It’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter

On June 3, 1965, drifting high above the Indian Ocean, Ed White opened the hatch of the Gemini IV capsule and stepped into the void of space, becoming the first American to perform an Extravehicular Activity (EVA). He successfully managed to maneuver outside the spacecraft with the help of a small handheld device that directed jets of oxygen to control his orientation and movement. Yet despite extensive hours of training in zero gravity parabolic flights, vacuum chambers, and on frictionless maneuvering platforms, White returned to the Gemini IV capsule completely exhausted after only 20 minutes outside.

Astronaut Ed White completes the first American spacewalk during Gemini IV. Source:

On June 5, 1966, Gene Cernan attempted a similar feat during the Gemini IX mission. The original EVA plan called for Cernan to move to the rear of the spacecraft where he would don the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), a backpack designed to allow him to maneuver freely in space without being tethered to the spacecraft. However, he found that the spacecraft lacked adequate external footings and handholds to provide the resistance necessary to don the AMU. Similar to White’s experience, Cernan found it draining just to maintain a steady orientation, let alone maneuver. Cernan aborted the EVA early, frustrated by his inability to move efficiently in such an unfamiliar environment. Crews on Gemini X and XI also struggled to perform even basic tasks during spacewalks, underscoring the need for a different approach toward training astronauts for EVAs.

Just prior to the Gemini X mission, NASA began looking at using underwater training in neutral buoyancy pools to simulate conditions astronauts would experience in space. Neutral buoyancy is a condition that occurs when the buoyant force on an object in water balances with the weight of the object (the object’s density is exactly equal to the density of water), resulting in a state of equilibrium where the object neither sinks nor rises in the water. Trying out the pool after returning from Gemini IX, Gene Cernan extolled the benefits of neutral buoyancy training (too late to be of benefit to the Gemini X crew) for its similarity to the conditions he experienced during his spacewalk.

In September of 1966, astronaut Buzz Aldrin began training in the neutral buoyancy pool in preparation for his spacewalk on Gemini XII. In contrast to the 30-second intervals of weightlessness experienced during parabolic flights, the neutral buoyancy training yielded a much more realistic estimate of the slow and methodical pace that would be required to maneuver in space. It also revealed a crucial need for foot and handholds to provide astronauts with adequate counterforce for control in weightlessness. Neutral buoyancy training has been a mainstay of EVA training for NASA astronauts ever since.

Buzz Aldrin prepares in a neutral buoyancy pool for his Gemini XII spacewalk. Source:

Today NASA astronauts train in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory located at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. With a capacity of 6.2 million gallons of water, the facility is capable of holding full scale mockups of all the major components of the International Space Station as well as a variety of spacecraft that astronauts might need to train to maintain or repair. Training in neutral buoyancy conditions provides a high degree of fidelity, but it does have a few limitations. Although the spacesuit is virtually weightless in the water, the astronaut still experiences gravitational forces inside the suit. As a result, the astronaut is always being pulled down in the suit — a sensation not experienced during spacewalks. In addition, the resistance of water against the surface of the spacesuit results in drag forces that aren’t experienced in space. Trying to swim in a vacuum doesn’t work very well!

NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Source:

Last summer I enrolled in a training course to get my Open Water Scuba Diver Certification. I was confident that it would open some great learning opportunities for me, not to mention that it just sounded like a lot of fun! The course, presented by North American Divers in Orem, Utah, began with one night of classroom instruction with about ten other students. We learned all about diving theory, effects of pressure on gasses, equipment handling, safe diving practices, and how to deal with typical problems that might be encountered in diving. After passing a test on these materials, we had two dive sessions in a local swimming pool where we learned the basics of using our equipment to breathe and move underwater. The majority of the time was devoted to dealing with those problems that we learned about in the classroom: clearing water from a flooded mask, finding and clearing the regulator (the mouthpiece that you breathe from) underwater, what to do if you run out of air, and how to make an emergency ascent.

Once these skills were mastered in the pool, we had two more dive sessions in an “open water” environment. We did our open water dives at the Homestead Crater, a sixty-foot wide by sixty-foot deep hot spring near Midway, Utah. With a year-round water temperature of 90 degrees, this is quite possibly the best place to learn to dive in Utah! After repeating all the tasks we had done in the swimming pool, we used our remaining time and air to get comfortable under water and to explore the crater.

Homestead Crater. Source:

Since solo scuba diving is discouraged — not to mention not nearly as much fun — I encouraged my 17-year-old daughter to also get her certification. She and I are adventure buddies, and I was thrilled when she agreed to take the plunge. She got her certification about a month after I did and we’ve been chomping at the bit to put these newfound skills to use!

My daughter and I finally got to take our first real open water dive two weeks ago while we were travelling in Florida with our family. We initially planned to dive off the Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg, Florida, but high wave conditions prevented us from going that day. We thought about going to some inland dive sites, but scheduling conflicts interfered with those plans and for a while it seemed that we might not get to dive at all. I’m kind of persistent though, and I was determined to find a place to dive before we left Florida.

I was finally able to schedule a dive trip with Jupiter Dive Center, just north of West Palm Beach. The staff at Jupiter Dive Center was amazing! They really went out of their way to make us comfortable and get us outfitted with just what we needed for equipment. After a short thirty-minute ride aboard the dive boat, Republic IV, we arrived at the reef and got suited up. With one giant stride off the back of the boat, I was bobbing in the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean! 

