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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 12: The Three Quarter Problem

MSC Banner Diaries Part Twelve

Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here. In part twelve, the psychological effects of isolation set in on Crew 228, and Jin and his team make a special call to fellow Martians.

In the field of space psychology, a curious effect is observed across crews in ICE (Isolated, Confined, Extreme) environments, from long-term crews on the International Space Station to scientists overwintering in Antarctica, to short-term missions at the MDRS. It seems that regardless of the length of the mission, crews tend to experience a decline in cohesion and a rise in anxiety and emotional stress at around the three-quarter mark. This isn’t a universal phenomenon – because humans are messy things – but it does happen often. This tends to happen because the crews are anticipating a resumption of their Earthbound lives and relationships. Inga, who will defend her PhD thesis on the sociology of analog missions in less than two months, described it as, “Both wanting to go back to Earth immediately and not wanting to go back to Earth at the same time.”

On Sol 9, exactly on time, we experienced the three-quarter effect.

That morning, our breakfast was eaten in pin-drop silence, our minds preoccupied by the things we had to finish up before the mission ended. Lindsay had to squeeze in her last few DNA sequencing sessions before flying out back to Japan, Inga had to type up her data, and I had to figure out how to get a PCR test to fly back to Canada. There just wasn’t the mental capacity to hold a conversation.

Thank Mars for Dave, who broke the deafening silence: “Could you all please be a bit quieter?”

We burst out laughing and started chatting again. With that, we ended breakfast on a light-hearted note and set about the activities of the day. Over our daily morning meeting, we discussed what would happen.

During the day, Lindsay would continue working on the DNA analysis of her samples. I had an idea for a special Journalist Report for our last sol on Mars that I wanted to commit to writing, but I also had to organize logistics to get my pre-travel COVID test. It had to be PCR, which takes up to three days to obtain results, by Canadian immigration regulations.

In the afternoon, Inga and Dave would head out on an exploration EVA to Candor Chasma, a labyrinthine canyon carved out of the surface about three kilometres east of the Hab. We had concentrated much of our exploration on the west of the map, leaving the spectacular features in the east neglected so far.

At night, there would be a special event: we discovered that there was another crew with us on Mars! While we were in-sim at MDRS, there was also another crew of four analog astronauts at the ILMAH (Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat) facility located at the University of North Dakota (UND.) They were also simulating a mission on Mars and reached out to us to suggest that we have a live video call. This was perfectly consistent with the simulation because we were on the same planet at the same time, and we recently had our internet system upgraded, so Dr. Rupert approved the call. We would have a test call at night, then a proper full-length call on Sol 11, our last sol of the simulation. A close friend of mine recently started his PhD in bioastronautics at UND, which is how I suspected this got put together. He’s a crafty one.

Right after breakfast, Inga helped me by searching for testing locations. I was dreading having to leave the Hab to get the PCR test, because it would require me to ‘break sim’ (i.e. to violate the conditions of the simulation by doing things that one could not do on Mars.) Inga tried contacting several cities in Utah, but many of them were either not offering pre-travel tests or simply were not picking up the phone. After consulting with Dr. Rupert, we went with a tough solution – getting a test back in Grand Junction, Colorado, where we had departed from. It is a three-hour drive from the MDRS in good traffic. Dave, the only crew member with a valid US driving license, would have to drive me there, requiring him to break sim too.

After booking the test, I got to work on my last-sol journalist report. I wanted to write a science-fiction short story that expressed not what was physically happening as we prepared to return to Earth, but what was going on emotionally. I imagined that we were a crew that had actually been sent to Mars and were going through the process of preparing for the journey home. To read the short story, visit the MDRS Facebook page here.

As Inga and I were scheduled to prepare dinner, I decided to shoulder the burden of that as thanks for her help with finding COVID tests. The night before, we had decided to make chili in the Hab’s slow-cooker and had soaked a bag of pinto beans in a bowl of water. By morning, they were ready to be turned into chili. I played much of the recipe by ear and threw the beans into the slow cooker with hydrated tomato powder and assorted stir-fried vegetables. I set a timer for eight hours and left it.

As Dave and Inga arrived at Candor Chasma, we practiced our refined communications procedure given the foreknowledge that it was a comms blackout area. They tested comms regularly and provided a check-in time before they descended into the chasm. Throughout this time, I continued working on my sci-fi story. Since the characters were fictionalized versions of my crewmates, I tried my best to nail their personalities. Writing on Mars has encouraged me to push my limits: writing a daily blog post, penning a spoken word poem in ten minutes, and writing about real people I see daily into a fictional story are all things I’ve never attempted before.

David Laude
Dave descends into Candor Chasma (image taken by Inga Popovaite.)

After they returned from their canyon adventure, we gathered around the table for the moment of truth with my slow cooker chili. We had a feast: it was served with broiled potato chips, fresh microgreens from the GreenHab, cheese, and beef. The three-quarter troubles of the morning felt distant and faded away.

I kept an eye on the clock– the time for the first video call to the crew at the ILMAH facility approached.

When I went to the lower deck for a quick toilet break before the call started, I remembered something.

“Hey!” I shouted up the stairs. “Spacesuits!”

I grabbed the orange flight suits from the lower deck and hauled them up the stairs. We jumped into them just in time for the call.

As we four orange-cladded analog astronauts huddled around the laptop, four blue-clothed analog astronauts appeared on the other side.

“Hello!” I said.

About two seconds later, their faces lit up and they responded. “Hey there!”

During the introductions, we realized that we were stumbling through sentences and interrupting each other. We were on the same planet, but there was a two-second lag between statement and response, making it difficult to converse – it was like talking to someone on the Moon. It reminded me of a moment from The Expanse when a character instinctively waits a few seconds after saying something to compensate for the lightspeed delay. Nevertheless, we were elated to finally have contact with other astronauts on this desolate planet.

We met Commander Bill O’Hara; I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he had been on another analog mission with a friend of mine. There was also their Science Lead, Terry Trevino, who had helped build the MDRS’s latest spacesuits. Rose Worku was their Science Specialist and Diallo Wallace was their Crew Engineer. We hit it off despite the two-second lag.

“I feel like we should hop in a rover and drive down to visit you!” one of them said.

We not only exchanged names and projects, but also patches. Then, we moved on to discussing what we should do for the main call on Sol 11 (Friday, October 7), which would be broadcast live. The mood in the Hab was truly buoyed up after the call ended.

“I never thought I’d like a Zoom call so much!” I said.

Dave commented, “It wasn’t like I had met them for the first time; it felt like I was seeing old friends again.”

Lindsay joked about us meeting in real life, face-to-face, and delaying our replies anyway just to mess with them.

Sometimes, the most pleasant events are surprises.

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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir