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Fictionalized Diary of Mars Base Zero Operation from 9/28/02 to 10/5/02

by Ray R. Collins


I guess I was just incredibly lucky. I'd just put on my suit and was in the airlock getting ready to exit when it happened. I'm not sure what we hit, but it poked a hole right through the space station. A few minutes earlier and I would have suffocated when all the air escaped; a few minutes later and I'd probably been outside-and likely shaken off because the station was pretty badly destabilized. As in, spinning.

It was something of a scramble to get from the airlock to the command module. The spin put on some gravity, but I managed to get up there. The news in the command module was just as bad as could be; the primary controls had been hit dead center. As it was the exit rather than entrance wound, half the wall was ripped off and pieces were dripping out the rupture into space.

With no controls it took me a little while to get the air system oxygen shut down-unfortunately not before most of it had vanished out that gapping hole. I couldn't get the spin off the ship, and it didn't look like my chances were too good. I tried to raise Charley and Pete, but the non-directional antenna was messed up and of course the direction antenna wouldn't stay put long enough.



I ejected the escape pod from the station at 9 am. I'd carefully calculate the trajectory so it would give me a good shot at landing within walking distance from Mars Base Zero. With my very limited maneuvering engines I fine tuned my orbit and set it up for decay. Then it was a tense 3 hour wait with my orbit slowly lowering. I had about 15 seconds of fuel left when I hit the atmosphere, and as I was a little low I did a very short burn to extend my range. I was very glad the computer system was so sophisticated; it allowed me a lot more flexibility and the ability to automate the landing so I didn't have to do anything during the very rough ride down. These escape pods are designed for efficiency, not a comfortable ride! But it did a terrific job of putting me where I wanted to be: within a quarter mile. An easy walk, even in a suit.

As I expected, Mars Base Zero was pretty well shut down. A week before the main power station had failed, forcing evacuation. But there it should keep me alive until I could be rescued.

The temperature inside was not too bad; just a bit above freezing. It was fall in this location, and the building hadn't been winterized yet so I set about making it a little more resistant to heat loss. The insulation layer of plastic took a couple hours to put up, but it made an immediate difference in the temperature [on arrival, the plastic tarp over the southern half of the greenhouse was completely off, for summer operation]. I also put insulation [actually tarpaper, since the old tarp had disintegrated] over the living quarters. There was no power to the building at all, so I went to the work shed [neighbor we were borrowing power from] and found the main breakers were off. I turned them on, but discovered the power supply was not working correctly; a small amount of power (lights) made it through but when I tried to put a load on it (like the pump) the lights went very dim. Fortunately it was set up with a backup electric line so I switched the cables. The second cable went to a separate fuse panel inside Mars Base Zero, and I didn't get it wired to the house panel before it got dark. Even when I get it all hooked up I won't be able to run much more than lights, computer and other light equipment; this system is battery/solar panel operated and doesn't provide sufficient power to run more [actually the electric supply is not heavy enough.]

After dark I searched the larder. Big problem: it was empty! My next setback is even more serious; my space suit air tank did not fit the connection to the supply. This meant all I had left was 6 more hours of outside work and then I'd be stuck inside. I got on the radio and called Mars Base Three (where Mars Base Zero had been evacuated to) and asked John if he knew where I could get a connection. He suggested I check out the well house, about 5 kilometers away. He laughed when I mentioned the empty larder: he said there was plenty of vegetables, just go pick some. Bet he had roast beef for dinner, the bum. He said I'd better pick up some water while I was at the well; there wasn't any that wasn't muddy. Fortunately the rover was all charged and ready to go so I grabbed a head of cabbage and munched on it while I drove to the well house.

Unfortunately there wasn't an connection there that would fit my air tank. But I did find a can of chicken. There was also three water jugs filled with fresh water so I loaded them up [actually went to the spring and filled them]. I was pretty hungry so I was a pig and ate the entire chicken on the way back [since I didn't have power or any other way to prepare food I decided one cabbage wouldn't be enough for the entire day, so I stopped by the grocery store and bought some fried chicken]. Then I drove back, getting back with only 3 hours of air left.

It was dark and cold in Mars Base Zero when I got back. I ran an extension cord from the auxiliary breaker panel that had power, and hooked up a light so I could at least read. There was a pretty good selection of books, so I picked one at random which turned out to be about a pioneer from the 1800s: Laura Ingals. Very different problems back then, but I suspect the same spirit is needed to live the lifestyle. Mars Base Zero was on a slightly different time zone, so I wasn't sleepy until around 1 am local time. I spent this time reading.

I didn't sleep very well. The cold didn't bother me too much, for there was plenty of bedding and I just snuggled down in it. But I'd pulled a muscle in my back which kept me awake. I looked around for pills but there weren't any-guess they take the idea of a closed ecosystem seriously here; nothing in that can impact the ecosystem.

landed; roof tarp; living area roof; power to building


I got up rather late local time, and the first thing was to sort out the power problem. Which, in the light, turned out to be pretty simple: just run a cable from the auxiliary fuse panel to the main one. I did this and was rewarded to the sound of beeps and whistles as computers, CO monitors, etc all powered up.

I plugged in the phone line, but it was dead. I used some more of my precious air traipsing back and forth to the work shack [the Smyth's house, who generously loaned me the use of one of their phone lines for the duration]. I finally determined that one of the 4 wire strands was broken. Fortunately it only needs 2 strands, so I swapped the green with the yellow and am now connected not only to all of Mars, but also to the interplanetary computer network.

The phone was only hooked up in the loft, and I wanted to be able to answer it from the kitchen, so I scrounged around and found a splitter and ran another line to a spare phone.

The battery in the thermometer was dead, so I found a new one and put it in. Curiosity, more than anything!

By the time I'd finished all these chores it was late afternoon. I felt I had things fairly well in hand, so I took the rest of the afternoon off. Although it got up to room temperature during the day, as soon as the sun went down it started cooling off. I didn't really have much in the way of cloths, and what was there didn't fit me very well. Fortunately there are plenty of blankets and even a sleeping bag, so I can curl up in bed. Which I did, spending the evening reading, listening to music (on the computer) and answering the phone.

It is interesting how fast the human body goes from having energy to spare to being very conservative. Last night I was fine at this temperature, but this evening the 20 degree temperature drop was enough to cause me to be a little chilly. There was a herb plant (lemon), so I thought I'd try brewing some to take the chill off. I usually like my tea with sugar, but this was actually pretty good without it. Didn't taste much like tea though! But it really hit the spot, being flavored and warm.

power inside building; propane; phone; water pumped out; ate a lot of potatoes; computer; thermometer battery;!

9/30 43-53 F dust storm [Rain-partly sunny]
Cold. Although I was plenty warm all night under 2 quilts and a heavy sleeping bag (actually got too warm, and tossed off the sleeping bag), when I got up this morning I quickly got cold. The temperature inside was about 6 degrees C (43 F). I picked a couple of carrots for breakfast, and topped it off with a baked potato. I was still chilly, so I took a towel and wore it like a cap, which helped immensely (a person looses more heat off the top of their head than any other part of the body). A cup of lemon balm tea also helped.

After breakfast I dug another potato plant, which yielded 2.5 kilograms! That should be enough to keep me going for the entire day. I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up around the kitchen area, and pumping water out of the greenhouse floor (it was wet from water leaching out of the planting trays).

For lunch I had more baked potatoes, a turnip and some lettuce-which was very sour. After lunch I spent an hour working on putting up a wall panel; they were stacked in the kitchen, and rather in the way. If I can get them all up there will be a lot more room!

Mars Base Zero is still a work in progress. It is inadequately insulated; few of the walls are paneled; very little of the electrical system is installed and only half the crop area is set up and planted. But it has proven to be a very nice haven for me: it has air, water and food-and at least it stays above freezing in here.

Mid afternoon I started some potatoes cooking. Now I'm not any great shakes at cooking, but baked potatoes morning noon and night are getting old. So I'm attempting potato cabbage soup. I spiced it up with a couple carrots and a few peas. The peas are planted along the back wall, and are a severe disappointment. I'm very fond of peas, and they are a good source of calories, but the yield here is dismal. I'd be surprised if there are more than a couple dozen pods. So I'm saving most of them for later in the week, when I'll be getting hungrier!

Today the urinal up in the loft plugged up. Perhaps I should describe the waste system a little better; waste disposal in a closed ecological life support system like this one is kinda disgusting. All astronauts are screened for ### and a couple other diseases; these are the only ones that can be caught from urine. If these are absent then urine is sterile, which means it can be put directly on the crops. There is a little urinal in the upstairs which drains by way of a very small tube to the crops below, where you have to dig a hole for it to drain into. You move the end of the tube around as you want different parts of the garden fertilized (urine is very good fertilizer). Bowel movements are done into a honey bucket, which is just a bucket for the purpose. To control odor a small amount of dirt is poured into the bucket after each use. When the bucket is full it is sterilized by heating and then it is added to the compost pile. After composting it is put back on the soil. All this means there are no bathrooms in here! The urinal plugged up today because I hadn't been pouring water down it, which needs to be done on a regular basis to keep the crystals of nitrate from building up and plugging it. I had to take a wire and poke it through the tube to clear it-this is probably more than you wanted to hear about waste disposal!

After fixing the urinal I washed up (another thing that isn't too easy here; first you have to heat up the water in a wash bowl, then you wash up and pour the waste water on the garden!) and ate some of my potato cabbage soup. Turned out pretty good, but I saved half for tomorrow to see if the flavor will improve overnight.

By the time I'd finished my soup it was late afternoon. The temperature had gotten fairly decent (relatively speaking, anyhow) during the afternoon, but it started to cool off again. I ate another baked potato and some raw cabbage (which I prefer over cooked) for dinner. I spent the early evening reading, but got hungry again around 9 so I fried up some potatoes and onions. Scrumptious! I'm very disappointed in the productivity of the onions; there is a fairly large area planted in them, but they weren't very productive. The average size is around 1.5 inches. Wish there'd been more.

After eating I got on the internet and caught up on my email before spending the rest of the evening reading.

10/1 dust clouds-partly sunny-dust storm [cloudy-partly sunny-rain] 39-54 inside!

Today was a day for visitors. Everyone coming by to check out the situation! [actually had several people stop by on business]. The offered to change places with me but there didn't seem much point so I continue residing here. yielded only half the amount the other 2 had. Of course the first two were in an ideal I have been harvesting one potato plant a day. The one today was a little disappointing; it location, on the corner of the plot where they could spread their leaves out over the walkway. I puttered around most of the morning, and in the afternoon I spent a couple hours working on the accident report [article about Mars Base Zero productivity]. The I curled up in bed where it was warm and read a book. Which I continued reading on into the evening with a break for dinner. Before my late evening snack I called my wife and then my mom; both of whom were glad to hear from me and that I was doing fine. [I'll leave out the 40 minute Mars-Earth time delay! Perhaps they are on Mars too?]

I spent the late evening (after a late evening snack; I have to eat on a pretty regular basis to keep up with my energy needs!) on the internet, writing email and assuring all my friends that this is more of a vacation than anything else!

10/2 dust clouds-partly sunny-dust storm [cloudy-partly sunny-rain] 39-52 inside!

I'm starting to get into a routine. Breakfast of baked potato and carrots with maybe a turnip thrown in; putter around cleaning up the place; lunch of more baked potato and in the early afternoon I work on the structure. Mid afternoon I have a snack; late afternoon I make something (today I made mashed potatoes-minus all the things like butter that make them good, alas!) and eat it. I seem to be spending the evenings working on the computer and reading. Fairly nice schedule.

The cold is the only problem with living here. I am only really warm when I'm working hard, which isn't very often. The rest of the time I wear a t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, and light jacket. When that isn't enough to keep me warm I put a towel over my head. My feet have tended to be pretty cold; I think tonight I'll try heating up a water jug in the microwave and see if I can warm them up when I go to bed, which is when I notice it the most.

Everything is holding up very well though; water supply looks good (I'm using less than a gallon a day); propane is essentially full; the air system is staying fresh (I suspect many of the plants are still putting out a fair amount of oxygen) and there will be plenty of food to last until next week.

10/3 sunny 32-58 inside

It was quite cold in here when I woke up this morning. Well, relatively: right at freezing. Which, on the low calorie diet I'm on, makes it hard to keep warm. So I stayed in bed reading, while I waited for the sun to warm up the greenhouse. Then a local friend called on the phone and I spent a couple hours talking to him (nothing better to do!), and as a consequence it was early afternoon before I finally got up. Picked a couple of carrots and a turnip to get me started, and put 350 grams of potato in the microwave. I think there is a burnt out element in this microwave, for it takes forever to heat stuff up. 25 minutes to cook my potatoes! But at least it works, and eventually I had a nice feast of baked potatoes.

The water jug I'd used last night turned out to not seal properly with hot water in it so I found a couple of glass jars and used them. They worked very well, keeping my feet nice and toasty most of the night. I normally don't have problems with cold feet, but on this calorie restricted diet I guess my body just doesn't want to waste the energy keeping my feet warm.

It is a fantastically sunny day out. Pity I don't have any air left for my tanks so I could get outside. There is a lot of light that gets through the plastic, but it still isn't quite the same as being out in the sun. But I took my baked potatoes and my book out into the greenhouse to get as much of the sun as I could. Unfortunately it rained on me-condensation from the roof dripped on my book regularly. The sunshine was well worth the aggravation though, so I stayed put.

I finished my book about mid-afternoon and baked some more potatoes in the microwave before spending a couple hours working on the computer checking my email and working on the accident report. I spent the evening reading, with a short call to my wife and another one to my mom. Overall it was a very unproductive day, even to the point I didn't harvest enough food to eat! I finished off one potato plant, but I put off digging the next one until after dark-so the result is I didn't get enough to eat. My stomach isn't big enough yet to stuff sufficient food in unless I eat all the time! Two meals may be fine when you are eating foods with a high calorie density, but the foods available here are pretty low calorie density so it takes a lot of them to keep you going. So I have to eat more often, which I failed to do today! On the bright side, maybe this sojourn will take a little of my extra fat off. Wish I had a scale to test this hypothesis…

10/4 dusty [cloudy]; 34-45 inside

A phone call at 8 am woke me up. Since I'd gone to bed a bit early the night before, there wasn't any point in going back to sleep. I lay around in bed looking at the frost on the greenhouse plastic for an hour or so before I got hungry enough to drive me out of bed. I picked a couple of carrots to munch on while my potato cooked. I was pretty much out of picked potatoes so after breakfast I dug a new plant; the second largest to date. For lunch I sliced up some potatoes and onions and fried them (have to be a little careful the don't stick, for I didn't have any oil for the pan). After lunch I worked some on putting up more panels, and mid-afternoon I started some potato-cabbage soup. I added onions for the first time (my onion supply is very limited so I've not used them in anything but fried potatoes). It turned out to be the best meal I've eaten since I got here!

Today I ate more than I've eaten on any other day. Not sure I am getting used to eating so much, or if I was just extra hungry.

10/5 clear; 27-66 inside.

During the night the urine tube froze up. Most annoying; fortunately the morning dawned bright and clear and by early afternoon it warmed up inside Mars Base Zero to a nearly comfortable temperature. The thermometer is right by the bed, and at 8 I stuck my nose out of the covers long enough to see I didn't want to get up! So I snoozed for another hour, and then (it was still below freezing) I picked up a good book. Too good: I got hooked on it and didn't put it down until 3 pm!! By that time I was pretty hungry, so I started some potatoes baking, got another pot of potato soup (with onions of course) cooking and dug a couple carrots to carry me over until the potatoes were done.

Perhaps it is as well I am leaving tomorrow (besides the fact the cold is getting pretty uncomfortable): the potato plant I dug today was the smallest yet. It is the beginnings of a second row, perhaps the inside rows were planted too close? We'll have to see how the others come out.

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting caught up on email. In the evening I made more baked potatoes and some broccoli for dinner. After dinner I got caught up on this diary.

As soon as the sun set it started to get cold. Since tomorrow is my last day I decided to splurge and burn the propane stove to provide a little extra heat. I put the vegetables I was worried about freezing on the shelf above the stove, and (fortunately for me) the bed is directly above the stove. Naturally I checked the carbon monoxide detector before I turned on the burner. I'm pretty sure there is enough to keep the place at least somewhat heated overnight, though even with a burner on I expect the temperature will go down near freezing; they only put out about 5,000 BTU-which isn't any where near enough to heat a structure this size!

Yesterday I cut my finger cutting up potatoes, and today it is slightly infected. It is only a small cut, but with the infection it is sensitive to the touch. Fortunately the infection doesn't seem to be spreading, and I imagine as soon as I get out of here and get some antibiotic on it should clear right up. But in the mean time it is annoying because every time I grab something I seem to bump it. I'm not sure why it got infected so easily; possibly a combination of digging in the dirt so much with my hands being cold a lot.

In the late evening I cooked some more potatoes in the microwave and then put the hot water bottles in to heat up. I think yesterday I ate more than at any other time, and today I ate the least! Balancing out, I guess. Of course I didn't really do anything today, so that is probably why I didn't have much of an appetite.

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