Admittedly, I was a little anxious at first, and I had to relax and slow my breathing before I could try to go under the water. I also struggled for several minutes trying to descend before remembering to let the air out of my buoyancy control device — an inflatable vest that controls a diver’s buoyancy in the water. Thankfully my cool-headed daughter was there to help me out, and after a few minutes we descended sixty feet to the reef below. Schools of brightly colored fish swam all around us as the gentle current carried us along the ocean floor. Other divers in our group pointed out sea turtles hiding in rocky crevices and reef sharks gliding effortlessly through the water.

Diving with my adventure buddy near West Palm Beach, Florida.

As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, I felt my breathing slow and I was reminded of something that I had read recently. In the introduction to his book Think Like a Monk, Jay Shetty relates an experience that he had while living in a Buddhist monastery. On his first day as a monk he observed a ten-year-old boy teaching younger monks their first lessons. He describes the ensuing conversation: 

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We just taught their first class ever,” he said, then asked, “What did you learn in your first day of school?”

“I started to learn the alphabet and numbers. What did they learn?”

“The first thing we teach them is how to breathe.”

 “Why?” I asked.

“Because the only thing that stays with you from the moment you’re born until the moment you die is your breath. All your friends, your family, the country you live in, all of that can change. The one thing that stays with you is your breath.”

Reflecting on that comment in a place where breath doesn’t come so easily, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for something that I’ve taken for granted my whole life. On a three year journey, millions of miles from all that is even remotely familiar, breath may be my only companion from beginning to end, and I treasure every moment of its company.

Is It Safe To Come Out Yet?

Regular followers of this site may wonder if the lack of updates means that I’ve departed the planet without fanfare or announcement. I wish I could confirm such rumors, especially given the circumstances of the last twelve months, but for the time being I remain quite earthbound.

The media has used a variety of words to describe the events of 2020. “Unprecedented” seems inappropriate. Although plagues and calamity may be new to our generation, they are certainly not unfamiliar to humanity. “Trying” is another term frequently used to describe these conditions, and indeed trials seem to be one of the few things that was not in short supply last year. I’ve personally lost three close family members in the last nine months and experienced a loss of income of approximately 30%. Yet I don’t feel like these challenges have been a defining aspect of 2020.

The word that really resonates with me when I consider recent events is “compelling.” To me, this word evokes emotions of living a meaningful life full of purpose. In Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl writes that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I’ve been fortunate in so many regards that I’m filled with gratitude for the opportunities I’ve received and the wonderful associations I’ve encountered over the last year. I know not everyone has had this experience, but I hope that perhaps by sharing a few of my own insights, you might recognize the silver lining in your 2020.

Twelve months ago, I began an amazing adventure with the Mars Academy, participating in a two-week analog Mars simulation at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah. If you haven’t read my description of that expedition, you can check it out in my earlier post. I’ve been amazed since then at how much the experiences and relationships I encountered there have shaped everything I’ve done in the subsequent months. I left MDRS resolved that I have something to contribute to human space exploration.

Several of the people I worked with during the MDRS mission encouraged me to get involved with Project PoSSUM, an aerospace education group that promotes scientific exploration of Earth’s upper mesosphere. They offer a wide variety of courses and are currently working to become accredited as the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS). I had planned to go to Florida to participate in an initial training course with this group in April, but that has been indefinitely postponed. The great opportunity which emerged from the travel restrictions was that Project PoSSUM made many of their courses available remotely at a reduced price during the pandemic. As a result, I spent the summer studying astronautics, scientific research methods, life support systems, and orbital mechanics. What a delectable intellectual smorgasbord! I’m really excited about the Project PoSSUM classes coming this spring. I’m planning to participate in courses on planetary field geology, celestial navigation, and flight test engineering. Cool stuff!

In addition to their course offerings, Project PoSSUM conducts research in space suit design and testing, and they do some of that work in neutral buoyancy pools that simulate movement in microgravity. Because this research is conducted underwater, they recommend that participants in the program be certified as scuba divers. Diving wasn’t an activity that I had much interest in before, but it does have a lot of applicability to space flight. In addition to simulating the challenges of movement in microgravity conditions, working underwater is a great introduction to environmental control and critical decision making in an adverse environment. That’s how I sell it, anyway. It’s a great new hobby with lots of opportunity to learn!

One of my colleagues from the MDRS mission also recommended that I acquire my ham radio certification so I can set up communications networks for some of the projects that I’m working on. This turned out to be a relatively easy process that I completed in just a few months. I used a study service called Ham Test Online that allowed me to study on my phone and take practice tests of the exact questions that were on the licensing exam. I earned different certifications that allow me privileges across a wider spectrum of radio bandwidth, including shortwave radio capable of communications beyond direct line-of-sight. Ham radio offers a lot of cool new technologies these days, especially with broadcast systems being integrated with online networks. I’ve got some exciting ideas for putting these new skills to work.

In October, I had the privilege of presenting a project to the Mars Society Conference, which was held online. My presentation addressed the potential for using underwater habitats to develop large colonies on Mars. I really enjoyed developing this concept for the conference and plan to continue working on it. I believe it presents some truly innovative solutions to challenges associated with living on Mars. You can see my presentation on the Mars Society’s YouTube channel.

One of the areas where I’ve made significant progress recently is physical fitness. I’d known for a while that I needed to get in better shape and my weight had gradually crept up to about 220 pounds. NASA astronauts are required to exercise for a minimum of two hours each day whether they are in orbit or on Earth. This establishes a habit of regular physical conditioning, but also helps them stave off some of the physiological rigors of long term exposure to microgravity and other hazards of space flight. It’s also noteworthy that for a three year trip to Mars, every pound of extra body weight requires approximately 14 additional pounds of food to maintain that weight. That may not seem like much, but if I can lose 40 pounds it allows almost 600 pounds for other equipment or supplies that I might not otherwise be able to bring.

With this in mind I decided to get back in shape this fall. My usual exercise routine focuses on running and I don’t generally spend much time at the gym, but I felt like I needed to mix things up a bit. I joined a local fitness center and I’ve been spending 2-3 hours there each day that I’m not at work. In addition to using the treadmills and the swimming pool, I’m enjoying the organized high intensity interval training and yoga classes. Perhaps the greatest benefit I’ve experienced has been from scheduling regular appointments with a trainer. This makes a big difference in terms of accountability and education, and to date has helped me lose approximately 20 pounds. I feel much more focused and energized throughout the day since establishing this routine.

Working with a trainer has reminded me of the importance of finding good mentors and coaches to guide me in other aspects of my preparations for going to Mars. In addition to helping set goals and providing accountability, mentors and coaches provide a more objective perspective on my progress and may see blindspots in my preparation. While I have been looking for coaches and mentors in a variety of areas, I’ve especially felt the need for help in polishing my prose. In the past, I haven’t been particularly confident in my writing abilities, but I recognize the importance of communicating clearly and persuasively to build support for this project. I reached out to my sister Katie a few weeks ago and asked her to be my writing coach. Katie has helped me edit this blog since I began it last year, but I expect that under her tutelage I will be able to develop mad writing skills and post more regularly. Katie has always possessed a power for using words and I really appreciate her collaboration.

The many opportunities for learning and growth during the last year have been amazing, but what made 2020 a compelling year isn’t just a matter of knowledge and skills acquired. In a personal letter to his fellow mathematician Farkas Bolyai, Carl Friedrich Gauss wrote, “It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, not possession but the act of getting there, which grants the greatest enjoyment.”* In aviation we sometimes say that learning to fly is like eating a whale: you just have to do it one bite at a time. One of my greatest joys in the last year has been biting off way more than I can chew and really kicking my learning into high gear. One thing I’ve become convinced of is that as human beings, we are always learning, whether for our benefit or to our detriment. I love being intentional about the things I’m learning! I challenge you to learn something new this year. Set a goal and write it down. Find a mentor or coach to hold you accountable and encourage you on your learning journey. Better yet, be that mentor to someone else. You’ll be amazed how much you learn about something you thought you already knew, when you try to teach it to someone else. What’s more, the ultimate satisfaction isn’t simply in the lessons learned, but in who you become as a result of that learning process.

*Dunnington, G. Waldo (2004). Carl Friedrich Gauss: Titan of Science. The Mathematical Association of America.

Setbacks?!? We don’t need no stinking setbacks!!!

The observant reader may note that I’m supposed to be trekking through the Himalayas to Mt. Everest Base Camp in Nepal right now. I was really looking forward to doing just that. I had done a lot of preparation and felt like I was ready for the challenge. Unfortunately, the trip was cancelled due to some of the participants withdrawing from the expedition, as well as some health concerns. I was still in simulation at the MDRS when this was announced, so I had time to process the news and figure out how I felt about it. I’m disappointed, but I’m not going to let it slow my roll. I’ve got places to go, baby!

First and foremost, I want to thank all of the people who contributed to my fundraising campaign for the Everest mission. With the help of my dear friends and family I was able to raise $2000 to help fund this expedition. Individually, I want to recognize Ginger, my friend who responded without hesitation when I asked for contributions. Ginger started flight training while we were sophomores in high school, and she was instrumental in inspiring me to pursue my own dreams to become a pilot. Thank you, Ginger! I also want to laud my amazing friend Kenny, who gave the largest single contribution of $1000. In truth, he essentially offered me a blank check. You’re like my brother, Kenny, and I’m humbled by your generosity. Ralph, a former flight student of mine, earned the Mars Academy USA scholarship that was offered for the first person to donate $500 or more. Ralph generously returned the scholarship back to MAU to donate to an aspiring future space explorer. Thank you, Ralph. I had several other contributors, some quite unexpected: my sister-in-law Alyson and brother-in-law Brandon, my cousin Kelly, my friends Stacy and Kim, former co-workers Bob and Blake, my mortgage broker Scott, Kenny’s mom Arlene, and my step-father Mark. Thank you all so much for your confidence, encouragement, and support!

Mars Academy USA is providing a full refund of my payments for this trip, and I offered to return donations to everyone who contributed. The resounding response, however, was that I should put those funds toward my next great adventure. “And what will that be?” you may ask. Well, let me tell you about it!

I’ve enrolled in an aerospace training program with Project PoSSUM. This is a very cool organization that provides extensive training to help people develop the skills and knowledge to actually become astronauts. Whereas the MDRS and MAU projects were research oriented and experiential, Project PoSSUM is more classroom and training based. Before attending the five-day course in April, I will complete three weeks of webinar training. In addition to classroom instruction, the program includes suborbital simulation, spacesuit operations, hypoxia training in a hyperbaric chamber, and aerobatic flight to demonstrate high and low gravity conditions (Oh yeah!) Completion of this course will qualify me to participate in other Project PoSSUM courses that include observation of noctilucent ice clouds at the outer limits of the atmosphere, parabolic flight simulating zero gravity, spacesuit design and testing, and educational outreach. These courses are taught by industry professionals and former astronauts, and I’m very excited to be involved with Project PoSSUM.

