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Diaries from Analog Mars, Part 15: The End of the Beginning

Jin Sia

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

In part fifteen, the finale of Diaries from Analog Mars, Jin and Crew 228 weather their last crisis at the MDRS and struggle with being separated as they return home.

Note: In the time between the writing and posting of this piece, Crew Scientist/GreenHab Officer Dr. Inga Popovaite successfully defended her doctorate. Edits have been made accordingly.


In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell noted that most stories throughout human history share the common progression of the monomyth, or the Hero’s Journey. Stories ranging from The Epic of Gilgamesh to the original Star Wars trilogy share the common structure of the hero being called to adventure, initially refusing but then going ahead with it, meeting a mentor, being challenged by fighting the literal or metaphorical dragon, et cetera. In the last stages of the monomyth, the protagonist may have to flee the dragon with their prize to survive the story.

Well, a bright red Martian dragon chased us all the way back to Earth.

I was woken up at 6 AM on our first day out-of-sim by a faint beeping coming from outside my room door, with the rhythm of a fluorescent tube struggling to ignite.

Ping, ping, ping-ping, ping. Ping, ping, ping-ping, ping.

It had been a late night, so I rolled over and went back to sleep. That is, until I realized, “Oh [expletive], that sounds like an alarm. I have to deal with this.”

I fumbled around for the light switch while simultaneously trying to get a pair of pants on. When I finally found the switch, the ceiling light began flashing on and off with an eerily slow cadence. My heart pounding against my chest, I threw open the room door. I found the source of the sound, staring out at me from the darkness – it was the microwave and stove’s digital displays flickering on and off.

I put two and two together.

“Dave, wake up!” I called out. “We’ve got a power failure!”

Dave came out of his room, still half-asleep. He instructed me to unplug everything, and I complied.

I then radioed Dr. Rupert. She said that the power in her trailer home had failed as well. Dave and I grabbed our headlamps and went out into the chilly desert morning to the Science Dome, where the heart of the campus’s electrical grid was located. We met Dr. Rupert there.

The MDRS campus is powered primarily by a fifteen-kilowatt solar array, which charges a battery bank during the day. A few sols ago, Dr. Rupert instructed us to conserve power as we had had a cloudy day and were running low on charge, but the batteries had charged up enough to last us the night. Yesterday, during our last official sol on Mars, I had checked the batteries while vacuuming the Science Dome and verified that they were just over half full – normally enough to last to the next morning. The batteries power inverters, and these provide mains AC power at the North American standard of 120 volts.

The power control system panel was lit up like a Christmas tree. Every light on it was flashing, but most worrying of all was the bright red one labelled ‘FAULT’. As the warning buzzer sounded, one of the inverters rattled away as it struggled to start. The display read the batteries’ state of charge: sixteen percent. With the cloudy weather the day before, Dave suspected that it was the furnace turning on automatically in the wee hours of morning that drained the batteries to critical levels.

Normally, the propane-powered generator would have kicked in if the batteries ran too low, but it had been left off for our rotation because it had not been used in several months, and the weather we were getting was sunny most of the time. Both Dr. Rupert and Dave were stumped as to why the power control system hadn’t just cut off power entirely to protect the batteries. Dr. Rupert started the generator and the electricity seemed to be stable – for about thirty seconds. Then it shut down again. The lack of use due to the pandemic had probably taken its toll on the systems. My mind quickly went to Lindsay’s reagents, which had to stay frozen in the lab fridge; if power wasn’t restored soon, the reagents could begin to melt.

There being little more we could do other than letting Dr. Rupert troubleshoot, Dave and I retreated to the Hab. I was on breakfast duty and had to get started. I joked that the campus was telling us, “Oh, sim’s over? All right, pack up y’all, get out! Shoo!”

Without electricity, we couldn’t power the water pump to wash up, make hot water for tea, or even ignite the gas stove. But the crew being the well-oiled machine we were (even if the generator wasn’t), we got immediately to solving the problem. While I put out the cereal and dried fruit, set the table, and rehydrated the milk under the light of my headlamp, Inga demonstrated her typical Martian resourcefulness in taking a pot of water from the GreenHab’s tank to use for brushing our teeth. Since we were no longer in-sim, Dave could go out to his RV to get matches and lighters for the stove. Then, with the stoves ignited and the crew washed up, I put on a pot of water to boil.

