Journalist Report: 01/27/2013
Written by: Melanie Newfield, Journalist
The authentic astronaut experience
Life at MDRS is a “sim”, which means we simulate the experience of people living on a base on Mars.
The base consists of the “habitat” – a two storied cylinder of 8 metres diameter which comfortably accomodates 6 people – the greenhouse – an 8 long by 4 metre wide heated and insulated polytunnel – and the astronomical observatory. While I’ve only just arrived, I’m told that when you start wearing the sim spacesuits it feels pretty real. Cost and practicality impose constraints of course – for example the greenhouse is linked to the habitat by a tunnel, but this isn’t enclosed as it would be on a real Mars base.
Another compromise is the toilet, which is a regular toilet and septic tank. However on our arrival, when investigating the toilet was a fairly high priority, we discovered certain problems.
As a result, our experience as astronauts was to be a little more authentic than expected!
One of the less-discussed aspects of space travel is the challenge of waste. Most of us give little thought to our waste, and would prefer to avoid thinking about it, but it is a major logistical challenge for human life support. Without a doubt , the form of waste that disgusts and fascinates us the most is human waste.
In Earth’s toughest environments, as in space, human waste management poses unique challenges.
In Antarctica, Scott Base and McMurdo Stations have indoor sewage treatment plants – since they would freeze if they were outdoors. At Cape Bird field base there is a pee toilet and a poo toilet (ok, two different buckets), with the contents shipped back to New Zealand for disposal in the Christchurch sewage system – once they have thawed. And if you head any distance from a base, you must carry a pee bottle so that you don’t contaminate the Antarctic environment. As you might imagine, this creates some additonal challenges for women, who have to carry a FUD (short for a feminine urinary device). You don’t want to take too long exposing sensitive body parts to the subzero temperatures either.
But at least in Antarctica, human waste behaves relatively normally, um… on its way out.
Weightlessness is a whole other story. Space toilets depend primarily on suction systems to capture waste - described by users as like going to the toilet on a vaccuum cleaner. As a backup, astronauts have had to use collection bags or worse – one crew had to use their “fecal containment devices” – usually worn under a spacesuit; I will leave the rest of what that actually means to your imagination. Fortunately, astronauts are placed on low-residue diets prior to and during their missions, so their waste production is somewhat reduced.
And so to Mars. Future Mars explorers may have all sorts of wonderful toilets, but crews at MDRS get the same as any average household. Only due to a combination of old pipes and the coldest weather ever recorded at MDRS, the toilet is not flushing correctly. It will cope with liquid, but that is it. So toilet paper goes in a rubbish bag, and we are experimenting with sealable bags for the remaining waste.
It’s not very nice, but you always learn more when things go wrong. And it gives us a unique insight into the rather less-publicised experiences of space explorers.
Day one didn’t see much more excitement than trying to operate the toilet, but by day two we were starting to find our way around a bit more.
At this stage we aren’t “in sim” which means we can walk around outside without our space suits. So we went for a walk to see what the conditions were like and to look at the local geology. By this time the snow was largely melted, and mud prevailed. It was a strange sensation to be squelching and sliding across the desert. I ended up spending more time looking at the plants than the rocks, and have photographed as many as possible to try and identify them later.
I also watered the plants in the greenhouse, and had a think about what I might do in there. The weather isn’t looking good for tomorrow – and in fact it is raining right now – so gardening could be on the agenda.
The crew also bravely volunteered to participate in my first culinary experiment with dehydrated food. I had a good tidy of the pantry and discovered a vaguely disturbing selection of food-like substances. I wasn’t brave enough to try the “fully cooked bacon” and “pasteurised prepared cheese product”, so I made a pasta dish using dried tomato, leek, celery, broccoli and porcini mushrooms (which were something of a bonus to discover among the instant meals). I also added some dehydrated grated cheese – with some trepidation. The experiment was a success, as everyone said it was good, and nobody has made a rush for awkward little plastic container with a ziplock bag that substiutes for a toilet.