The correct orientation of a PoSSUM. (photo courtesy of

Meanwhile, in anticipation of going to the Project PoSSUM training, I’m completing a recreational open water scuba diving certification. Some of the simulation that is included in the PoSSUM training includes exercises in a neutral buoyancy pool, so they want participants to have some experience with scuba diving. As I’ve been going through the scuba course, it’s been very interesting to me to see how much of the knowledge really applies to some of the concerns associated with space flight. For example, prolonged respiration of pure oxygen at high pressure can cause oxygen toxicity, characterized by seizures, inflammation of lung and upper respiratory tissue, and retinal detachment (all very bad stuff!). Divers sometimes breathe oxygen-enriched air to reduce the likelihood of decompression sickness, but use of this “nitrox” mixture requires special training and must be conducted within strict parameters. Similarly, astronauts will sometimes breathe pure oxygen to prevent decompression effects, but prolonged respiration of pure oxygen is extremely detrimental. I was somewhat familiar with these principles before, but learning to dive has really helped me understand them better. And it’s just cool to breathe under water!

The last few posts I’ve been teasing about my next big project. As cool as Project PoSSUM is going to be, that’s not even the big one! I’m going to prolong the suspense just a bit longer, but I’ll whet your curiosity just a bit. I’ve been exploring the west desert of Utah to find a site for an analog simulation that I think is different than any other project that I’ve heard of. Interested? I won’t make you wait long!

A Little Bit of Mars on Earth

The crew of MAU-MDRS 001 in front of the Mars Desert Research Station habitat.

It’s actually been almost two weeks since I came back from my trip to the Mars Desert Research Station in Southern Utah with the Mars Academy USA. This was such an amazing experience that I should have written about it much sooner, but I wanted to make sure that I took the time to do it justice.

We started out in Grand Junction, Colorado, on January 16th (Happy Birthday to me!) It promised to be an interesting social experiment, taking a dozen people from varied backgrounds with virtually no prior association and plunging them into challenging conditions, but it was a wonderful group to work with and we came together quickly. We hailed from various professional, academic, and cultural backgrounds: doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, psychologists—and me, a lowly pilot. And students all! We spent two full days prior to entering the simulation just getting to know each other, and participating in a battery of team building exercises that created powerful bonds of trust and cooperation. I couldn’t have imagined that I would grow so close to complete strangers in such a short period of time.

Team building with “patty cake”.

When we got to the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, we split into two separate crews working in different locations. This arrangement simulated some of the logistical challenges of coordinating activities between different stations on Mars. Each crew had a specific governance model and quickly developed very distinctive cultures. Each crew also faced unique challenges. Weather conditions during our mission were cold and windy, and the muddy terrain around both stations presented several opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving. Some of my favorite learning opportunities came from the limited availability of power and fuel. For several days, one station had minimal electrical power available and we had to figure out how to strictly ration our power consumption. We conserved power for our most critical systems by turning off lights and manually moving water to avoid the power draw of using pumps. The crew at the other station had to ration fuel that was used for heating, cooking, and electricity. These restrictions were an inconvenience for us in our simulation, but on Mars they would be critical life saving skills. It was really thought-provoking to consider how much we take basic utilities for granted, and to figure out how to make lemonade when life gave us lemons.

We also faced several challenges working together in stressful conditions. We frequently functioned on reduced sleep, and in many of our activities the communications were inhibited by poor radio reception between the different stations and our EVA (extra-vehicular activity) teams. Tensions occasionally ran high, but to our team’s credit we stayed open minded and developed a culture of receptiveness to constructive feedback.

This is something that I regularly experience in my work as an airline pilot. As part of a flight crew, I work in such a demanding environment that I have to be able to efficiently communicate and be open to criticism. When I became a pilot, I learned pretty quickly not to take offense at the opportunity to learn from feedback, but with the Mars Academy USA, I was really impressed that so many of my team mates, coming from disparate backgrounds, also exhibited this rare attribute.

By setting up a communications relay, our team was able to explore further into this ravine.

One of my favorite learning moments came as a result of some of the aforementioned communications problems. We were out on an EVA and we were trying to reach an area that, because of terrain, was out of radio reception with our station. The exercise was a simulation in which we searched for an injured astronaut and we wanted to be able to extend our search as far as possible. By setting up a relay with two of our crew members staying in a location where they could communicate with the station, we successfully sent two other team members ahead to explore further than we otherwise would have been able to. It was an interesting exercise because we hadn’t discussed this possibility before, but we evaluated the situation and quickly came up with a viable solution to a realistic problem. I found it very encouraging to work together with such a great team and overcome the challenges that we faced.

Our team is evaluating simulated injuries to an astronaut. I’m in the foreground, determining our location.

Our group conducted several research projects during the course of our stay at MDRS. Most of them focused on emerging technologies that will enable medical care on Mars and in other remote locations. We also worked on developing search and rescue, and emergency response protocols to be implemented by Mars exploration teams. This was truly fascinating work and something that I was honored to be involved in. We also participated in several psychological and sociological studies evaluating the effects of living in austere environments and crew interaction in those conditions. Something I found especially interesting was that in my role as crew engineer, I was responsible to incorporate a drone, a 3D printer, and a remote controlled rover to accomplish our research goals. Working with these technologies really helped me see how important they will be to human exploration of Mars.

Setting up the 3D printer to manufacture parts for our research projects.

I took away numerous important lessons from this experience—probably more than I can immediately recount. One of the most important that was reiterated repeatedly was to think about what I’m doing and the potential consequences of my actions. It’s not uncommon for people to get into a routine and be driven by force of habit, but some of those habits can be detrimental in hostile environments. In certain circumstances, something as benign as forgetting to turn off a light could have dire repercussions. It may sound a little over the top, but we frequently reminded ourselves that Mars will constantly be trying to kill us and is unforgiving of carelessness. One lesson I’ve been taught repeatedly in my life that was reiterated during this experience was to find joy in the challenges. Several times when I was freezing, sleep deprived, and covered in mud I felt the temptation to complain, but I was cheered by the realization that I’m pursuing my passion and it’s worth whatever discomfort I have to—nay, get to—endure. One of the greatest lessons that I learned during this trip was to trust others and to communicate openly and honestly with love. Those actions don’t always come easily to me, but it was so rewarding to have open lines of communication with so many of the people I was working with. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but with mutual respect and a little patience we were invariably able to find common ground and consensus.

