The Answer, Naturally, is 42

andrzej and shey out the window

The Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Engineer look out over the valley while awaiting further orders from ground control. Photo taken out the window of the HI-SEAS hab by Tristan Bassingthwaighte

Welcome to the 42nd day of NASA’s longest simulated Mars mission! The day started with a bang. Or rather, a whimper. The whimper was the sound of our power systems almost dying.

Don’t panic.

At roughly 6:35 AM Martian Standard time, I was standing in front of UILA, our version of the Starship Enterprise’s control panel, holding a campiDSCN0082ng mug full of almost-hot tea, wondering why the hab was down to 8% power. 12 hours prior, after a relatively sunny day, we had been closer to 80%. How had we dropped more than 70% power in less than 12 hours?

Strangely enough, on purpose.

Earlier the previous day, we had received notice of an incoming hydrogen delivery. The hab runs on solar power upwards of 90% of the time, but on dark days, we dip into a backup supply of hydrogen that lives in the fuel cells tanks. With an incoming supply due to land the next day, mission control sent over orders to burn through the hydrogen still in storage as quickly as possible.

Don’t panic.

Instead, do something completely different. In our case, take the usual routine – working in the near-darkness under dim LEDs, cooking before nightfall, running when the sun is at its brightest – and turn it on its head. Instead of running on the treadmill at 11 AM, we ran at 8 pm. We cooked after the sun went down. Cooking in the dark! I hadn’t done that in, well, 41 days.

So we cooked and cleaned and ran in the dark until we were lower on stored solar power than we had been on any previous night in the mission. It was unnerving to see just how quickly those numbers dropped. But it was all per the plan. Per the plan, we would be running on hydrogen when the fresh supply arrived. The old tanks would run low, and we would swap in the new ones.

So, why, 12 hours later, were we down to 7% power and falling?

For those of you who don’t live in a dome on a simulated planet, at 5% battery, we have about 30 minutes before we’re completely out of power. What’s at stake in a power loss on simulated Mars? Fortunately, not air pressure and oxygen. Unfortunately, heat. At 9,000 feet in October, that can be a problem. At the same time, refrigeration goes. This isn’t an issue for human food supplies – our food is shelf-stable – but it is a problem for the scientists for whom we’ve been collecting refrigerated samples. Samples of what? Well, of us, of course. Of our various bit and pieces, hair and skin bacteria and fluids, during different stages of the mission. So, science might be lost. Heat would go. But what’s the worst thing of all that would befall the HI-SEAS crew if the power failed?

The composting toilet fans would die and the hab would rapidly fill up with the resulting fumes.

4-2nd-Floor-Plan-_-Layout_montagePanic in 3, 2, 1…

…at 6% power I walked up the stairs to the living quarters and woke up the Chief Engineer. Like the most committed, hard-working people – doctors, nurses, firemen, paramedics, heads of state, parents of small children – when it’s really important, the Chief doesn’t mind if we come knocking.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” I said into the darkness of his bunk, “but the hab is at 6% power and dropping.”

He didn’t mind.

Since our first weeks on the mission, we’ve been running drills to see how fast we can don our suits and get ready to head out the door. At first, we took an abysmal ~20 minutes. Then, it was closer to 15. During the last drill, we were nearly down to 5.

Just a shade before 7 AM, with no tea in one crewman and only 1/2 a cup in the other, the Chief Engineer and I were suited up in the airlock with the decompression cycle running.

It was, all things considered, a beautiful morning. The recently dropped hydrogen tanks were laying peacefully on the dry red earth. The sun was making Mauna Kea with its slim crown of observatories shine in the distance as we popped open the flat gray fuel cell case. No leak could be detected. Nonetheless, a glowing red light told us that the system was offline in a major way. You know those big red buttons in the movies that yobig red button centeru are never supposed to press – not until the appropriate point of dramatic tension has been reached and all is about to be lost? We pressed them both.

