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Red Desert Rains

When the rains started, the desert erupted with drops slamming into hard dirt and pavement like an artillery barrage from the battle of the Somme. The ground was impenetrable and gave no quarter to the torrent, as rivulets streaked down the dunes in straight lines carving trenches in the sand. A gritty dust was thrown into the air in those first moments of downpour and he choked on it like mustard gas.

His dingy and worn full brimmed hat did nothing to keep the drops from running down the back of his ears and down the nape of his neck, soaking his dull cotton shirt and khaki trousers. Other than his fit of coughing, he hadn’t moved and as the air cleared under the continued assault, the underside of the coyote tinted soles of his canvas and rubber boots embodied the only dry inches of land for miles.

Subtly the land changed color, as the thin covering of dust washed from its stones and pebbles revealing a mix of ruddy rounded sandstones and lumpy pocked basalt. He remembered about how surprised he was the first time he’s seen rain outside of his native desert, in the northern cities where it misted down like the fog is some noir novella. In harsh contrast, the Sonoran wilderness never did anything half-way. It could kill you with heatstroke on a clear day, and could just as easily drown you under a flood in its monsoon months.

The body in front of him hadn’t drowned or died from exposure. The wounds in her chest and head were not the marks of scavenging animals and betrayed a more violent ending.

My Machines and I

As I plug into the Edison sockets, one after another, I get a real sense of my phantom limbs coming to life. My ASUS Transformer tablet is my left eye, and with its eccentric lens I can see a person across the world. They wave back at me. A charge trickles into my Kindle Paperwhite and its Wi-Fi cilia reach out to touch a connection. I can feel my fingertips dance across the spines of all the worlds’ tombs. I select one text from this infinite shelf and it becomes part of me as I travel.

Two external batteries filter a stream of electrons, like a third and fourth kidney, passing along energy to my electronic ear. Capable of hearing a whisper on another continent, my Samsung Galaxy phone delivers messages to other human beings, without having to speak a word, better than telepathy. It is telepathy. We have made ourselves superheroes.

With my laptop I can quickly factor mathematics that would have taken Einstein hours to chalk out onto a slate board. I can design and test rocket engines to rival the aspirations of a hundred Apollo engineers. I can hear every note a human has ever written to paper, every chord and every change of tempo. I can read every word of fiction and truth, every story and statement, every claim and every call for change.

Together, my machines and I will experience things and do more than what the dreamers of just a generation ago thought was beyond belief. 


Large black plastic boxes fill my room and my office space, slowly being filled with clutter and accumulated trinkets purchased from Amazon or Think Geek. In goes my Pathfinder RPG books and playmat. On top I’ll pile my varied assortment of Arduino parts and Raspberry Pi boards, stuffed next to my portable geology kit. Before the lid is closed, I’ll fold and tuck in my going away present from my office mate, Donald Holt, a Hawaiian shirt in my university’s colors with the words, Sun Devils, printed across the pattern. I’ll save my books and throw out my bath robes. I’ll save my DVD’s, but give away my coffee maker.

I’ll pull off hundreds of TV show episodes and movies down from the Morale Drive and tuck a 4 terabyte enclosure into my pelican case, next to a full size telescope my family sent me for Christmas. My work friends will say their good byes to me and I’ll accept a few more friend requests on Facebook or LinkedIn. One or two people will make plans to come out to Phoenix, and with my Sea bags ill take home a ton of memories and lessons.

I’ll leave my fully automatic rifle in Germany. I’ll leave my expeditionary gear in San Diego, and when I board the flight back to Arizona I will be down to a backpack. I will buy a car. I will register for spring classes. I will repaint my house. I will forget Afghanistan.

Construction Equipment for Mars


Artist’s conception of a Mars colony. Credit: Mars One

Welcome to Mars! You and your fellow colonists have just landed on the red planet and are beginning to build your new home.  As you unroll your solar cells and set up your green house, what will you use to clear rocks from the site? What did you bring with you that will collect soil for processing into raw materials. How will you build roads, dig ditches for ice, and bury habitats in regolith to protect them from radiation? Hand shoveling in space-suits is a waste of time and an unnecessary amount of radiation exposure. That big complicated, sub-contract built rig NASA sent with you is going to break down eventually.  Plus, to support that monstrosity, you’re going to have to send a dedicated primary and a secondary expert on that entire machine, a cart-load of replacement parts, and you still might loose it to a critical failure if you roll over on an uneven dune. The cost of interplanetary shipping makes sending heavy equipment and parts cost prohibitive.

What you need, instead, is the simplest machine you can devise to do the job, reducing the number of parts that can go wrong. You need a power supply for that device that can be swapped out, not unlike the rapid charging stations for the Tesla roadster. Maybe a power supply that can run a tractor, a brick press, a back hoe, or any number of simple jobs that require applied force. You need an entire ecology of devices designed to work simply and together, devices you could manufacture, or 3-D print, in the equivalent of a university machine shop instead of a factory.  Easy to operate, repair and assemble, theses devices will be the workhorses for your new world.

