Journalist Report – March 13th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 13Mar2020

Author: Clément Plagne, Journalist

Sol 12: Closing in

It’s weird to wake up knowing that that heavy airlock door you heard shut such a short time ago was going to open just that evening. Honestly, while knowing that it’s over will be a relief, I think all of us would also like it to last just a little longer. It’s part of the experience to know that you can never do everything you intend to, and that you will face challenges that will slow you down. The job is as much about dealing with these challenges as it is doing what you came here to do. And challenges we had to face, even today. We had so many great days early on, I think that the MDRS gods decided to punish us before the end.

We awoke not only to the thought of that door, but also to pouring rain. A bad situation on clean-up day. The corridors between buildings in the station are insulated, but we still walk on the ground, or, as we had to today, the mud. Wind was howling even after rain had stopped, and the EVA that we had already moved to the afternoon was becoming even more perilous. After four weeks of loyal services to our two crews, the weather station for the LOAC experiment finally lost against the wind and fell over, mere hours before being dismantled. Nevertheless, the EVA was a great demonstration of all we’d learned during our previous expeditions. In hostile conditions of strong winds and loose, muddy terrain, we managed to perform all intended procedures quickly, safely and efficiently. The conclusion of a job well done on all EVAs.

And, some time later, the experiments were all packed up and ready to go back home. We’d been entrusted with them, and we hope we did a great job of gathering data. Everyone in the station did their best, that is, excellent work, so we have high hopes for the results to be valuable. We were just counting minutes until we could say the simulation was broken, and there it was: the outside, not seen through a glass helmet. We all ran around in the mud like children, and waited for Shannon, whom we’d invited over for dinner, to come inside the Hab. She’s done a fantastic job of helping us throughout the mission, and we are all grateful to have her here.

I’m writing these last few lines while she’s here: she has far too many good stories about her tenure at MDRS, and I’m finding myself hurriedly doing my best to finish up before missing the comms window. Tomorrow will be my last report, and there’s a lot to think about and a good look back to do.

Journalist Report – March 12th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 12Mar2020

Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist

Sol 11: Life goes on

After yesterday’s news, it was not only hard to get some good sleep, but also difficult to spend the day without looking at our computers, hanging on to every email and piece of information we could find. We do have a bit of internet in the Station, but it’s limited, sometimes messy, and reserved in priority for the Comms window in the evening, to send all our critical reports to mission support. So we make do with what’s available: the few emails from friends and family on Earth, and a few articles on the internet. We’d never really even thought about looking at our emails outside of that comms window, and we actually felt refreshed to not be inundated by information from everywhere. Now, not only have two weeks of social isolation taken a toll on us, but we got closer to Earth only to see it hurt, sick and confused. We’re leaving in two days, and we know that we’re going to find Earth different than how we left it.

We don’t really know if we’re lucky to be here or not, when we know what’s out there. On the one hand we’re safe, and being disconnected from the world allows us to some distance to process everything rather than taking it all in the face. On the other hand, there’s so much we don’t know, can’t know easily, and the distance can easily become a stressor. Safety doesn’t matter as much as being close to your loved ones, and it’s especially hard to know that there is no walking away from the mission at hand.

One of the books that has been going around the Hab was Chris Hadfield’s fantastic “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. In it, he explains that he isn’t afraid during missions, no matter the danger. He’s worked hard to make sure he could fix everything that could be fixed if something goes wrong, so it’s just procedure. We’re no astronauts, and don’t have that much training for a mission like this, but we knew what to expect, we were ready to accept that, and now that things aren’t going smoothly, we keep going. There’s little we can do, so we do that and wait until we can do more. The mission is nearing its close and we’re busy packing things up and finishing off what we started. Getting busy is an added bonus that helps us get our minds off things.

We move on with our day, and the routine goes well. In our free time, games, movies, as well as Blandine’s positive thinking and relaxation exercises do a tremendous job of cutting through the and gloom. In little time we’ll be back on Earth, with a lot to catch up on and a lot of plans to change. We’ve spent two weeks figuring things out in an unusual place. We can do it again.