I’m ready to go!

Leaving the MDRS expedition, I feel like I have a renewed sense of direction about what I need to do next. The analog simulation really imbued a sense for the challenges that I will face going to Mars, and I want to conduct more of these simulations to thresh out my own plans for going to Mars. Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I’ll elaborate on specific details of my next big project. I also really feel impressed by the learning opportunities that the simulation provided and want to be able to organize a training program to prepare the next generation of interplanetary explorers. I’ll have to elaborate on that more later as well—it definitely deserves a dedicated post. So much to write! Finally, I feel extremely humbled by the responsibility to represent humanity as an emissary in space exploration. I feel a weighty duty to carry the dream, and inspire others to pursue their dreams and strive for greatness. I’m grateful for this experience that has affirmed my calling and the sense of purpose that it brings. Thank you for your support and encouragement in this amazing journey!

The Process

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. Christmas and New Year’s were wonderful yet chaotic in the Roberts household. I apologize for not writing more, but between work, festivities, and preparing for the upcoming simulation missions, time seems to be in short supply. This particular topic is one that I’ve wanted to address for a while, though.

I want to talk a little bit about the process of preparing myself to go to Mars and what I’m actually doing on a day-to-day basis. I tend to organize my efforts into three categories: 1) personal development steps I’m taking to prepare myself, 2) logistical preparations to address the means to actually be able to get to Mars, and 3) financial preparations to fund the endeavor. In my mind, I have an ideal picture of what my daily process should look like, but it’s an expectation that is seldom realized. A lot of that disparity has to do with competing demands for time, attention, and money—as well as the fact that I’m a father and a full-time pilot. Despite the seeming compromise between competing priorities, in truth those things that compete for my time and attention also provide the greatest drive and motivation to pursue my dreams. At any rate, in terms of my daily process, I’ll describe both my ideal routine and also what that looks like right now.

Personal Development

The area that I have the most control over on a day-to-day basis seems to be my personal development. I spend the majority of my time becoming who I need to be to accomplish my goals. I categorize personal development into three aspects: physical, mental, and intellectual.

Physical Preparation

I’ve always had a love for running and that tends to be my go-to exercise for physical preparation. Right now, as I’m preparing to go to Mt. Everest Base Camp with Mars Academy USA, I’m running even more than usual. I typically try to run 6-10 miles at a time, but if conditions are bad (snowy or icy sidewalks), I’ll walk or hike with a heavy pack. One of the things I love about running and walking is that I’m able to do some of my best thinking when I get into a good rhythm. If I were all legs, running would be the perfect workout, but despite its many benefits, it’s not a full-body exercise. Ideally, I would like to spend 2-3 hours a day exercising, with an hour or so of running and another 1-2 hours in the gym and the pool. That would provide much better all-around fitness, and there are several other mental and intellectual activities I could also work on while exercising. In addition, I would love to have a trainer to help me set and work toward some specific physical goals with better focus and intention.

The other important aspect of physical preparation is nutrition. Meal planning is a particular challenge for me because I spend so much time on the road, and when I’m traveling, it’s hard to be deliberate about what I eat. My diet tends to be rather opportunistic, meaning that I eat whatever is available or convenient. More often than not, that means airport food, which is expensive and provides limited selection. Since eating can be such a challenge, it would be great to have a nutritionist to help plan my menu and even prepare my meals. For now I try to be aware of what I’m eating and be conscious of my nutrition to make sure that I’m not gaining unwanted weight.

Mental Preparation

Scene from Lawrence of Arabia

In terms of mental preparation, I am working on developing a mindset that I can actually go to Mars. This isn’t to suggest that I believe I can’t go to Mars—I absolutely know I can. However, it’s a challenge for me to get that determination to take root at a deeper level where I’m not just saying it, but I believe it to my core. My own conviction is what will convince other people that I’m really going to do it. The other night I was watching Lawrence of Arabia (Spiegel, 1962) on television. I love the scene from the clip above where Lawrence says, “I will be in Aqaba—that is written… in here (pointing at his head).” I want it to be written in my mind that I will be on Mars. That’s what the mental aspect of my preparation is focused on. To nurture this mindset, I try to start my day with prayer and reading several spiritual texts. Each day I recite a personal credo that reinforces the personal characteristics and attributes that I’m trying to develop. In addition to my credo, I have a power statement that is a short affirmation I’ve memorized, which I can recite to myself during the day to counteract negative self-talk and help keep my mindset constantly aligned with my goals and priorities.

Another thing which I find helps me to have a positive mindset is listening to personal development and leadership audios that reinforce a success-oriented attitude. There are several different sources I really like for audios. The Life Leadership organization has a lot of wonderful audios on subjects including leadership, success, personal finance, professional development, marriage, parenting, people skills, faith, and freedom. Tony Robbins is a phenomenal personal development expert who is masterful at distilling success principles down to really fundamental concepts, and he speaks with such passion and energy that it’s hard not to get fired up listening to him. I’ve also discovered a podcast by Brooke Castillo that I really enjoy. One of my favorite principles that she discusses is neutrality of circumstances—the idea that nothing is inherently good or bad until we ascribe those meanings to it. This is a really empowering concept and has totally changed my perception of many of my past experiences in life. Listening to these kinds of materials really helps me develop that positive mindset and it’s something I can do passively while I’m actively engaged in other activities.

