Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 5: Slow is Smooth

Mars Desert Research Station

Welcome back to Diaries from Analog Mars. If this is your first visit, consider reading the previous entries here.

In part five, we share in Jin’s discovery and exploration of a mindset that may be critical to survival on Mars.


…and smooth is fast. Ever since learning about this US Navy Seals aphorism from the book The Space Barons, I’ve tried to apply it as much as I can to my role as Crew 228’s Health and Safety Officer, or HSO.

Welcome to Sol 2.

While the deserts of Mars are lifeless – except perhaps, for the absolute hardiest of extremophiles – the terrestrial deserts of Utah are not. Crews occasionally encounter rattlesnakes or even cougars. Local wildlife, however, is perhaps the least of our safety concerns.

After preparing breakfast and conducting the routine morning health check, I led the crew on a ‘safety tour’ of the campus. I started with a health and safety briefing, as was part of the HSO’s duties. Based on my study of the MDRS handbook and my previous experiences with outdoor expeditions, I outlined my three “Health and Safety Principles for Safety, Success, and Survival”:

1.       Speak up: Know your limits and have the courage to speak up if you are approaching them. Let someone know if you are feeling unwell or need to take a break from an activity. Report all injuries to the HSO, even if they are as small as a scratch.

2.       An ounce of prevention is with a pound of cure: Goes double for ICE (Isolated, Confined, Extreme) environments because help could be hours away. Identify potential hazards and mitigate them before they hurt someone. Stamp out small problems before they become big ones.

3.       We’re all in this together: Health and safety, along with mission success, is everyone’s responsibility. Hold yourself personally accountable for the well-being of others. Check-in with your fellow crew members and be sensitive to non-verbal communication. Strive to make them feel safe and welcome. Be a friend to those who need one.

Let’s talk a little more about Isolated, Confined, Extreme (ICE) environments.

This was a little piece of jargon I picked up from reading space psychology papers that Inga recommended years ago, soon after the crew had been put together. The reason that space missions are simulated in remote wildernesses like the Utah desert or the Arctic is that both locations share these characteristics of being isolated, confined, and extreme.

At the MDRS, we are both spatially and informationally isolated from most of the Earth. Grand Junction, the nearest large city, is two to three hours away. If we need emergency medical help, a helicopter could be the only way to reach us in time. Informationally, we have minimal internet access – just enough to look up essential information and communicate with Mission Support. I’ve personally been enjoying my ‘digital detox’ and living a simple life of waking up, sharing meals with my crew, helping maintain the facility, and doing fulfilling (although often hard) work. However, I’m wondering when being away from my friends and my work will begin to eat away at me.

As for confinement, Inga looked out the window this afternoon and mused about how beautiful a day it was for a walk. The world outside has started to become something alien and foreboding – something only to be seen and touched through a helmet and gloves. With today’s inclement weather, an EVA would not have been possible even if we had had the time to file a plan with Mission Support. So far, the confinement hasn’t been too different from that which I experienced during the pandemic lockdowns. In this case, however, I’ve got the ultimate roommates. When will it start to get to me?

MDRS is certainly also an extreme environment. Running out of water, food, electricity, propane, or even our internet data allotment doesn’t mean a trip to the store, or higher utility bills – rather, it could mean a disastrous, miserable end to the mission. Mars forgives no excess. This is why an emphasis on prevention over cure is so important.

But how did someone with an engineer’s training become a Health and Safety Officer?

Our HSO was supposed to be Dr. Charikleia Olympiou, a Cypriot cardiologist based in California. However, about two months before the mission was scheduled to begin, she was forced to drop out for personal reasons. Lindsay and Dave asked me to become the replacement, as my skillset and background were the most flexible; this would require me to obtain at least First Aid and CPR training. I agreed and enrolled in a course with the Canadian Red Cross.

I knew that the knowledge I gained through that course material could make a real difference – perhaps the difference between life-and-death – out in the desert. This became a source of anxiety leading up to the mission. In training as an engineer, I had proven myself in spreadsheets, reports, and presentations; not in medical emergencies. In the weeks before the mission, I had a vivid nightmare in which I was trying to treat a serious injury, but I kept messing up the first aid. Thankfully, my close friends and crewmates reminded me that in an emergency, I wouldn’t be working alone. We were a team.

I attack the problem of health and safety with an engineer’s skill set. No one really knows how we will respond in an emergency until thrown into the crucible – I couldn’t control that. However, I could control how well-prepared I was, and I could prevent incidents to a limited extent. I drew on my bank of experiences working in the manufacturing industry and from hiking through the Malaysian and Canadian wildernesses to come up with a plan.

First, I learned all that I could about the risks present at the MDRS. The handbook stated that the main causes of incidents were rover accidents, overexposure to the elements, and slips, trips, and falls. These were usually caused by acting recklessly, not respecting one’s personal limits, and trying to get things done too quickly.

Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.