Journalist Report – March 11th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 10Mar2020

Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist

Sol 10: Save it for rainy days

Today, we woke up to the sound of raindrops softly hitting the roof of the Hab. On any other day, the idea of spending a day with friends, stuck inside, watching rainfall from the window from the comfort of y. our home can be pleasant. It is much less so when you don’t always get to go outside even when it’s sunny. In fact, it is even less so because we must go outside somehow, but don’t know how we’ll do it safely. The science doesn’t care if it rains, and at least two of us must go on EVA to make sure everything is alright.

The sky is a cruel mistress. Explorers on Mars will be lucky enough to avoid rain, but may have to suffer through massive dust storms. Not knock over Matt Damon’s spaceship bad (the film kind of exaggerates that), but wide enough to cover much of the planet, and capable of causing electrical malfunctions and power losses. The even bigger danger comes from far away. With little atmosphere and no magnetic field, Mars is particularly vulnerable to solar winds and the intense radiation from solar flares.

It’s ironic to write a report about our astronomer’s work on a cloudy morning. Florian’s luckily had the chance of doing some fantastic work while he had clear skies, and still has things to do when he doesn’t do observations. Astronomy isn’t just pointing a telescope at the sky. During the day, the sun needs to be tracked and monitored. Night-time observations through the remote-controlled telescope must be scheduled, with the necessary calibrations that come with it. And once the observations are done, there are heaps of treatment needed to create a beautiful picture, or one where data can be extracted. Besides astrophotography, Florian looks at thirty galaxies in a search for supernovae: incredibly powerful, but very short-lived and extremely rare explosions of massive stars.

Things then began looking up: having a free-ish morning helped us all cook delicious burgers for lunch, we saw some tomatoes beginning to grow, and the sky turned blue in the afternoon which helped us take a look at the observatory and watch the sun live. Things began to look up, until they kind of didn’t.

“This is Shannon, is everyone together right now?”, buzzed the Station Director over radio. That’s an unexpected one, as we’re left alone all day long usually. We were reading, coincidentally, our daily email from Supaéro students back on Earth, with focus on the coronavirus epidemic.

“The World Health Organisation has recently classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.”

Well, not an epidemic anymore, I guess. Earth sure does spin when we’re away. When we cut ourselves off most communications, Italy was looking somewhat worrisome, but things felt fine enough at home. In recent days, it turns out everything looks like it’ll be canceled, and we’re probably in for some quarantine coming back.

The good thing is, we’re probably some of the safest human beings in the world right now. The bad news is, all our plans for our return have been thrown into chaos. There’ll be no crew following us, and no one is looking forward to LA anymore. We began our day with our eyes looking at the sky, and end it looking back at Earth. We look with worry to the people at home, and hope they’re as healthy as we are.

Provenance : Courrier pour Windows 10

Journalist Report – March 10th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 10Mar2020

Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist

Sol 9: Why we do it

If you’re reading this, it probably means that you’re either a family member or friend of ours, interested by science and the exploration of Mars, or both. From your point of view, being out in the desert and being like astronauts for some time is fascinating, or at least intriguing. There’s this funny bubble of odd people, who see the prospect of near-total isolation from the outside world as something to envy, or to try out yourself. They read about the golden age of superhero astronauts, and look with admiration to the people shooting themselves upwards to live in the literal middle of nowhere, six at most in a metal tube zipping through the vacuum of space.

I have no doubt that every member of our crew is in that bubble. But, as it turns out, most of the world lives outside of it. It’d be stupid to imagine ourselves as more adventurous or curious than them – and I like to imagine we’re no less normal than the rest. They simply don’t see the point, and it’s not unreasonable. They ask: how will you live away from everyone you love? Why would you live without showering for weeks? Why are you doing this?