Dr. Rupert checked in with us over radio just as we were getting ready to eat. Dave replied, “We’re doing fine, we’re not a crew of complainers.” Yep, complainers we are not. Instead, we get things done.

As we ate an otherwise ordinary first breakfast on Earth, the Sun rose. It was a cold, cloudless day, and the solar panels began readily soaking up its rays. Inga decided to press through the final push with her outreach project; she had interviewed me in a spacesuit while we were exploring the southern escarpment and she had interviewed Dave when they were at Candor Chasma. Now, she just needed to get interviews with Lindsay and herself. While Lindsay and Inga suited up to do the interviews outside, I got started on packing.

When the Sun had fully illuminated the hills in the east, I suggested to Dave that we go for a short walk before the Sun got too strong. We met Dr. Rupert outside, along with Lindsay and Inga, and she took us on a tour of the extensive dinosaur fossils in the area. Lindsay was still fully suited up, and it took a little convincing to get her to doff the suit before going on the tour – she was very Martian.

It was astounding just how much fossilized dinosaur bone and petrified wood there were, practically at our front door. I remembered picking up and breaking apart green rocks I found at the Jotunheim structure and realized that I had could have been smashing fossilized bone. Oops. I also realized that one of the prettier rocks I had collected as a souvenir was in fact ‘agatized wood’ – wood from millions of years ago that had been turned into a white, translucent, marble-like rock.

Mars Desert Research Station
Phobos Peak, in the background, overlooks massive dinosaur remains (foreground) near the MDRS (image taken by Dr. Lindsay Rutter.)

It was incredible how much ancient remains littered the place. Most of the fragments were ‘junk bone’ that just looked like black-and-white rocks, but on closer inspection, the fossilized marrow and bone fibers were visible. Dr. Rupert explained that millions of years ago, the site where the MDRS would come to be located had been underwater. Great rivers and oceans and forests had occupied this area. Then, as the climate changed, the water left, forming the desert full of sedimentary rocks and water-carved features – not unlike Mars, which lost its water due to the Sun blasting away most its atmosphere billions of years ago. That same life-giving Sun, which was giving us desperately needed electricity, had both warmed and frozen Mars. I peppered Dr. Rupert with as many questions as I could squeeze in between teachings from her seemingly bottomless reserve of learning.

After the tour, we returned to the Science Dome and checked on the power system. The batteries had charged sufficiently that we had normal power again.

But alas, it was soon time to leave. We had to return to Grand Junction in time for Lindsay’s flight out, which was later that afternoon.

Mars Desert Research Station
The team returns from the fossil tour in preparation to depart. From left to right: Dave Laude, one of Dr. Rupert’s dogs, Dr. Shannon Rupert, Dr. Lindsay Rutter, me (image taken by Dr. Inga Popovaite.)

We blazed through a frantic session of last-minute packing. Dave pulled up the CrewCar in front of the Hab, ready for the items to be loaded. Of course, Mars just had to get one last shot at me – a familiar, urgent beeping emanated from somewhere outside the Hab.

“Is that the fire alarm?” I said, feeling a strong sense of déjà vu.

It wasn’t in the GreenHab, as it had been that last time. I instead followed the shrill beeping to the RAM (the engineering module) where the smoke alarm was going off, but with no sign of fire or odors of burning. Dave was struggling to turn the alarm off. I walked over, pried open the back with my fingernails and popped out the battery.

“There,” I remarked wryly, “That’s the off switch.”

I marked the smoke alarm ‘DEFECTIVE’ with my Sharpie and arranged for its replacement, completing my final task as Crew 228 Health and Safety Officer – my time here was over, for now.

When all the bags had been loaded, we bid a sad farewell to Dr. Rupert and to the MDRS.

“Ready to leave?” asked Dave.

“Wait,” I replied, “Just one more thing.”

