerant of haste.  So while space tourists and payloads must wait for VG’s commercial flights to begin, that wait is necessary to ensure that every effort is made to mitigate risks.

The date- or even year- that Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations isn’t known yet. But, following this recent news, it is clear that the company will be a leader in the field of suborbital science.

#MarsMonday : Public Outreach and Space Advocacy

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#MarsMonday – I didn’t create this hashtag.  Somebody more creative and original than my  self can claim that.  But as passionate advocate of Mars exploration, I’ve adopted the hashtag as the herald of my public outreach campaign for the HI-SEAS simulation.

Recently, NASA has restated what every proponent of space exploration already knew- that the planet Mars is the next destination for the human species.  The focal point of all contemporary human spaceflight programs is the red planet.  From analog studies like HI-SEAS to ever-longer crew rotations on the International Space Station, NASA is working diligently to reach our ultimate destination.

Unfortunately, there is little fanfare given to this National endeavor. Most of the mainstream media ignores space policy announcements, only mentioning them to denounce the reported price tags.  The tech industry reports the latest developments in space technologies, but rarely expounds upon the why .  Political partisanship further distorts the message, dividing the space program along differing party views.

This is why public outreach is imperative. Unless the importance of human spaceflight is told, public support for exploration will wither.  Already, political commitments to NASA ebb and flow on the annual whims of our elected leadership.  Outreach and advocacy are the methods to change this.  That is why I’ve adopted the #MarsMonday hashtag. Every Monday, on Twitter and other social media platforms, we tag facts, questions, links, and photos about exploring Mars.  I talk about the need for human exploration, the parallels of Mars and Earth, and the opportunities Mars represents.  This is just a small way of embedding the significance of spaceflight into the public consciousness.

I encourage everyone reading this to find a outlet for encouraging space exploration outreach and advocacy.  If this is something you’re passionate about, make your voice heard.  Passion breeds interest, and that’s all that’s needed to plant the seed.

To see more, just go on Twitter and find my account: @casey_stedman

HI-SEAS Mars Analog Mission reaches halfway point

The HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa volcano

The HI-SEAS habitat module on Mauna Loa volcano

Halfway.

How many explorers turned that word over in their minds, contemplating the journey ahead, and the paths behind them?

For the last 60 days, the second HI-SEAS crew and I have worked, ate, slept, read, investigated, cooked, constructed, researched and LIVED in the mock habitat module you see in the photo above.  This is our office, our laboratory, and our home.

The simulation we are a part of cannot replicate every aspect of life on Mars, there is no way to reduce atmospheric pressure or Earth’s gravity, for example.  But many of the other factors that future planetary explorers will face are ever-present here.  We are isolated enough from civilization and modern conveniences to experience them as astronauts would.

In the last 60 days, the crew and I have faced power system failures, water shortages, illness, fatigue, electrical fluctuations, spacesuit leaks, medical emergencies, network dropouts, storms, habitat leaks, and numerous equipment failures.  We’ve just emerged from a 4 day communications blackout that forced us to operate independently from our mission control and ration our water even more than normally.

Every troublesome event is has significance though, because these are lessons that provide data for NASA and the scientists studying the mission.  How the crew responds to each crisis will help future mission planners devise new techniques to mitigate risks and better prepare astronauts for the challenges of long duration missions.  Our performance as a team during every unanticipated event provides information that helps the crew selection staff determine which skills and attributes are necessary for future astronauts to possess.  Every equipment failure allows the space agencies and manufacturers an opportunity to learn what engineering solutions must be applied to creating the tools needed to survive on Mars.

The journey ahead may be much like the one we’ve already traveled, or perhaps very different.  Long duration space missions are new territory for our species.  Every analog mission like HI-SEAS helps us to learn the unanticipated and prepare for the future.  Preparation is the key to success.  It is the difference between Amundsen and Scott on their quests to reach the Antarctic pole: for both men and their respective expeditions, the pole was only the halfway point.  It was the second half of their journeys that determined which teams succeeded, and which died.