From inside the bubble, it’s easy to dismiss those questions; they simply don’t get it. But they often do, and they make a great point. Everyone here misses loved ones. We miss being clean, we miss walking outside without 10 kilograms weighing on us, we miss eating whatever we want, we miss knowing all about the news, we miss watching any movie or reading any book we want. Some people say that a stay at MDRS is just a two-week vacation, a relaxing time away from everything, and they sure are wrong. But those who think that it’s the opportunity of two weeks of acting like cool astronauts are missing the point too.

Yes, there’s the honeymoon period, where everything is brand new and exciting, and you don’t think you can get enough of it. Every day has its unexpected moments of fun, and of learning. But the routine sets in fast too. Your hair gets greasy, the spacesuits begin to hurt a little, the experiments don’t work that well, and you can’t get new material in anyway. You remember the time where you could leave work at 5 and sit in a park, breathing the fresh air like everyone else. The distinction between work and daily life gets blurry. Things get boring, and that’s the point. So, yes, why are we doing this?

It’s funny how, after writing so negatively, I still have no regrets about being here. I don’t think anyone in the crew does either, and I’d be sad to imagine people leaving the MDRS wishing they’d done something else. No, it’s not that glam. If any one of us ever walks on Mars, it probably won’t be with the grandeur of the giant leap for mankind, but as one of many starting a colony out there. We don’t do it because it’s cool, no, and certainly not for the fun (though we do have a lot of it). It’s work, and that’s all there is. And that’s fine. Everyone needs to work. We all sacrifice a bit of our comfort to give it to others, and the world moves onward a little. Nearly everybody doesn’t even have the privilege of wondering why they’re doing their job, and there are very, very few jobs that don’t get boring or tiring.

I like to think every person is a dreamer. Our dream is to work so that, someday, humanity will flourish somewhere else, away from its cradle. It’s no more or less valid than any other. Here, we have the chance of working towards that dream. There are sacrifices, but few are those who get to try and turn their dream into reality. We’re alone, yes. We’re dirty, yes. But we’re lucky.

Journalist Report – March 9th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 09Mar2020
Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist
Sol 8: Is there life on Mars ?

For all intents and purposes, we’re on Mars. Everything reasonably possible is done to make the MDRS feel like a real Martian base. We have protocols for everything, from safety communications for moving from place to place to knowing exactly how many grams of plants were harvested on a given day. We have boring powdered food, that tests our culinary creativity on the daily. We have beautiful, multicoloured, but barren landscapes that span as far as the eye can see. We have limited water, and virtually no outside air to breathe. We also have the iffy internet one might expect from a base several astronomical units away from Earth. All in all, it certainly doesn’t feel like home.

Yet, in some small ways, it still inevitably is. The MDRS is in the desert, and it is one dry place, but we’re still on Earth, and there’s some water out there. And where there is water, there is life. On our many times out, we saw plants or animal tracks frequently. We get the occasional insect hanging around in the Hab every so often. And, on lucky days like yesterday, we get to see live animals, such as the antelope we witnessed graciously running as we rode on our rovers. It’s funny to think that this was the first new vertebrate the four of us saw in a whole week. When you come to such an arid place and find, when looking a little harder, that some life is still thriving, it makes you think about how some form of life could have very well developed on Mars when conditions were better.

Sadly, nature is never left alone by humans. There’s the big scientific research base in the middle of nowhere, of course, but traces of human life are plenty elsewhere when you look for them. Every EVA team comes back with a plastic bag, a piece of paper or even a huge plastic box found in the field, littered and waiting an eternity to decompose. We simply can’t keep any place clean.

We’re some of the closest things to real Martian explorers, despite the few things in our ways. From here, things are exciting: the bold exploration and the fascinating science make the days go by fast. But it’s no great place to live, and it shouldn’t be. Comfort is far from the priority, and that’s expected. We can hope to have a Martian colony in the coming decades, but it’s hopeless to think life will be as easy as it ever was on Earth. Sustainable human life on another planet is an exciting step forward, but it’ll never replace living where we evolved to be. There’s no place quite like home, and we realise it all the time here at MDRS. We can hope for the first words from the surface of Mars to be “Keep home clean while we’re away, there’s no better place to stay”.

Journalist Report – March 8th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 08Mar2020

Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist

Sol 7: Learning and Teaching

Sunday is a rest day. We’re not fully inactive (a two-week mission is far too short to allow that), but we at least got a break to get some more sleep and recover from the daily sports sessions and long EVAs. Batteries don’t know about rest days and still needed a short EVA to be taken care of. Like yesterday, this was accomplished through a fully silent EVA, to allow for those who didn’t get to try out the procedure yet to attempt it as well. They were done swiftly, and the morning carried on in the Hab as we played and cooked. There’s a lot to unwind from even a week inside the Station, so taking the time to do that was very much needed for everyone.

We’re all students from the same engineering school, all belonging to one club focused on the exploration of Mars. And while an MDRS mission is a lot of work to prepare, it’s still only two weeks in the year.

So, we and the club members who don’t go to the MDRS get busy with other activities: mainly intervening in local middle and high schools to discuss space, astronautics, and science in general. While being on our own to learn about things we love is a great experience, going out and teaching others about the same thing and seeing their interest grow is just as great.

It was, therefore, a pleasant surprise to learn that an educational science TV show in France was interested in our mission, and wanted us to record a visit of the station to be featured in an episode about living in space.

Being the Crew Journalist, it fell upon me to be the talking head and spend time in front of the camera. I don’t think my crewmates minded, as it was an awkward experience all around. It took a while to get the hang of it, but overall it turned out to be great fun, with the blooper reel being far longer than anticipated. It’s a whole lot easier to do science, all things considered. It’ll remain a fun memory from a slower day, and, if the footage is usable, I can’t wait to not see myself broadcasted once I’m back home.

The end of the day was as calm as its beginning, with Blandine’s relaxation sessions working wonderfully as always. Sometimes too much, but at least we didn’t hear any snoring this time, so that’s a plus. We’ll all try to get our work done as early as we can to lay down and watch a movie, as we didn’t get the chance so far.

Journalist Report – March 7th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 05Mar2020
Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist
Sol 6
Title: The Sound of Silence
A couple days ago on EVA, Marion unfortunately lost the use of her comms
headset, making her incapable of communicating with the rest of the
expedition by radio. Fortunately, thanks to the little nonverbal
communication we’d all learned to be more efficient, she was able to
pass over her EVA leader role and carry on the EVA normally. This
situation made Aurélien wonder: what if all our comms failed? EVAs limit
our senses drastically already, as the bulky suits limit our vision and
our movement. Even with the radios, it can prove difficult to coordinate
rovers on the road. As he came back in the Hab, he asked the question:
could we carry on an entire EVA without once using our radios?

Communication is the absolute centre of any EVA. We need to be clear
with the HabCom inside, who needs data on vehicles and water outside,
needs to give us permission to get in and out of various zones, and
requires updates to be given as we stop near the Hab to change batteries
on experiments set up within communication range. Between crewmembers on
EVA, communication is kept to a minimum, as radio chatter quickly
becomes impossible to understand if people try to talk over one another.
What remained, however, was of course the important communications:
whether everyone was feeling alright, what direction we need to be
going, or when the rovers need to stop or turn. A lot of crucial
communication goes through those radios, and imagining the ways to
eliminate the need for them and find alternatives is a tough task. While
we were outside yesterday morning with Blandine, Valentin and Florian,
Aurélien, Luc and Marion were thinking of a protocol to carry on a fully
silent EVA.