I ran up to one of the Hab’s six landing legs and tapped my Iron Ring against it three times, making it sing with vibration. The Iron Ring is a stainless steel ring worn on the pinky finger of the working hand by those who have graduated from Canadian engineering undergraduate programs, and is bestowed in a ceremony steeped in secrecy. During the ceremony, newly-minted engineering graduates swear an obligation to uphold public safety and the integrity of the engineering profession. The ring is meant to catch on things as I work, to remind me of my obligation. I read The Case for Mars as a child about a decade ago, and it inspired me to become an engineer so that I could build and fly the dreams I saw within its pages. I took both my Iron Ring and my ancient copy of The Case for Mars with me to the MDRS, and I one day hope to bring both with me to the surface of Mars.

“Alright, now I’m ready to go,” I said.

We exchanged tender hugs with Dr. Rupert and gave our last pets to her dogs Harlequin, Kayley, and Jack (note: spelling may not be correct.) I took my final looks at the MDRS facility. I looked up once again at the big words emblazoned on the Hab: “MARS SOCIETY DESERT RESEARCH STATION”. I took it all in, trying to hold the image in my memory.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of this place!” I said to Dr. Rupert, referring to how little we had actually managed to explore.

She replied, “You really haven’t!” Dave concurred.

“All I have to do is look at this landscape,” I said, gesturing to the majestic mesas behind me, “To know that I’m coming back.”

As we closed out our last conversation, she said to us, “You’re Martian now!” It sent a shiver down my spine. In that moment, I knew that there was no doubt that I had to come back to the MDRS another time. In previous blogs, I pondered about whether coming here again for another two-week mission would be the right thing to do; now, at least in my heart, I believe it is.

We began climbing into the CrewCar. I called out, “On to Mars!”

The CrewCar left the way we came. We rolled down the windows and waved goodbye to Dr. Rupert and her dogs. I shouted to her, with hope in my voice, “See you soon!”

We drove south to the highway, passing Robert’s Rock Garden where I had wanted to ascend the escarpment with Lindsay on an EVA, but just never had the time. Inga and I pointed it out to her.  The car trundled onto the bridge out, and our adventure of nearly three years came to a close – the length of a round-trip voyage to Mars.

We stopped briefly at Stan’s, a restaurant in Hanksville where MDRS crews traditionally got burgers and shakes. Over what I now realize could have been our last meal together ever, we chatted about what we missed about our homes. Lindsay was both excited and anxious to visit her cat in California, Cletus Lapin, before returning to Japan. I talked about how, living in the West, I missed Malaysian food and hearing the five-times-daily Islamic adhan call to prayer, even though I’m not Muslim.

Then, we set off for the home base, Grand Junction, Colorado. The Martian landscape gave way to vegetation-bedded Earthlike mountains. The exhaustion from the past two weeks of sim suddenly hit us all at once, and Lindsay and I nodded off to sleep in silence.

When I woke up, the CrewCar was entering Grand Junction, driving alongside the Colorado River. I looked around the car and painfully realized that this could be the last time we were all together; Lindsay was returning to Japan, Dave to Colorado, and Inga to Europe after she defended her PhD thesis. I tried to burn the moment into my memory by playing ‘Rocky Mountain High’ by John Denver into my ear, as we drove past the mountains of Colorado. Dave had his hands on the steering wheel, and Lindsay and Inga were looking to our left at the city rushing by against the backdrop of beige-green mountains.

Dave pulled into Grand Junction Regional Airport almost hesitantly. We helped Lindsay unload her luggage and exchanged last goodbyes and hugs.

“Thanks for being our commander,” I said.

“Thanks for being our HSO!” she replied, before walking off and disappearing into the terminal.

The crew was no longer whole, and that wasn’t even accounting for the remote crew who were supposed to be with us: Charikleia, Ludo, Stu, Yuzo-san, Marufa. Something inside me shattered. I struggled to hold back tears as the remaining three of us left the airport. I’m writing this on the train home from Toronto to London, and even now, I’m choking back tears as I recall this moment.