Notably, Utah’s desert wildlife is not considered a significant risk. While I was waiting in Toronto Pearson International Airport to fly out to Denver, a friend of mine texted me a most interesting statistic: most rattlesnake bites in that part of the world occur specifically on the hands and faces of 18-25-year-old males who are intoxicated on alcohol. Go figure. As he said, “Don’t you love when data tells a story?”

In other words, the best way to prevent accidents at the MDRS is to be careful and not act stupidly. Those things I could do, and I wasn’t worried about my crew being reckless or stupid.

During my first day at the MDRS, one of my duties was to complete a pre-mission health and safety inspection. This meant checking all the smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the safety equipment, and inventorying all the first aid supplies; a process that took over two hours. I noticed that sometimes, I had to hunt a bit to find things. Furthermore, I knew that I might temporarily lose half my IQ points in extremely high-pressure split-second situations, because my strength is in being slow, meticulous, and deliberate. This was where I came up with the idea of giving the crew a safety tour: I would show them where to find the fire extinguishers, safety blankets, escape routes, escape ladders, and first-aid kits. That way, if a real emergency occurred, they could rely on instinct.

Sol 2 embodied the philosophy of slowing down and preparing diligently. We took the rest of the day slow to catch our breath after the frenzy and fury of the previous three days. As the day was cloudy and cold, we began to run low on electricity and had to unplug all our devices. We had some fun with a photo shoot, making up riddles to entertain our remote crew members, trying out Dave’s Patented Body Warmer (a travel-sized clothes iron set to low heat), and writing up our first EVA requests for the next sol.

In spaceflight jargon, ‘EVA’ is an acronym that stands for ‘Extra-Vehicular Activity’: a fancy technical term that translates to ‘going outside the spaceship’. These are often the highlights of space analog missions. On the International Space Station, EVAs are often planned months or even years in advance. Thankfully, we only needed to submit our requests to the Mission Support team the night before.

We decided to make our first EVA an easy one, meant to practice essential skills like EVA operations, using the suits, driving the rovers, operating the radios, and negotiating challenging terrain. The destination would be a small rock formation a few hundred metres east of the Hab called Marble Ritual. Lindsay and Inga would go on EVA in the morning, becoming the first Areonauts to walk on the Red Planet. Aside from the common skills we all needed to learn or revise, Lindsay would test her biological sample collection procedure. Dave and I would go on a similar EVA in the afternoon, during which Dave would test deploying his camera tripod in the field and I would test my geographical data collection procedure. EVAs are fun, but they are for serious, important work.

Crew 228
Crew 228 having a bit of fun. Top to bottom, left to right: Tiny Diamond, Crew Mascot, Jin Sia, Health and Safety Officer (that’s me!), Dave Laude, Executive Officer/Crew Engineer, Inga Popovaite, Crew Scientist/GreenHab Offiver, Dr.Lindsay Rutter, Mission Commander (image taken by Dave Laude).

I was on duty for the Journalist Report, an open-ended report meant to allow us to reflect on our experiences as a crew. I was struck by inspiration and locked myself in my room. I drew on my slam poetry experience from dabbling with it in Grade 10; within a few minutes, I had written a stream-of-consciousness spoken word poem about our day called ‘The Long Dash’, just in time for dinner.

Dave put together a delicious dinner of tomato rice with assorted vegetables. Inga had baked some bread in the bread maker, which I sliced and slathered with garlic butter and toasted. To complete the feast, we added corn chips to the rice. The slowness of the day really hit us after dinner, when the fullness of the meal slowed us to a crawl.

Crew 228
Feasting on garlic bread made from scratch! From left to right: Jin, dave and Inga (image by Lindsay Rutter).

After dinner, we submitted our reports and EVA requests. Minutes before the closing of the comms window at 9 PM, we received Mission Support’s blessing for tomorrow’s EVAs. We ended the day on a happy note, well-rested, well-fed, and ready to take on Mars. Late that night, we turned off the Hab lights and listened to an original synthesizer composition by Dave called ‘Sunrise from Olympus Mons’: an otherworldly, stimulating piece that gave us visions of another world – an alien world, pregnant with possibility.

The Long Dash

They say it isn’t the speed that kills you
but the stopping.

Free the reins of the Sun’s
rays entangling the Hab in a net of
time and frenzy and the
tick tock tick tock tick tock
of raindrops dying upon the roof;
a patina of water,
here today, reincarnated tomorrow in a puff of the heavens,
returning to the cycle that is here
but isn’t supposed to be here.

From where did the water come?
From where in the disk of
spinning, spinning,
gossamer threads of matter from the dust
that came from dust that came from dust,
and that to dust will return,
from the ice-cold encrusted sleep
upon the sunken eyes of the unknown.

“Shade under my roof of dreams,” says the Hab,
“Ponder in my pocket of dark,” whispers the SciDome,
“Revive in me,” emanates the GreenHab,
“Take a gift and leave a gift,” booms the RAM from deep depths above.

Aerobrake into a shower of possibility,
fire retrorockets into a plume of vision.

At the end of the long dash
a summit awaits,
ready for another day,
ready for another day.


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Edited by Evan Plant-Weir