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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 9: Marsbase 8

MSC Banner Diaries Part Nine

Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here. In part Nine, Jin tries his hand at Martian cuisine and crew 228 discovers a water shortage.

On Sol 6, I made and ate a casserole for the very first time. It was a slow day.

Cooking on Mars is an exercise in judicious substitutions. In the Hab, we have a big box of dried sliced potatoes, with which I had great success in making stir-fried breakfast potatoes and loaded omelets the previous Sol. I had many ideas for what else to do with the potatoes (it seems that you cannot go to Mars without multiple mentions of potatoes now), most of which meant frying them. I wanted to serve these with ketchup, but I discovered that we had all the ingredients except vinegar. Then I investigated serving them with mayonnaise, but I discovered that we also had all the ingredients. . . except vinegar. We briefly considered making another EVA to Dave’s personal supply ship to extract the life-giving spice melange- I mean ketchup, but we concluded that it would be cheating on sim. We weren’t given ketchup and mayonnaise for a good reason – neither are shelf-stable for more than a few months, and so would not be packed on a real Mars mission.

I had no idea that so much of human civilization was held up by the capstone of humble acetic acid.

There was a recipe on the back of the potato box for casserole. Having never had casserole, I decided to try making it for lunch. There was one problem: it called for chicken soup and sour cream, and we had neither. I substituted the chicken soup with cheddar broccoli soup, but I could not for the life of me figure out what to substitute the sour cream with. After much deliberation, I decided to just throw in what we had and cover up the missing flavors with generous amounts of freeze-dried vegetables. I grumbled that – had this been a Russian Mars mission – I would have had no problems finding sour cream.

After boiling the potatoes, I dumped them into a casserole dish and poured the mixture of cream and vegetables over it. Into the oven it went. About 45 minutes later, I removed the casserole from the oven. Deciding that it didn’t have enough liquid, I hastily mixed up a batch of milk, powdered butter, and Italian seasoning, and poured it over the mess.

The crew dug in. Moment of truth.

Apparently, it was the best casserole ever made on Mars. Who knew that I’d make a good Midwesterner?

The best casserole ever made on Mars (image by Lindsay Rutter)

However, it occurred to me that we hadn’t bothered to take any pictures of our food until now. Given that so many of the questions we got from friends, family, and the public were about food, this was bizarre. Contrary to common perception, every meal we had had was tasty, nutritious, rarely repeated, and Instagram-worthy (that is, if we had access to Instagram.)

In fall 2019, I had the privilege of organizing a small talk by Dr. Martha Lenio for the Waterloo Space Society, a Canadian photovoltaics engineer who had commanded an eight-month HI-SEAS analog mission under the auspices of NASA. She also spent a year abroad conducting humanitarian work in sub-Saharan Africa (I think it was Niger, but I’m not sure and I can’t look it up while I’m on Mars) and made it into the top seventy-two candidates for one of the Canadian astronaut selection rounds. So if you’re a Canadian aspiring astronaut, take notice.

In my personal notes that I took during the talk, I wrote: “Good food is a vital part of having a good mission. Crew members sometimes spent over ten man-hours in preparing a dish for everyone else, such as burgers (with the buns, patties, and tater-tots made from scratch). This was instrumental in keeping up good morale.” It seems that the lives of people in isolated, confined, extreme environments revolve around food. I don’t know if it’s because food is a major highlight of the day in a rugged lifestyle, or because we’re so used to good food on Earth that we take it for granted, or something else entirely. Dr. Lenio noted that when one of her crew members was having a bad day, the best way to cheer them up was often to make food for them. Perhaps analog astronauts have acts of service or gifts as their top love language, depending on how you see food preparation.

Before the mission, Inga had downloaded the first season of the TV show Moonbase 8, which is a workplace comedy about three NASA analog astronauts training to go to the Moon at the eponymous analog site. It stars Fred Armisen, of Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine Nine fame. We watched the first episode over lunch, and it was eerie how relatable it was – perhaps inadvertently.

“It’s so weird,” I said. “I look at the screen and see a space analog, and I look outside the screen and see a space analog too.”