Dave dropped Inga and me off at the Day’s Inn, where the Martian adventure proper had begun two weeks before. We bid goodbyes to and hugged Dave, who had to leave immediately to drive back to the MDRS, where he would stay for a night or two before driving back to his home in Colorado in his RV. We wondered how he would feel, all alone in the Hab.

Inga and I checked in to our rooms and took our first real showers in two weeks. I connected my phone to Wi-Fi for the first time in two weeks and left it on the table for about ten minutes so that it could download the hundreds of notifications that had piled up in my absence.

Crew 228 Mars Desert Research Station
The day before the first day of sim (‘Sol 0’), the Areonauts prepare to enter Utah to begin their Martian adventure. From left to right: Jin Sia (that’s me!), Dave Laude holding up our mission patch, Dr. Lindsay Rutter, Dr. Inga Popovaite. Taken on September 26, 2021.

I lay in bed that night reflecting on how suddenly the experience had slipped from daily reality into the realm of memory. Yesterday, I was on Mars with my Areonaut crew, my Martian family. Today, I was not, and might not ever be again. But at least I had the chance to be a part of it at all. I found gratitude that I had overcome my aversion to having my picture taken and blogged extensively about the experience, so that I would have physical, tangible artifacts to pin the memories in place. I wondered how I could make good use of the experience in sharing it with the people back on Earth. But the two weeks of intense Martian life caught up with me, and I was soon taken by sleep.

Fortuitously, Inga and I were scheduled for the same flight to Denver, from where Inga would catch a connecting flight to Iowa and I would catch one to Toronto, so parting with the last of my crew would be delayed a bit. (Unfortunately, it took off at 6 AM, so we had to get up really early.)

Earlier this morning (at the time of writing), Inga and I chatted over breakfast in Denver while waiting for her flight. She commented that the ending of our story was like that of The Lord of the Rings, where the characters depart one-by-one. I asked if it would have been easier this way or all at once. She replied that she didn’t know.

I saw her off at the gate, where we exchanged a last hug and hopes to see each other again. She lined up, passport in hand, and vanished into the aircraft.

Then there I stood, alone in the crowd, lost.

Mars Desert Research Station
On Sol 10, Dave affixed a sticker with our patch to the ‘Welcome to Utah’ sign on our way back from my pre-departure COVID test. Taken on October 7, 2021.
Mars Desert Research Station Mission Match 228
Our mission patch, designed by Tim Gagnon in collaboration with Dr. Jorge Cartes and Bill Coukoulis, Jr.

Afterword

That was how I was going to end this story, but that last line had too much finality. Novels and movies end, but real life doesn’t end until you’re dead. It’s more appropriate to say that this is the end of the beginning, or the end of a chapter. One must close for another to open.

What will I do with my experiences now? Well, sharing them with people to raise awareness about space analog research is a start. If you’re reading and sharing this, you’re helping me accomplish that goal. During the Areonauts’ Mars-to-Mars Video Link with the ILMAH analog at the University of North Dakota, I mentioned that one benefit of space analog research is that it makes space more accessible to the public, and I believe that storytelling is a powerful way to get there – that’s why I started writing this blog series, and that’s how I’m finishing it. As for what comes after that, I’m not entirely sure. I’ll need to reflect more to figure that out.

Lindsay will return to Japan and see what we can learn about sequencing life on other planets. Inga will soon defend her PhD thesis about the group dynamics of space analog teams – I look forward to addressing her as ‘Doctor’. And Dave will return our mascot, Tiny Diamond, to his granddaughter. I hope he commands a future mission. I miss them all already.

During my struggle to get to the MDRS, I found comfort in the poem ‘Ithaka’ by Constantine P. Cavafy, which puts an optimistic, hopeful spin on the tragic and tumultuous voyages of the mythical Greek hero, Odysseus. In a myth canonized in the epic poem Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus spends ten years trying to find his way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War, because he is incessantly set back by catastrophe and misfortune for angering Poseidon. But he perseveres, and is finally reunited with his wife, son, and kingdom.

