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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.


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.


Kickstarting the Future

We are living in the era of Kickstarter! Crowd funding is taking off for projects around the world and connecting people with ideas.  With micro-funding, masses of everyday people, giving small amounts of cash can fund innovations in areas as diverse as the arts, science and engineering.  I participated in the Kickstarter for Planetary Resource’s Arkyd telescope, which reached a total of over $1.5M.  As I am typing this the BLEduino Kickstarter just ended; $75,000 was raised for the $15,000 goal of creating a mini Arduino with built in Bluetooth 4.0. University of Michigan’s Project to build a prototype plasma thruster for interplanetary CubeSats is 15 days into its funding campaign and has raised 20% of their $200,000 goal.

In exchange for supporting these projects, not only do the donors get to take an active financial hand in advancing a project they care about, there are often physical rewards. Arkyd will be displaying my image in space and taking a photo. I also get a full year membership to the Planetary Society,  a T-shirt and a mission patch for $139.  For my $90 dollars donated to UofM’s CubeSat initiative, I’m getting thank you note laser etched on a solar cell, team T-shirt, mission patch and pen. BLEduino will be shipping me the very project I backed this November for my $34 contribution.

This emerging online system isn’t just for charity, it’s for making projects come to life.

COSMOS: Speaking of projects coming to life, It was just announced that Neil deGrasse Tyson will be hosting the reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic series Cosmos, on FOX. Enjoy the trailer.

ELON: PJ Media has put together a fun little video recapping SpaceX’s triumphs the last few years, and giving Elon Musk another chance to make the case for Mars.

The Knights of Afghanistan

Just another day in Afghanistan, fighting dragons and repairing my government issue chain mail. Check out the above video of these two historical reenactors. We have a lot of free time to develop hobbies out here. Some of us build things, or paint miniatures. So smoke cigars every night and a few play D&D. Then you have guys like this who take their playtime seriously. I have to hand it to these guys, they had some great showmanship for two people wrapped in leather and steel in 110 degree heat hitting each other with bats. Bravo.

TIME: Speaking of history, fighting and time in general, I09 had a great short article detailing “The first Time War“. It did exist, in the 16th century, in fact.

SONIC: What does it sound like to take the original 1963 Doctor Who theme and slow it down to a whopping 20 min. Its a sonic experience you have to hear to believe.

NASA:  With all the space shuttles in museums, NASA is dead, right? Wrong! Huffington Post blogger, Lauren Lyons is doing her part to educate the masses with her blogpost “5 Popular Misconception About NASA” Did you know that public opinion polls show Americans believe that we spend 20% of the national budget on NASA? Or that NASA is part of the Department of Defense? Get the facts by clicking the links above.

With only 38 days left in theater, I am getting really excited about coming home.



Sometimes, scientific truth can be so simple and beautiful that it is best represented as art itself. The feature photo, which is soon to become your desktop background, is one of those pieces of art; the periodic table of elements as a ovoid chart of similar elemental qualities from a Time Magazine article in 1947 . Working in space outreach, I get to see and create a lot of art designed to inform and inspire the exploration of our universe. I think this blog is the perfect place to share these one of a kind pieces.

LEGOS: Speaking of one of a kind pieces, I’d like to show you this amazing video of AmputeeOT building a prosthetic leg from Legos. As the video description states, it was done on a dare from one of her co-works. That will teach them to dare her! Go AmputeeOT! Check out her other videos and awesome tattoos on her YouTube channel.

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Keeping on our art theme, lets take a jaunt into the realm of classical music and bar graphs, with this absolutely mind grabbing visual representation of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Let me know if everything keeps sliding to the left when the video is over. If you enjoy it there is a lot more on Smalin’s channel, including the entirety of the 9th.

MORE UP GOER FIVE: Some of you may remember XKCD’s Up Goer Five comic. If not, here it is below. The reason I showed you this is to introduce a blog post by Bill Dunford on the Planetary Society’s website. In this blog you will find a video tribute to the Saturn Cassini mission done in the Up Goer Five style. It really is worth your time and I can’t wait to show it to my own little one.

Up Goer Five

If you made it all the way to the bottom, you deserve a prize. Here is the song of the week, Deadmau5’s Faxing Berlin, arguably the song that started it all.