A year ago when I was pondering these problems, I came across a TED talk by Marcin Jakubowski, PhD of Physics from University of Wisconsin. In his talk he described a collection of devices called the Global Village Construction Set, a whole ecology of devices, designed by the online community to overcome the myriad of problems inherent in commercial industrial and agricultural equipment: planed obsolescence, over design, difficulty of user-based repair, lack of standardization in parts and power supply, all of these driving up the cost, commonly over 400%.

While Marcin was building the Open Source Ecology project to liberate the user and the third world from corporate monopoly on resource extraction, I discovered that his ideas would work just as well to liberate a budding off-world colony from a crippling over-dependence on earth-based equipment and parts.

I have decided to build a team to construct one of OSE’s LifeTrac’s and test it at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Some of the research we would like to do includes: operating the machinery in a space suit, adapting the LifeTrac to be driven using a teleoperations suite, and testing the equipment in a Mars-analog environment. We are going to have to raise the money to fund these plans, I’m currently estimating at around 15-20 thousand dollars. We are going to need a lot of man-hours during this fall  at Arizona State University and two weeks in the winter on site in Utah. In the end I’m hoping to get a lot of good data from this project, and a prototype that may one day be used to build a home on another planet.


Call for Volunteers

Updated July 2013
Building the future on Mars:
Opportunities to participate as part of the Mars Desert Research Station Team
(A note to anyone who has contacted us about a position and has not heard from us in some time:  Please contact us again.  I apologize for this, but a number of names and emails have been lost.)
As the Mars Desert Research Station begins its second decade of analog studies in Utah, there are plenty of opportunities to participate other than as a crewmember.  If you would like to get involved in any capacity, or if any of the volunteer positions listed here interest you, please contact us.  We would be delighted to have you join us.  Remember, most of these volunteer opportunities rely on your virtual presence, so you can be part of the team no matter where you are in the world.   Unless otherwise specified, please contact Shannon Rupert at for further information or to volunteer.  
Mission Support volunteers are the backbone of the crew experience.  We support crewmembers from the application process through their rotation at MDRS and beyond.  
We are currently looking for the following Mission Support personnel:
CapCOM Coordinator:  Responsible for daily communication with crews at MDRS.  Schedules CapCOMS for daily COMMS windows and makes sure all crew reports and photos are disseminated.  Trains new CapCOMs.  Estimated time commitment 15 hours a week.  Can be split between two people if two are interested.  
CAPCOMS:  The daily link between crews and Mission Support teams.  In recent years, CapCOMs have usually worked one evening per week, but this is flexible. CapCOMs can be located anywhere in the world and work during the field season only.  Varied time commitment, depending on your schedule.
FLIGHT SURGEONS:  To be part of the flight surgeon team, you must be a medical doctor with relevant experience in emergency, extreme environmental, or remote/telemedicine.  Flight Surgeons are on call 24/7 to advise crews on medical issues that occur while they are at MDRS and usually work with several crews during the field season.  
ENGINEERING TEAM: Members work throughout the field season with Mission Support and should have served as crewmembers at either MDRS or FMARS, although this is not a requirement.  They are also central to refit/work party efforts.  
Engineering Team members should be available throughout the field season several evenings a week or can commit to work parties throughout the year.   We are also looking for a Hab Manager Trainee.  This person would work under the direction of the Hab Manager and would need to live within a day’s drive of MDRS in order join us onsite throughout the year.  They would also need to work with Mission Support on engineering/facilities issues during the field season.  This job has a large time commitment.   
Our next refit/work party will be held in late September/early October 2013.  Please contact us if you would like to join our efforts.
REMOTE SCIENCE TEAM (RST):  Like the Engineering Team, members of the Remote Science Team are mostly scientists who have served on crews at MDRS, FMARS and/or MARS-OZ. RST members work throughout the field season.
PROJECT SCIENTISTS: We welcome scientists who would like to propose a short or long term project at MDRS.  Examples of projects include short term projects that are conducted over the course of a single field season and long term projects conducted over several years. 
ASTRONOMY TEAM: We are looking for people who would like to contribute to our astronomy research and education/outreach at the new and updated Musk Observatory.
GREENHAB TEAM – The Fisher GreenHab (used for CLESS research in the past) has been converted into an operational greenhouse to be used for both crew crops and greenhouse research. 
The following volunteer opportunities are special projects:
EXTERNAL DIRECTOR FOR A FILM SCHOOL CREW:  We are looking for someone who would be interested in developing a two-week field school for film students.  There would be a one-week rotation for documentary film students and a second week for feature film students.  Both teams would collaborate with each other and outside mentors (TBD) to create a short film during their time at MDRS.  The external director could also be a member of the crew.  We would like to initiate this concept during the 2013-2014 field season if possible.
EDITOR, MDRS Mission Reports:  We are looking for an editor to head up a project writing short summaries of all past missions at MDRS.  This person will be responsible for organizing a team of volunteer writers and managing team assignments.  There is already a team of volunteers who would like to work on this project, but the position of editor must be filled first.  There is the potential for publication of this project.
WRITER, MDRS Mission Reports:  We are looking for writers to work on the above project.  Time/writing commitment is up to you.  
EDUCATION/OUTREACH: working with the MDRS teams and Mars Society’s Education Coordinator 
OPEN HOUSE DOCENTS:  We are looking for people to participate in our open house at the end of the field season (May 2014) 
INFORMATION TEAM The time commitment for these positions is flexible.  We are looking for the following team members: 
RESEARCH LIBRARIAN—An independent position for someone interested in keeping track of published work that was conducted at MDRS
WIKIPEDIAN—An independent position for someone interested in creating accurate and updated wiki articles about MDRS.
WEB RESEARCHER—An independent position for someone interested in periodically searching the Web to see what is being published about MDRS.  
And we are always looking for writers, artists and educators with unique ideas about how they can contribute to MDRS.   To get involved, please contact us.


Why Aren’t You Reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars?

normal_RedMars_sketch01_59No other book has affected my life as much as Kim Stanley Robinson’s meticulously detailed science opera, Red Mars. If you want to walk side by side across the surface of an alien planet, with characters whose flaws and humanity, their neuroses and genius make you feel like you are standing right there, then take a trip aboard the Ares into a epic, century’s long story of the taming of Mars.

The book’s prologue introduces us to our characters, decades after the first colonists have landed, a time of celebration for the ribbon cutting of the first free standing city on Mars. You are immediately put into the mind of one of the main characters, and with each act of the book  you will be shown the changing face of Mars through a different person’s eyes, a unique prospective. In the first ten minutes you are exposed to horrific tragedy, the death of friend, immersing yourself in the thick of a complex and life-like world, full of political intrigue and interpersonal relationships. There is no need to feel overwhelmed, though, as the author intends to show you how it all began.

In the first full chapter, time rewinds back to the launch of the ‘First Hundred’, a multinational group of colonists who have been selected to set up base camp on the red planet. Here Kim has really done his research, from the descriptions of the psychological profiling process the participants go through, to the excited inventorying of the tools the colonists will use for building a new world. Each character’s specialty, from geology to therapy, physics to agriculture, widens the concept of this book, and shows us that when an entire planet’s worth of knowledge is distilled into just one hundred individuals, worlds can be conquered.

You will see glimpses of the other stories going on in the background, stories like whispers or rumors among the colonists. Then suddenly, another character will take the stage, showing a different side of the burgeoning community, and those rumors will blossom into their own. As counties start sending more people to Mars, the small time politics of a tiny outpost breaks out into global factions, the intrigue of mysterious disappearing colonists, and the enigmatic maneuvering of multinational corporations. The story scales up at a exciting pace, as a small scientific effort spawns the possibility, or maybe inevitability, of interplanetary conflict.


Finally, while Kim understands human character growth, he also understands one of the most interesting characters is Mars itself. We get a window into a whole new culture, trying to be free and distinct from is parent earth, while knowing it will never quite escape the baggage of thousands of years of human history and nature. You will care for this cast of characters, their causes and their passions, the tragedies and triumphs. In the end, reading this book will make you itch for the frontier, the unclaimed wild land of the red planet. It will make you want to reach for that small red light in the sky, and I think that is the most beautiful result of this great novel.

red-marsYou can pick up a copy of Red Mars on Amazon for as low as 1 cent used! Most bookstores keep a copy of the trilogy, and for the first ten people, if you contact me I will be thrilled to send you a free copy of my favorite book.

Any which way it goes.

I am now officially a proud home owner of a 1,400 square foot home in Phoenix, nestled against south mountain park. In this cozy home I’ve been told Jean-Luc has already claimed which room will be his. He is expecting me to be moving his stuff in about two months. In all that time I have to close out my work here in Afghanistan, demobilized in Germany, out-process and get some dental work done in San Diego, before I can fly home.

The dental work is not too complicated I hope. I lost one of my crowns while I was out here and they claimed that the army did not have the facilities in Afghanistan to do the surgery I needed. They subjected me to a series of fake teeth made from epoxy that broke after only two weeks. I finally found a relatively more permanent solution at a larger base. I now have another epoxy tooth, made of evidently stronger material, as it has lasted for several months.

My stop over in San Diego may be longer than the average because of the dental surgery. This extra time should give me a chance to go car shopping, though. I want to check out the dealerships that handle former rental cars. I bought my last nice car from Enterprise Car Sales and was very impressed with the quality. Common wisdom says that rental cars are driven harder and make poor choices for second owners, but I have found that they are exceptionally clean and meticulously maintained.

In other news, I’m forever trying to figure out what September to December is going to look like for me. I wont be attending regular classes at ASU, due to my mid-semester return. I want to take pre-calculus from Rio-Salado online. I have a conference to help run, a 4 week course in Colorado to attend. I want to go camping with GeoClub, stay up late with the Astro Devils, and build robots with SEDS. So, yeah, I’m trying to juggle a lot of calendar appointments. Any which way it goes, it should be fun.