Two things that sometimes don’t get adequate attention in my daily routine are meditating and visualizing. These are great activities because they help me focus my thoughts and defer conscious reasoning for subconscious instinct. If I have specific questions to meditate on and just let my subconscious ponder these quandaries, it tends to be very effective in helping me to find productive solutions. So many of the answers I’ve found in the development of my mission architecture have come as I’ve been meditating, or first thing in the morning after I’ve just woken up. I place tremendous value on those insights, but I need to allocate more time for meditation and visualization. Interestingly, I am able to visualize when I’m riding in the back of an airplane. As an airplane lines up for takeoff and the thrust increases, the plane starts to shake, and I like to close my eyes and imagine myself on that rocket ship preparing to lift off on my way to Mars. I also visualize being on Mars when I’m driving around in the mountains of Utah and I imagine actually being on a Martian landscape. Visualization isn’t necessarily something I have to allocate specific time for, but it is important to me to take time to visualize and to see myself actually having achieved my goal—to see it before achieving it.

Intellectual Preparation

It often feels like intellectual preparation is the aspect of personal development that gets most of my time and attention. Recently I’ve been using Kahn Academy to brush up on my academic education and learn some of the subjects that I don’t have as much background in. I have a Bachelor of Public Administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a Master of Science from Embry-Riddle University in Professional Aeronautics, so I’ve studied most of these subjects to some degree already, but I feel like it’s important for me to master them to a greater degree before I go to Mars.

Many of the academic disciplines that are relevant to Mars exploration can be arranged in a pyramid, with mathematics as the foundation for all the other subjects. Right now I’m studying pre-calculus and will review calculus when I’m done with that. I’m looking forward to working with conic sections because they directly apply to the orbital dynamics that will help me get to Mars. The second tier of the academic pyramid is chemistry, because it lays a groundwork for geology, biology, engineering and being able to develop the fuel and resources to survive on Mars. Geology would be on the next tier of the pyramid because one of the things that we really want to understand about Mars is what resources are there, how they came to be there, and the similarities and differences between geological processes on Mars and Earth. Understanding geology also helps us recognize areas that are ripe for development of life and biology, the next step on the pyramid. Answering the big question on everyone’s minds—”Is there life on Mars?”—depends on a solid understanding of biology. I regard physics and engineering as the capstone of our academic pyramid. Physics is critical to understanding orbital dynamics and rocketry, so that’s another subject I’m studying.

Ideally, I would be fully immersed in studying those topics at a collegiate level, but currently my daily routine consists of working with Kahn Academy to learn math, chemistry, biology, and physics. I’m also working on developing practical applications and research in areas such as power development—what is it going to look like to develop electricity on Mars? Will I use solar power? Wind power? Geothermal power? Nuclear power? All those different questions involve math, chemistry, physics, and geology. What is transportation going to look like? That requires chemistry, physics, and math to answer. What will my habitat look like? How will I use in situ resources to develop the materials that I need to survive? These questions serve as a catalyst for studying all of the subjects in the academic pyramid.

Right now that’s what I do on a daily basis to prepare myself intellectually. I try to put in a little bit here and a little bit there, and keep moving in the direction of my goals. It’s kind of like eating a whale—I just have to take it one bite at a time, but one of the things that I feel very fortunate about is having so much joy in this journey. It’s not just about the destination, it’s not just about reaching Mars—it’s about who I become during the course of that journey. And that’s the best part of it.

Logistical Development

Logistical development has to do with the details of how I’ll get to Mars and how I’ll survive there. I spend a lot of time thinking about logistical details, but in truth most of those concerns will be better addressed by people with specialized knowledge. What I’m trying to do is see the big picture of how all those pieces fit together and then to develop the working relationships to actually assemble all of the pieces.

I’m really excited to be involved in the Mars Academy USA missions over the next two months because they will help me get a better idea of just how big this whale is that I’m getting ready to eat. The analog missions are designed to simulate conditions that will actually be encountered on Mars and expose problems with our current paradigms so we can address those issues proactively rather than reactively. My fellow crew members have a deep passion for space exploration and many of them have been involved in the field far longer than I have. I’m thrilled to learn from these knowledgeable individuals and hope to build some great relationships that will help all of us achieve our mutual goals.

One project that has been on my mind recently is a proof of concept simulation I want to conduct sometime in the next 12-18 months. This will be a big step for logistical development, will provide valuable research, and should bring attention to my plan for going to Mars. That’s just a little teaser to pique your interest. I’ll explain my plan for the simulation in more detail in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

Another aspect of logistics is reaching out to well-known figures in the aerospace community to develop relationships and connections. It’s not always easy to make contact with these individuals, because they receive so much correspondence from people that they have limited opportunity to respond to it all. I realized a while ago, however, that if I knew one particular individual held the key to getting me to Mars, there’s nothing that would keep me from getting through to that person. Too stalkerish? Maybe. I’m reaching out through mail and email to individuals such as Elon Musk, Peter Diamandis, Anousheh Ansari, Buzz Aldrin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and many others.

Here’s where you, my friends, can make a huge contribution toward getting me to Mars. Most people are somewhat familiar with the six degrees of separation principle. The idea is that each of us is separated from any other individual on the planet by a network of no more than six relationships. This is part of the power of social networking services such as Facebook and LinkedIn, because they give us access to a much broader network of contacts. I don’t know those individuals that I mentioned (yet), but I’m fairly certain I know someone whose aunt’s neighbor cuts hair for the guy who mows the lawn for Elon Musk’s secretary (or something like that). If you have access to people who have access to those individuals, please consider making that connection. And speaking of six degrees of separation, if anyone knows Kevin Bacon, it would be cool to meet him too.