The final proposal, as given to us by Luc, was clever and felt fool
proof. Our five required minutes of airlock depressurisation would be
directed by the lights turning on or off by the HabCom on the other
side. The beginning measurements of data from the water tank and rovers
around the Hab were distributed among us, and would be relayed by Marion
using hand gestures to Valentin, our HabCom, looking through a window in
the Hab. He would respond similarly and give us the go or no go to take
the rovers outside. To ensure that no rover was left behind on the way,
the one in front would periodically stop and wait to be passed by the
other, and the dance would go on until reaching our destination. By
foot, most things can be done by mime – hand gestures were decided to
tell each other about our levels of fatigue and pain, making sure that
we can go back if someone is too uncomfortable.
The test was a complete success, and the EVA went on nominally without
one word spoken. Two years ago, the Supaéro MDRS crew drew up similar
plans on how to carry on an EVA in case of injury of a crewmember. These
are all possible events during an EVA, and we were glad to continue
doing research on similar themes. The communication between crews on a
year to year basis is one of the strengths of our missions, and this
gives us great hopes for even better experiments in the years to come.

The Science Dome was a lot less quiet though. Marion’s experiment on
foreign language communication is still running strong, and the English,
German and Spanish speaking are still working to build LEGO figures and
find new ways to be understood by the other. The puzzles are getting
rather hard, but what’s interesting is that the speaking pairs are
starting to develop their own slang to describe different pieces, and
much less time is wasted compared to the first attempts. Next week, a
different game: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. An asymmetric,
fast-paced bomb defusal game where one person sees puzzles, but only the
others have the manual to solve them. We’re all getting right in sync,
so this can only be exciting!

Journalist Report – March 06th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 06Mar2020
Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist
Sol 5
Title: Grounded
Mars is a colourful place. Today on EVA, we explored the North Ridge, a
hilly area a few miles from the Station. The exploration was rather
athletic, and we once again saw all sorts of terrain as we trudged up
and down the steep sandy slopes. It felt like we walked for hours and
miles, despite the area being rather small and us being done in about an
hour. It probably was because the terrain changes so much – in a matter
of minutes we went from red hills to rocky areas to grey, Moon-like
zones. It’s also probably because the heavy suits make us slower. Most
certainly, it’s a bit of both. The other great news is that the more
comfortable suits that had failed on our first EVAs have been handsomely
fixed by Luc and Aurélien, and now work fully. Begone, back pains!
The ground out there is barren and lifeless. Still, there’s somewhere
not too far where the soil is life-giving and fruitful. The greenhouse
is in full bloom thanks to the good work of Valentin, our devoted
GreenHab officer. Aromatics, radishes, carrots and many others are busy
growing all day long and may at some point be food for us. But there’s
another, odder, thing growing in the warmth of the GreenHab. In glass
tanks lives a green, bubbly mass called spirulina. They’re algae that
shine by the low area needed to grow it, and the massive amounts of
nutrition value it creates with very little input. In those two tanks
that occupy very little of the water consumption and space of the
greenhouse, they have the potential of feeding us much better than all
the rest. It’s not as tasty as rosemary or basil, but some day we may be
forced to be as efficient as possible, and we’ll be happy to have it.
The Science Dome is also on the cutting edge of vegetal research. Today
was the official start of the Music for Plants experiment. It posits
that in harsh environments, sound waves may influence the durability of
plants – in other words, plants may enjoy music! To test this, Valentin
puts different batches of radishes and watercress under strong UV
lights, basically giving them sunburns, and tests different sounds on
the plants in the meantime, seeing how they evolve every day. With the
thin atmosphere of Mars, plants will inevitably be put under stress from
sunrays, so finding out how best to protect them and have an agriculture
on another planet is fundamental. In that same Science Dome, a tower
breathes. No soil this time: little pods on the tower are filled with a
special foam and fed with a nutritive liquid mix, and plants grow just
as well. Aeroponics and vertical culture are possible keys to
efficiently feed a colony on Mars, and working with the first
small-scale examples of these is a privilege for us.

Journalist Report – March 05th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 05Mar2020
Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist
Sol 4
Title: A matter of time
It’s sol 4 already! We’re just about a third of the way through our stay
in the station, which is honestly really hard to imagine. We’ve
experienced a lot already. The team has already changed from how it was
when we started, and we’ve grown as a unit more and more each day. Our
bodies are a bit leaner, bruised for a few of them, but feel stronger
and healthier – the all-American fast-food based diet we had before
arriving here is long gone. They’re also a whole lot dirtier. While no
one’s complained about smells, the days inside an enclosed, dusty
environment have taken a toll on us, and we’re all overdue for a shower.