Sadly, it didn’t help.

don't panic
Fortunately, help was coming, quite literally, over the horizon. Behind us, the white-capped observatories across the valley were glowing in the morning sun. For a mostly-solar-powered mission, that means everything. As we struggled in vain to convince the hydrogen backup system that no, really, it wanted to come online, our super-high-efficiency solar panels yawned, stretched, and kicked into action. Though the fuel cell system remained offline, the main batteries started charging off the solar array. The commander flagged us back inside the hab while mission control tried to diagnose the problem from the ground. As the chief and I stood in our chilly suits waiting for the 5-minute recompression cycle to end, I radioed into the hab asking if we had enough power to cook, and, more thankfully teaimportantly, to make tea. “Negative,” was the reply.

Space exploration is powered on gumption, duct tape, and tas
ty beverages, typically caffeinated ones. Which is why I make a
canteen of tea every day at sundown. Tea is like your towel: you don’t want to leave the planet without it. I had
enough in the canteen this morning for the chief and I to have one cup apiece. Thanks to the sun, we were cooking by 8:30. Around 9:30, ground control asked the crew to EVA again. Around 10:30, we pulled a bum fuel cell out of the system. This should fix the problem…

…should fix it. We’ll find out in ~6 hours, a little after 4 AM. Between now and then…

don't panic2.


14 thoughts on “The Answer, Naturally, is 42

  1. It seems you had an exciting start to your day. Thank you for keeping this blog and giving me (and others) the opportunity to read about your adventures. You and your crew might seem isolated, but you’re not. You have us hanging on your every word and adventure. Be wise; be well; and be safe!

  2. Great post, feels like I’m reading the beginning of a chapter from a book! I was wondering…you don’t have a backup system that can provide you some energy for 1 or 2 days, while you fix things up?

    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Adrian: Great question. They hydrogen system IS the backup system. It should supply our energy needs for 1-2 days if we have poor weather and the panels don’t charge the battery. If the hydrogen system fails, as it did that day, we have a backup for the backup. It’s a gas-powered generator for emergencies only. If we can put our suits on and get outside in time to turn it on, it gives us a few hours of power. That day, we were within minutes of going and firing it up when the sun rose and we started charging again.

      1. Ah, I see now! Maybe below a certain percentage on energy an Economical Energy Mode (EEM) / Power saving mode (PSM) should turn on automatically, along with an alarm (^.^) and the backups.

        1. Both would be a great idea, individually and in combination. We’re rigging an alarm system now. The EEM is a basic way of life around here, and kicks in when we don’t reach a certain level of charge by a certain time of day. However, it isn’t automated, which would be ideal.

  3. After only 42 days, a full cell went out of order, i assume that you have some spare parts and the system works fine now.

    May i suggest you that such a malfunction occuring on Mars let us say every week could be much more problematic than on earth, because there is no supermarket where you can purchase this kind of full cell.

    Anyway, i thank you so much for the topic and the related details. For sure you understood that english is not my mother language, but i can pick up the guide line of the story.

    1. Navarro: We have spare parts, but it looks like it’s not a part issue. We’re still working through it. And yes, it would be a MUCH biggere deal if we were on Mars, didn’t have a backup for the backup system, and didn’t have robots that could bring us spare parts within hours. Even with the advantages we have here, scenarios exist wherein we would have to abandon the mission. Isn’t that interesting?

  4. Sheyna and Crew,
    Who knew so much excitment could happen in a 1725 (+/-) sq foot “house”. Then again I guess most spaces where we dwell have all kinds of excitment and issues that can occur regardless of the size. It’s just a people and technological thing; Come to think of it, I guess it is about all sorts of things. Remind everyone to brush and floss. All Our Best, Uncle Phil (10/18/2015)

  5. On the lighter side the movie makers have come up with a plot that is very similar to your research. It’s called 400 Days let’s hope your mission doesn’t turn out like Hollywoods!

  6. Sheyna,
    Hi There.. you got a mention on English TV last night, so not entirly sure if your still all locked up !
    But just having a nose through this site, and thought you were more on my wave length so as to drop a line to. Reading about power failure and any equipment like this just reminds me that when you rely on it; treat it like its 100 years old and molly-coddle the stuff ! well, here’s hoping all is still okay. Your tea making skills must be improving. I look to tea bags in a time of crisis too, ” creates time to think !”. On the bright side look at the views bright sky and some clouds im sure. I heard somewhere that the best view was always up !
    Good luck, all good research . . (I might have a stoll to the shops now.. do you need anything ?)

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