Financial Development

Finance is the other area that I’m focusing on in preparation for going to Mars. I estimate that it’s going to cost approximately $1-1.5 billion for me to be able to go to Mars, and that’s a little more than I have in my bank account right now. There is no shortage of people and organizations who will be willing to invest in this project, and I have no doubt that when I get the other pieces to fit together, I’ll be able to arrange the funding. That being said, I don’t expect someone’s going to just pen me a check for that much money without holding me accountable for it. It probably wouldn’t be good to have a loan shark show up on Mars to break my kneecaps. I place a high priority on using my financial resources wisely and making the most of the resources available to me.

To that end, I’m in the process of creating a corporation associated with this project. I’m not going to share the name right now because I don’t have a trademark or internet domain name yet, but it’s in the works. I’d been thinking about doing this for a while, but came to the decision to do it now because it provides some significant tax benefits for all the expenses that I’m incurring in preparation for my trip to Mt. Everest. It also gives me more motivation to succeed, because ultimately I want this to be a thriving business that will have significant financial returns for people who invest to help me get to Mars.

Grind? What Grind?!?

I know all of this probably sounds like a lot to take care of on a daily basis—and sometimes it does seem rather daunting. There’s a great book, though, that I really love called The Slight Edge, by Jeff Olson. He talks about how small but consistent effort compounded over time can achieve enormous results. The most amazing part of this journey actually isn’t the destination, but who I find I’m becoming in the process. I’m living a life of meaning and purpose, and I experience passion about what I’m doing every day. Yesterday I had to fix the garbage disposal on our kitchen sink and that mundane task was actually enjoyable because I realized it was getting me just a little closer to being ready to go to Mars (plumbers are in short supply up there). Journeying to Mars isn’t just going to change everything for humanity in the future, it changes everything for me right now.

Because of how this experience is transforming me, I hope that whatever your personal dreams are, pursuing them changes everything for you, too.

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona

I enjoyed an interesting excursion last weekend. My father and his wife live in the Tucson, Arizona, area and I try to spend some time with them whenever I’m in town. They invariably take me to fascinating places and have convinced me that there’s a lot more to Tucson than I ever realized before. I mentioned in a passing conversation with them a few weeks ago that I wanted to try to visit the Biosphere 2 facility, which is located just north of Tucson. Lo, my stepmother, made arrangements for us to go last weekend while I was in town on an overnight stay for work.

Biosphere 2 is a grand ecological experiment that was initiated in the late 1980s. I remember hearing about it when I was in high school, but I don’t think I truly understood the significance of the project. The term “biosphere” is synonymous with ecosphere, and particularly deals with the interaction between different ecosystems. Biosphere 2 was so named because the original biosphere is planet Earth with its atmosphere and all of its ecosystems. An introductory video on the tour that we took explained that the earth’s biosphere deals with all living organisms and their interactions with the geosphere (the land masses and formations), the hydrosphere (the water system), and the atmosphere (the air that surrounds the Earth). Biosphere 2 was designed as a recreation of the Earth’s biosphere, with several distinct ecosystems and a closed atmospheric and water system isolated from outside sources of air and water. By manipulating various aspects of Biosphere’s climate, researchers could observe the effects of environmental changes. They were also able to see how the various ecosystems interact and effect a global ecological balance. It was a revolutionary project that changed our understanding of how the world works, and ongoing projects continue to yield new insights into nature’s mysteries.

Biosphere 2 was built at a cost of $150 million. The original project, begun in 1991, involved eight people living confined to the facility for two years. The experiment was fraught with numerous challenges. Divisions arose between members of the crew, and differences of opinion were exacerbated by dietary restrictions and environmental imbalances (higher portions of the Biosphere were essentially abandoned for lack of adequate oxygen). Toward the end of the project the isolation of the Biosphere was compromised to ensure the facility’s sustainability. The project and the crew faced a lot of scrutiny over what was largely viewed as a failed project, yet the venture yielded invaluable insight into the processes that drive our world.

The ocean biome. The sealed off rainforest can be seen in the background.

Biosphere 2 has continued to be used during the last thirty years for continued environmental research. It was owned for several years by New York’s Columbia University, and is currently under the care of the University of Arizona. During our visit there were several ongoing experiments. The rainforest biome (habitat), was sealed off to conduct an experiment called WALD. Researchers were inducing draught conditions to determine how plants adapt their water collection techniques. Another experiment called LEO was evaluating how landscapes form and create conditions suitable for life to develop. In particular, they were looking to see if water flow in basalt soil would activate organic compounds. They also had several other smaller experiments going on, including studies on hydroponics and aquaponics—methods for growing plants without soil.

An aquaponic nursery, similar to what might be used on Mars.

Many of these studies are very significant for exploring Mars. They help us better understand what we will need to do to establish environmentally balanced living conditions on Mars. I was especially intrigued by the work with solar electric power, and closed cycle water and atmospheric systems, because these technologies will be fundamentally critical to survival on Mars. Research conducted at Biosphere 2 also helps us understand conditions that may be favorable for the development of life on Mars so we have a better idea of where to look for past or present extraterrestrial organisms.

Visiting Biosphere 2 inspired my vision of what it will be like to go to Mars, to live in isolation, and to explore the mysteries of our universe. It’s encouraging to me that there were people 30 years ago who were making huge personal and financial sacrifices to prepare the way for us to travel to other planets. Establishing colonies on Mars was specifically mentioned as one of the driving motivators for development of the Biosphere 2 project, and they had a whole section devoted to ideas of how the research conducted there will be used on Mars. If you’re in the area and want to get an idea of what a Mars colony might look like, I highly recommend checking it out.

