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Of Kite String, Rovers, and Mars

I recall the first time I stepped into the red coveralls, pulled on the backpack, and with the help of a crew mate, closed the acrylic dome over my head. Immediately, the sensation of a real expedition on the Martian terrain was suddenly made real. I could hear my own breathing, the cool air blowing across my face inside my helmet. The sound of those around me in the staging area was muffled and difficult to understand. Once outside the glare of the Utah desert sun refracted in the scratches of the dome which has seen many Crews come and go over the years.

I knew, of course, the hardware we wore only moved outside air into our lungs. There was nothing but a mechanical connection between the helmet and modest, home-built suits worn and in need of repair. Yet, there is a certain excitement, an anticipation of the first EVA of the day which is amplified by the effort required to open the airlock door.

I helped Ewan configure the carrying deck of the RoadNarrows Kuon rover for our payload: a laptop coupled with a pair of cameras which provide stereo vision for terrain mapping. Quarter-twenty bolts, zip-ties with mounting-holes, and kite string serve as mounting points and tie-downs for a machine capable of moving four hundred pounds at twenty miles per hour.

My gloves are thick (by design), making the use of tools smaller than a hammer tricky and tying knots in multi-strand, nylon cord nearly impossible. The dome fogged over and I was forced to wait for it to clear before completing the modification. We required more than hour for what would have been fifteen minutes, at most.

We powered on the rover, remote laptop and XBox360 controller, and ... nothing. The Ubuntu Linux OS application written by RoadNarrows provided the proper response, repeating our controller key presses in succession, but the rover remained immobile.

Through the hand radios, we discussed what we believe to be the cause of this lack of communication. We moved from hardware to OS to application to driver, trying to determine the point of failure. A power cycle of both the hand-held laptop and rover and the rover lurched forward with ample power to tow a truck (as RoadNarrows has demonstrated in the alley behind their Colorado shop). It is important to not stand to either end of this machine, for its shell is metal and wheels designed to crawl over just rough terrain.

The rover spun, hesitated, and lurched forward with the push of the joy stick on the XBox controller and then--nothing. No response even after two power cycles. The harsh shadows of the setting sun alerted us to the little time remaining in the day, another come and gone too quickly on a simulated Mars.

Once inside the hab, we communicated via email with RoadNarrows to learn the source of what is likely a wi-fi override, two devices fighting within the same frequency domain. We were instructed as to how to access the settings via the self-hosted website and tomorrow, we should be ready for a proper, long range terrain mapping excursion.

This is field testing, where all solid systems break-down and the real-world steps in. This is why we are here. We cannot simply pick up our cell phones to call for assistance. We do not carry network enabled tablets nor can we overnight a part from Amazon. Outside of analogs in the arctic regions, this is as real as it gets.

We manually rolled the rover back to its parking spot outside the green hab, and returned to the airlock, tool box and laptops in hand. Twenty minutes later we are walking again in our indoor slippers, light shoes, or flip-flops, greeting other crew members to learn about their research and plans for the evening.

This is not faked. This is not a scripted story. This is not pretend. Each and every day we engage in real research with real challenges. Each day we learn something through our own projects, and through those of our colleagues.
The Mars Desert Research Station may be an analog, but it generates an opportunity for learning like few others on Earth ... until we some day arrive to Mars.