The struggle I had to undertake to get to MDRS and the obstacles we had to overcome as a team once we were there only made the experience that much more meaningful, especially after reading the Odyssey. As a great American president once said, “We choose to go to the Moon and do the other things – not because they are easy, but because they are hard!

The goal of Mars would not mean as much if going to Mars were easy. The challenge of Mars means so much more than mere technological advancement; it also means the advancement of human drive, resilience, ingenuity, and empathy. It means waking up every morning living and building dreams. It means reinventing ourselves into something greater – a civilization that our descendants would be proud to record in the annals of history one thousand years from now.

I dedicate my story and my lifelong odyssey to get to Mars to all those who have looked up at the night sky and dreamed impossible dreams.

An excerpt from Ιθάκη (Ithaka)
By Constantine P. Cavafy, translated from the original Greek by Edmund Keeley


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now…

Acknowledgements

This blog series and my work at the MDRS would not have been possible without several key people, of which there are too many to list exhaustively. Here are a few.

I would like to thank the Mars Society of Canada, which has stood behind me in this endeavor through thick and thin. I would specifically like to single out Evan Plant-Weir, Cofounder of the Mars Society of Canada, who did the mundane work of editing, posting, promoting, and managing my daily (and lengthy!) dispatches on Earth without complaint while I was off gallivanting on Mars. You would not be reading this without him. I would also like to thank Susan Holden Martin, J.D., who bore the cost of fabricating and shipping a Mars Society of Canada flag to me for me to take to the MDRS. Being able to fly our flag there filled me with pride.

The MDRS would not exist in its current form – and would probably implode on itself – without the tireless efforts of its long-time Director, Dr. Shannon Rupert, and the numerous volunteers both at Mission Support and on-site. Dr. Rupert had nothing but support for the Areonauts and protected us when we were vulnerable in-sim, while Mission Support staff got up at ungodly hours to be virtually by our sides. Your sacrifices and grit are seen. You exemplify the Kranz Doctrine of ‘tough and competent’.

This experience was as amazing and fulfilling as it was because of my in-situ crewmates: Mission Commander Dr. Lindsay Rutter, Executive Officer/Crew Engineer Dave Laude, and Crew Scientist/GreenHab Officer Dr. Inga Popovaite. Your irrepressible humor, resilience, resourcefulness, and team spirit made this mission the success it was. I would go to Mars with all of you in a heartbeat. A special congratulations to Inga, who finally defended her doctorate in sociology from the University of Iowa after six and a half years! I’m honored to have had the privilege to be a small part of it.

I cannot overstate the contributions of our remote crew: Remote Flight Surgeon Dr. Charikleia Olympiou, Remote Agricultural Advisor Yuzo Shibata, Remote Journalist Stuart Hughes, Remote Engineer Ludovica Valentini, and Remote Astronomer Marufa Bhuiyan. You played as much of a part in making the mission a success as we did, especially in the preparations leading up to it. You all deserved to be there with us, if only circumstances had been different. You are crew. You are Areonauts.

I would like to thank Marc Levesque, who supported my research at the MDRS and helped me discover an interest in geographic information systems. I hope my work will be useful to you on Crew 265!

I would like to thank everyone who supported and encouraged me pre-sim, edited my application essays, and sent me emails while I was in-sim. Your forwarded lecture slides, TikTok video transcriptions, copied-and-pasted Tweets, and stories from Earth brightened my days. You are the ones for whom we are doing this work.

During the three-year odyssey to the MDRS, I was lucky enough to connect with Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides and gain a found family through her space leadership training class. You helped me stay grounded while reaching for the stars, dream about going to orbit while caring about the people back on Earth, and expand my capacity for joy. Thank you.

Finally, but most importantly, my parents, (with family names first, as is custom in Malaysia) Sia Chay Thiam and Doh Mee Yuen. You saw the glow of the rocket engine’s plume and heard its roar back when it was just a spark. Dave gave us a life lesson during the drive back to Grand Junction, and that was to appreciate your mentors and parents while you still can. Thank you for everything.


That was the finale of Diaries from Analog Mars. Thank you for following Jin’s adventures, and sign up for our news letter to follow future ones! This is only the beginning.


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