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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 14: Goodnight Mars

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MSC Banner Diaries Part Fourteen

Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here. In part fourteen, Jin and Crew 228 end their last sol on Mars inspiring the next generation, contacting fellow Martians, and receiving a farewell from Mars itself.

On Sol 11, our last morning on Mars, it rained torrentially on the desert plain.

We started the day with answering video questions sent on Flipgrid by schoolchildren who Lindsay had spoken to via Skype a Scientist. For this, we suited up in our orange coveralls and went through the list, recording our answers as videos with various parts of the campus as backdrops.

Kids pose interesting questions, many of which are hard to answer! For example, one student asked, “Is it possible for there to be a planet made entirely of water?” It’s a simple question on the surface, but it requires a deep dive (pun intended) into the science of planetary formation. There’s nothing in the laws of physics preventing a planet from being made entirely of water, but it would likely have a centre made of exotic ices that are denser than water and only exist at high pressures – trying to explain that in a 90-second answer to children was a good science communication challenge.

From left to right: Dave, me, and Lindsay discuss the science outreach questions (image taken by Inga Popovaite.)

Other students asked more personal – but no less sharp – questions like, “What do you do in your free time?” or “What were you most excited and anxious for?” For the former, we talked about how we had been watching Moonbase 8 and Away, or reading the book ‘Gila Lost and Found: Search and Rescue in New Mexico’ by Marc Levesque, commander of MDRS Crew 216. For the latter, I shared my personal doubts pre-mission about whether I would perform well as a Health and Safety Officer, given that I have an engineer’s training and have not had much hands-on emergency response experience. However, I also shared how over the course of the mission, I gained a great deal of confidence in the role.

When some of the students asked nearly-philosophical questions like “When will we build a civilization on Mars?”, we answered honestly: We don’t know. It depends on what their generation chooses to do. We took it as an opportunity to inspire and empower them, and I dearly hope that it worked.

I love answering children’s questions about science and space. The wonder of the universe is not lost on them. They also ask questions that are so deceptively simple, but that actually cut deeply to the heart of some of the most important unanswered questions or most hotly-debated issues in science. For example, one of the students that Lindsay spoke to asked, “Is it possible for there to be dog-shaped planets?” That may seem like a silly question, but it’s an important one. One of the IAU’s (International Astronomical Union) criteria for an object to be a planet is that it has to be in ‘hydrostatic equilibrium’ – i.e. its gravity has to pull it into a stable, relaxed, roundish shape. But how round does round have to be? Where does one draw the line? The whole debate about whether Pluto is a planet depends on whether it has “cleared its orbit of debris”, but that’s a vague criterion that relies on context to do classification.

I think we should all try to ask questions like children do.

The other angle of it is that it reminded me what we are here to do: we’re here to push forward research that will open a better future for humanity in space. Those who will benefit most from the compounding interest of our work will be the generations that follow ours. The kids need to be started early.

We then moved on to cleaning the campus that afternoon – a familiar activity from Sol 1. Thankfully, it was not as back-breaking as earlier, as we had not dirtied up the facilities very much. Having rules about not bringing our muddy boots indoors helped with that. I vacuumed both the Hab’s decks and the Science Dome, Lindsay mopped the floors, and Dave and Inga inventoried the food. By the time we were done, the rain had stopped. I cleaned out the filters outside and stowed the vacuum cleaners away. However, a few minutes before 6 PM, Lindsay, Inga, and I saw an amazing sight just outside the engineering airlock.

“Dave, get down here, you’re gonna want to see this,” I said into the radio.

A beautiful rainbow arcs over the desert (image taken by Dr. Lindsay Rutter.)

We watched the brilliant rainbow together, as a crew, for a few minutes until it faded away. We were still ‘in-sim’ and by safety regulations, weren’t supposed to be spending extended amounts of time standing in the tunnels that connected the buildings together. The idea is that in a real Mars base, one would want to spend as little time in the tunnels as possible due to the decompression risk they posed if they got punctured. However, I don’t recall there being rainbows on Mars either.

Late in the evening, just as luck would have it, one of the crew members (whose name I cannot share due to medical confidentiality regulations) scraped their hand on a sharp point in the Hab – on the very last sol of our simulation. I suppose Mars wanted me to have the full Health and Safety Officer experience. Thankfully, it was a mild scrape. The inventory of medical supplies I had completed before we entered sim came in handy, because I now knew what I could expect to find in the medical cabinet. I put on some nitrile gloves, sterilized the area, bandaged it up, and filed a report along with a recommendation to Mission Support that the sharp point be sanded down.

For dinner, Dave made us a delicious bowl of Martian spaghetti with peas and corn. Inga joked that it was Iowan spaghetti (because the state is famous for corn production.) We furiously worked away on our final mission report until it was time for the Mars-to-Mars (M2M) Video Link with the ILMAH (Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat) analog station at the University of North Dakota. We connected over Facebook Messenger and had a publicly-broadcasted live call between two Mars bases!

The crew participates in a test video call with ILMAH. From left to right: Lindsay Rutter (MDRS), Rose Worku (ILMAH), Terry Trevino (ILMAH), William “Bill” O’Hara (ILMAH), Diallo Wallace (ILMAH), and me (MDRS) (image taken by Dave Laude.)

It had a bumpy start due to uncooperative weather in North Dakota interfering with their internet connection. I joked that Elon needed to get us more MarsLink satellites. When the connection finally did come through, we still had to learn to work with the two-second delay. However, with Commander Bill O’Hara leading the charge, we eventually were able to have a reasonably effective crew-to-crew discussion about cooperation between analogs and World Space Week. Seeing four other humans live, not behind a wall of text on a forty-minute delay, was a strange and invigorating experience. Dave even proposed that we have an exchange of crew members – an exciting prospect for a future analog adventure!

Lindsay, Inga, and I stayed up late finishing up final paperwork for the end of the simulation. At 11 PM, we decided to end the simulation. Together, we walked down to the engineering airlock. As we stepped out under the night sky, I began playing ‘Nuvole Bianche’ by Ludovico Einaudi on my phone both for musical effect and to help me record this memory – I hope that every time I hear that piece now, I will remember what happened next.

The rainclouds had parted.

Over us was a pitch-black sky studded with hundreds, perhaps thousands of stars. We stood together in front of the Hab, finally without our spacesuits, as the piano notes swelled into the night. The Milky Way glowed brilliantly – the most brilliant view of it I have ever had in my (admittedly short) life. I marvelled at how our pre-electricity ancestors saw this nightly.

And as the Martian day had bid us farewell with a rainbow, the Martian night said goodbye with a dazzlingly bright meteor in the north, burning as brightly as Jupiter before winking out over the horizon.

I’ll miss you too.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
By Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

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