Moonbase 8 is set in the Arizona desert, and the landscape in the TV show looked uncannily similar to the landscape outside the Hab’s windows. Moonbase 8 has a greenhouse that looks like a near-carbon copy of the MDRS’s GreenHab. There was knowing, pained laughter about things like (no spoilers) deliberating over how to write an email to Mission Control or having to file detailed plans and requests to do work outside. However, the most eerie similarity was the central conflict of the first episode, which is introduced about four minutes in – a water shortage.

We too, were experiencing a water shortage.

Arizona Desert
The Arizona desert. Visually similar to the Utah desert surrounding MDRS

Two sols ago, on Sol 4, Dave sent an email to Mission Support with the following subject line: “Urgent-Water Supply Low”. We had been frugal with our water usage. At the time, all four of us combined had run the water in the shower for a grand total of a whopping four minutes. When we washed our dishes, we used the same wash water for at least two meals per day – the procedure was a little disgusting to me, but the dishes still came out relatively clean. By Dave’s calculations, we had been using 20 gallons (75 liters) per day on average as a crew. We used perhaps 100 gallons (375 liters) for cleaning during Sol 1. All in all, we had likely consumed about 200 gallons (750 liters) since ‘Sol 0’.

The main water tank showed that 400 gallons (1,500 liters) had been used. 200 gallons had disappeared into thin air. Dave spotted a leak in one of the transfer pipes, but that could only account for perhaps a couple of gallons.

(Also, I apologize for the egregious usage of Imperial units. All these Americans use Fahrenheit, pounds, miles per hour, and gallons. The food supplies come in ounces and quarts. Just making the simplest possible cookie recipe requires me to break out a conversion card and a calculator. It’s a nightmare. How many ounces is 2/3 cups? How do I take the arctangent of a triangle where one side is in miles and one side is in feet? Does the label on this canned food show ounces of volume or ounces of mass? Is 82 degrees Fahrenheit hot? Send help – and metric rulers!)

Up till the time at which I’m writing this, we still don’t know where the rest of the water went. Dave thinks it’s being lost during the transfer of water from the main tank on the ground floor to the loft tank. Thankfully, Dr. Rupert was able to fetch us more water from town.

Nevertheless, in the time between, we rationed our water even more strictly than we had before. One sol, we broke our lowest daily water usage record by 25%. It’s not drinking that’s a major use of water – at most, even if you are exerting yourself to exhaustion, you drink 2-3 liters per day (no, I’m not converting that back to quarts or gallons or whatever it is y’all use down here. Why should I? 2-3 liters converts to 2-3 kilograms of water. It’s so convenient. And I know that there are exactly 1000 milliliters in a liter, and one milliliter is equal to one cubic centimeter, and a cubic centimeter of water weighs one gram. And if I need to handle large quantities, there are one thousand liters in a cubic meter, which weighs one metric tonne. Tell me, how many short tons does a gallon of water weigh? How many ounces are in a cubic mile? Or how many fluid ounces are there in a quart? What about troy ounces and Avoirdupois? Anyway, back to the show.) That’s peanuts compared to the water used for washing, cleaning, and flushing the toilet.

But anyway, running out of water isn’t something that happens suddenly to an analog crew who’s paying attention, unless it was caused by a truly catastrophic failure. Dave had been diligently tracking our water usage and comparing it to the usage of the main tank. When he caught the discrepancy in usage rates, the tank was far from empty and we still had several days of water left, although it would not last us to the end of the mission. Think of how Mark Watney from The Martian calculated that he would run out of food stores months in advance.

Now that we’ve had our tanks refilled, we have enough water to make it to the end of the mission, even with the mystery water disappearance. Of course, I’m still a bit worried about that anomaly – we could get water shipped to us in Utah, but if this had happened on a Mars expedition, we would have died of thirst had the leak not been fixed soon enough. The water discrepancy will probably have to be looked at after the sim ends. Perhaps it’s because on a real Mars mission, there would be a lot more sensors and diagnostic systems, the water system would be much better built, we would be intensely trained in understanding and repairing its inner workings, and there would be a small army of advisors at Mission Control to help us sniff out issues. We often find ourselves running into the limits of analog simulations. The perfect analog cannot exist – you would have to actually fly a crewed mission to Mars for that. Concessions have to be made due to the fact that you can’t simulate 100% of a space mission. We do try our best, though.

But one thing we’re definitely training here is the conscientiousness, diligence, and systematic problem-solving thinking that real astronauts need to survive.

Do well in math, kids. It’ll save you on Mars.

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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir