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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 3 – The Fire Alarm

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MSC Banner Diaries Part Three

In his third entry, describing the events of 27 September 2021, Jin walks us through crew 228’s final preparations before their entry into Mars simulation. As you will read, their first challenge came before they even reached the “Martian” surface!

“Is that the fire alarm?”

This is a sentence that no one wants to hear in space.

We dropped our oats and reconstituted fruit and scrambled down the stairs to the lower deck. Calling them ‘stairs’ is generous – they’re so steep that they really have to be used like a ladder, descended backward with careful support from the railings. As I write this, my leg still hurts from banging my shin into one of the steps when I tried to descend while distracted. We threw open the engineering airlock and followed the alarm to the GreenHab, the building where food crops are grown to study Martian agriculture.

This was not good.

Not more than a few years ago, the MDRS suffered a major disaster when the GreenHab burned down. The crew on-station then were able to put out the fire and prevent it from spreading to the rest of the campus, but the building itself had been destroyed. At great expense, the Mars Society built a new GreenHab. It would be an unimaginable disaster if it burned down again, and before we had even ‘entered sim’.

Fortunately, we saw no smoke and smelled no burning, save for a faintly spicy, herbal smell coming from the small greens. When Dr. Rupert joined us, we inspected the equipment and discovered nothing suspect. She replaced the batteries and we returned to the Hab to finish off our breakfast.

While we sat around the table, Dr. Rupert wove us an oral story of the MDRS and talked us through what we needed to know about the station. We keenly absorbed the information as if through osmosis, and learned of the work ahead before we could ‘enter sim’. We hoped to get our spacesuit and rover training done in the morning, help Dr. Rupert put up some signs to warn off trespassers, then enter sim at around 3 PM.

Then, the GreenHab fire alarm went off… again.

This time, our descent of the stairs took less than three seconds. Once again, we found that the GreenHab was not burning down, however, it brought me comfort to see that we were already beginning to develop Martian instincts – a special sensitivity to the unusual sounds and sensations that told us how the station was feeling before we knew it consciously. As the great space captain Malcolm Reynolds once said, the first rule of flying is that you must love your ship.

The MDRS has character. I have come to consider it the fifth member of our crew. It’s clear that its construction was a monumental toil of love. The care of the volunteers who built it radiates from every seam, patched hole, piece of improvised equipment, and bolt in the floor. It has such a presence, that it even seems to interject into our discussions. The water pump from the loft tank makes a loud buzzing, chattering sound whenever a tap is turned on to provide water pressure, but sometimes it turns on for no apparent reason. I half-joke that the Hab sometimes concurs with something said by the crew.

But only half.

After the GreenHab smoke alarm went off a third time, I suggested that we try switching out the detector itself. There have been no more false alarms, and the GreenHab is safe. Perhaps it was having nightmares from the violent end of its previous life.

In the MDRS handbook, future crews are warned that they will need to pass a knowledge test on it. After being interrogated by Dr.Rupert, we passed almost flawlessly. I say almost because of a response that Dave provided which Dr.Rupert called a “trick answer”. It wasn’t a trick question.

Having passed this literal test, I felt much more comfortable going into sim with my crew.

Afterward, we were left on our own to finish preparing the station for sim. We decided to get our crew and individual pictures taken in front of the Hab as soon as possible before sim locked us indoors. Unfortunately, it was in the middle of a blazing hot Utah desert day, and there was barely a cloud in the sky. After a few shots, we had to retreat into the lower deck to catch some respite from the relentless heat.

Mars Desert Research Station
The Areonauts pose in front of the Hab. From left to right, top to bottom: Dave Laude, Executive Officer and Crew Engineer. Inga Popovaite, Crew Scientist and GreenHab Officer. Jin Sia (that’s me!), Health and Safety Officer. Dr. Lindsay Rutter, Mission Commander (image taken by Dave Laude.)

It was worth it.

Jin Sing Sia
The Mars Society of Canada’s flag flies at the MDRS for the first time (image taken by Dave Laude)

Back inside, Inga prepared for us a delicious, spicy jambalaya. We were going to eat well out here.

After the heat had subsided somewhat, we met back up with Dr. Rupert to help make the no-trespassing signs. Trespassers have become a serious problem at the MDRS, flying drones without authorization and even entering the facility without permission. Not only is this illegal, but they also actively jeopardize the staff and crews’ peace of mind, and potentially compromise the research being conducted. It’s difficult to will yourself into believing that you are on Mars if there’s a man in a baseball cap and t-shirt obnoxiously snapping photos outside the main porthole.

If you want to go to the MDRS, sign up to join a crew or become a volunteer. It is not a tourist attraction.

Dave and I worked together drilling holes and wood screws into the signpost, then securing them to the steel brackets in concrete bases and staging them outside for pickup. I was grateful for having spent the past few months diligently deadlifting in university gyms, because lifting the 75 lb1 concrete bases into the RAM (Repair and Assembly Module, the engineering module of the MDRS) took the best form I could muster.

Then, with the whole team working together, we hoisted the assembled signs into the electric rovers Perseverance and Spirit. We decided that this was a good opportunity for Inga and me, the newbies, to get our driver training. Neither of us own cars – I have an Ontario G2 license but haven’t driven in years. On the other hand, Dave and Lindsay are MDRS veterans.

All of the skills from my ancient driving school lessons came back, and I discovered that I actually loved driving the rovers. We drove up the various roads and planted the signs in the ground. It turns out that I don’t hate driving, I just hate driving on Earth. Watching the rugged, Martian landscape roll by, Country Roads by John Denver looped on repeat in the MP3 player of my mind. It occurred to me that this would be a great area to come back and explore.

It was a good thing that we had lots of EVAs scheduled for the mission!

We finished late, having had blasted through the 3 PM self-imposed deadline to enter sim and were already deep into the ‘comms window’ with Mission Support that ran from 7-9 PM. We decided to go into sim at midnight instead, much later than we should. In our defense, we are the first crew of the season and put hours into ensuring the facility was ready for future crews.

We frantically punched away at our laptops trying to figure out how to submit our reports in the right format. The atmosphere on the Hab’s upper deck became not unlike a room of high school students rushing mightily to submit assignments before a deadline. We got it done, and I haven’t checked, but you should be able to read our reports on the MDRS’s website.

Then, I suggested that we head outside.

At about 10 to 11 PM, a couple of hours before we were due to enter sim, we congregated under the stars together, and this time it was even clearer and more brilliant than the night before. With the Hab lights off, the landscape around us was subtly lit in starlight. Together, we absorbed the experience as a crew. The Milky Way arched over us, with a broken shape familiar from space telescope images. My mind refused to comprehend the scale of this vista – it felt as if they were fixed on the inside of some colossal dome.

Lindsay sighed and wished that we could fall asleep outside, under the stars. We laughed about how – since we technically went into sim at midnight – we would “die of suffocation in the Martian atmosphere” from lying outside, and become the fastest crew to fail sim in MDRS history.

We opted to go inside instead, and live to stargaze another day. The airlock door shut firmly behind us.

At midnight, while we were sleeping, we were transported from the desert of Utah to the frigid sands of Mars.

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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir

1 Unfortunately, MDRS uses the imperial system for everything, being based in the USA.