Journalist Report: 02/03/2013
Melanie Newfield

The crew engineer

There’s a complex etiquette that has developed among our crew about the use of water. At what time is it first acceptable to run a tap in the morning? There’s no set time, but people tend to get up and work quietly at their computers without making a coffee or taking a shower until most of the crew are awake. (If you are wondering how we manage the toilet, it’s complicated, but we have our ways.)

The reason for this interesting development in crew culture is the water pump. It sounds like someone’s drilling up the pavement directly above your bunk. For most of us, it’s just another noise among many. There’s a lot of background noise here, as there is aboard spaceships and as there would be in a habitat on Mars, the noise of the machinery that keeps us alive. And so we tune it out as best we can.

But when the water pump starts up in the morning, one of the crew has a different reaction. Our engineer, Emma Braegen, is lying in bed wondering about the water level.

Most of the time, we can comfortably go about our lives giving little thought to all the systems like water, electricity and sewage that are so important for the functioning of our homes and societies. The first time I became very conscious of the complexities of keeping people alive and comfortable in remote locations was when I spent a little time working on offshore islands. However it became much more obvious to me when I visited Scott Base in Antarctica, and spent time getting familiar with how the base was run.

Keeping up to about 100 people warm and comfortable in Antarctica takes a lot of work. Everyone noticed the hard work of the chefs – they get thanked for their efforts every day. But nobody thinks to thank the water engineers, who make sure that the other end of that process never causes a problem. The water engineers also oversee a desalination plant for fresh water and the fire safety system. There are mechanics, electricians, IT people and all sorts of other important roles. It takes a lot of work to keep things running.

It seems that whenever I start to think about things at MDRS, I’m drawn to comparisons with Antarctica. There’s a pretty good reason for this - the Antarctic environment is one of the most hostile to human life on Earth. Life at Antarctic bases has a lot in common with life at MDRS, and indeed any future Mars base. Ideas from Antarctica can help us set up a base on Mars. And of course there are plenty of developments from the space program that help out in Antarctica too.

When the environment is so hostile, our survival is dependent on a range of pumps, pipes, tanks and wires, and the person who keeps them all running. In many ways, the role of engineer is the most important in any MDRS crew.

One of the engineer’s constant activities is monitoring our water. In the attic above our quarters we have a 55 gallon tank, which for our crew needs to be filled once or twice a day – depending on whether we have a film crew coming! The upstairs tank is filled from a downstairs external tank, and the downstairs tank is filled from a supply tank. The supply tank is trucked in – since we aren't quite self-contained enough to make our own water in the desert. So the engineer has to monitor the level in each tank, refill when necessary and keep mission control informed of the water levels. If any tank runs dry, it doesn’t just mean we run out of water, it means that we get all sorts of problems in the pipes, but fortunately Emma hasn’t let that happen so I can’t give you the exact details of what happens.

Another role of the engineer is to monitor heating and ventilation.Ventilation has been a challenge for our crew, with crew members finding the bunkrooms a little warm and stuffy at times – hot air rising of course. But our ventilation has been much improved by a fan that Emma postioned below the ceiling vent – it improves the rate of air movement and has made life much more comfortable.

The engineer also has to check levels of generator fuel, propane for cooking and heating, deal with the trash and if the crew are using the ATVs and hab car, keep an eye on them too. Then, at the end of each day, they get to write a report about it.

Unlike journalists, who get to write about whatever they like (within reason I suppose), engineers reports state things like how much water was used and how much propane is left in the tank. Engineering reports are therefore notoriously boring, whatever the literary skill of the author. But of course, a boring engineering report is a good report, because if the engineering report is interesting, that usually means something has gone wrong.

Not that things going wrong is altogether a bad thing. After all, we tend to learn more when things go wrong than when things go right. If at all possible, we want to know what can go wrong – and how to fix it – before we go to Mars. That’s why we have MDRS. 


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