Yeah, we sure have done a lot already. It’s hopeless to think we’ll
explore everywhere around us and do all the science we want, but we’ve
done a fair bit. Still, it feels like all those days have gone by like a
flash. Time goes by differently in the station. Saying “It’s sol 4!”
sounds fine to all of us, but “It’s Thursday!” just feels weird. Very
easily, you get into a rhythm. 7am wake up time, timed sports session,
breakfast, EVA Prep, check, check, check, 5 minutes of airlock
depressurisation, and on with the procedures. Everyone knows what
they’re doing every single minute of their morning. It’s doing work of
course, but also a lot of waiting for lunch. Lunch, as well as the
afternoon, is a lot freer. Where EVA mornings have us all focused on one
task, afternoons are for our own work. You get to take time to think.

When you’re in here, the rest of the world just stops to exist, and so
does everything with it. The days become simpler. No more social media,
no more advertisements on walks outside, no more commute to work.
Without distractions, you finally get to take time. Time for science,
time for ourselves and others. And, as things get the chance of going
slow and smooth, paradoxically, they go by without realising, and you
end up busy writing reports over a day you thought started instants
before. It’s a pleasure being so efficient and living so simply.

We’re only a third of the way through, but I’m already afraid it’ll be
over before I realise it. I’m enjoying every second of it while it lasts.

Journalist Report – March 4th

Crew 223 Journalist Report 04Mar2020
Author: Clément Plagne, Crew Journalist
Sol 3
Title: The Commander’s Day

Today, our commander was busy. He was not lucky enough to go on EVA today, being instead stuck inside the Hab on HabCom duty. He’s helped out everywhere, from assisting the harvest in the GreenHab to lending a hand in the RAM to troubleshoot the recent spacesuit issues. Also, he’s the one tasked with doing the dishes after dinner tonight. It’s also his birthday. For the second year in a row now, Aurélien got a year older inside the station. Being away from family, home, and, to be quite fair, the whole world on a day like this is never easy, especially with a full
day’s worth of work to do. We’re great company, there’s no doubting it, but I don’t think any one of us is pretentious enough to think that’s sufficient. Besides, for what it’s worth, he’s been telling us he’s beginning to forget what birthdays outside the MDRS are like. Still, we do our best to make this a great day for him, starting with our EVA, that went very smoothly for everyone involved. For once, no spacesuit trouble to report, besides the fact that we had to use the slightly less comfortable ones, and were glad to lay down by the end of it.

The next step to a good day, as always for us, is a lovely meal. Our birthday boy himself, 23 years young now, took part in the making of some fantastic pizzas, tested and approved by all. Marion baked an absolutely wonderful banana bread – in what was possibly the toughest moment of the mission so far, we took the decision of waiting a bit before eating the leftovers. Sometimes I feel like all I’m talking about is food. When things get unusual or tough, you get back to the fundamentals: sleeping and eating. Both are going well for all, a great sign that the rest also works.

We actually ended up having some time before getting back to work to sit down at the table and play a little game of bluff and strategy. The dynamics of the team really is beginning to show, and we had some great fun playing (no one must tell Aurélien that we let him win). For the
third day running, Marion, our Crew Scientist, has had us run an experiment on communication in foreign languages. One person has the instruction for a LEGO build, and the other must construct the object from the pieces without either one seeing the other, with limited time. All teams are making great progress, going from Frankensteinesque monstrosities to things that actually begin to resemble the actual object! To add to that, our Health and Safety Officer Blandine has also continued with team building and relaxation exercises, and it’s once again been a lovely moment together and a great time to talk about how life is going so far in the station.

We’ve got a couple other things planned for Aurélien later on tonight, but we can’t spoil the surprises, so it’ll have to stay secret!