Mission: Abundance

Jogging near Payson Lakes

Ever since I was in high school, running has been my preferred method of self-flagellation. There’s kind of a yin and yang quality to an activity that can be so grueling, and yet so rewarding. I started out with walking for hours on end, first as I was working a paper route as a kid, and then just to be alone with my thoughts. When I was about 12, I discovered all that walking had helped me develop the stamina to be a pretty good distance runner and it was an activity that complemented my wanderlust.

Over the years, I’ve consistently been able to find refuge and fulfillment in the peace of running. To a certain degree, I never quite realized my potential as a runner. My performance pretty much peaked when I was in high school, running about a 5-minute mile. Now more than ever, though, I recognize that success and winning aren’t about sheer speed and peak performance, as much as endurance and steady performance over the long haul. That’s not to suggest that going slow is a winning strategy. As I mention in the video, I believe a good pace is about being intentional about your efforts and investing energy for maximum effect.

About a month ago, I was out running on a five-mile route around my home here in Utah. My mile times for several months had been pretty steady around 8:30 and I hadn’t been making much progress in terms of speed. On this particular day, I was pretty lethargic and didn’t know if I had it in me to do the whole route. Feeling a little short of breath after the first couple miles, I switched from exhaling every fifth step to exhaling every fourth step. Remarkably, after the third mile my mile time had decreased by several seconds. I kept this new rhythm and ran the next two miles each in under 8 minutes. Just a small change had shifted my performance into a higher gear.

It seems like one of the biggest challenges in life is finding a balance between all of the things we feel we should be doing, and the more limited subset of things to which we actually allocate our time and attention. Personally, I often struggle with feeling like there are so many really important things that I should be doing, but only finding time to do a small fraction of those things. Who can relate?

Recently, I had a realization about the difference between a scarcity mentality, versus an abundance mentality. The scarcity mentality is characterized by the idea that there’s not enough to go around, and the only way that I can have more is to take it from someone else. The abundance mentality, in contrast, focuses on what I do have and the belief that there’s more than enough to go around if I will just go out and get it. It’s the glass half empty or half full question, applied more to economics and resource management. Lately I’ve started to recognize that these principles also apply to how I manage my time. I think that the scarcity mindset tends to be the default for most of us, especially with regard to time. There never seems to be enough of it, it goes too fast, and once it’s gone, I can’t get it back. The perception defines the reality, though. If I focus on what I don’t have, my resources are minimized, but focusing on what I do have maximizes those resources.

One story that illustrates this is a conversation that I had with a relative a while ago. He was on his soap box complaining about how the system is geared against us, it’s impossible for the little guy to succeed, the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, and we’re all destined to spend the rest of our lives in poverty. He had been dealing with some difficult circumstances in his life and I understood where he was coming from, but I just couldn’t buy in to his argument. I asserted that wealth isn’t about judging ourselves by the standard of someone else who has more than we do, but rather it is a reflection of the realization that we are already rich. My friend James Melton recently told me of the R.A.T. process: Recognizing the resources that we have available to us, Acknowledging that we already have everything that we need to achieve our goals, and being Thankful for what we have. These simple steps helped me to change my attitude from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset.

This is all kind of a roundabout way of expressing gratitude for the abundance I have in my life. It may be a little cliche to do it right at Thanksgiving, but it’s something I’ve reflected on a lot in recent months. I’m grateful to have a background of experience that has brought me to a point where I’m pursuing purpose in my life. I’m grateful to have passion that drives me each day to dedicate my time and efforts to doing something really amazing. I’m humbled to have family members, friends, and associates who really support and encourage me to chase my dreams. That’s been especially underscored the last few weeks as I’ve been reaching out to raise money for my trip to Mt. Everest Base Camp, and the response has been amazing! I feel especially blessed to have this perspective of abundance. One of the things I love most about the dream of going to Mars and onward to the rest of the universe is that for all practical intents and purposes, it’s limitless. There is no scarcity of resources, of space, or even of time. The scarcity mindset that fuels so much conflict among mankind, that underscores our differences and espouses an us-versus-them mentality—it all fades away when we tap into the abundance of the cosmos. For that, I’m truly thankful.

Suckin’ Wind!

Running on the Nebo loop

It’s kind of tricky trying to record myself while I’m running. It’s a good thing I have a strong chin for everyone to stare at. Seriously though, I’m really plunging into preparing for this exciting journey to Nepal. I’m so grateful to the Mars Academy USA for inviting me to join their team, and several other participants have already reached out to welcome me to the crew. They sound like an amazing group of intrepid adventurers!

I wanted to share this video to kind of demonstrate the physical challenge that we’ll be up against when we go to Mt. Everest Base Camp in a few months. I had just started running at 8,000 feet above sea level when I began recording, and I was already out of breath. Granted, trying to talk while I’m running is always a bit taxing, but high altitude will humble you quickly! I run fairly regularly and I spent several weeks this summer backpacking at 10,000 feet, so I’m in reasonable physical condition. I won’t lie though— I’m a little intimidated by this challenge. My run today was at 8,000 feet, and we’re going to be trekking up to more than twice that elevation! To really drive that home, allow me to give a quick and dirty lesson on some of the vagaries of the atmosphere we tend to take for granted.

You may already be quite well aware that Earth’s atmosphere consists of about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other trace gases and water vapor. This distribution is fairly consistent throughout most of our atmosphere, so when someone says that there’s not as much oxygen up at higher altitudes it’s not entirely accurate. What’s really happening is that the atmosphere is at a lower pressure. The standard atmospheric pressure at sea level is roughly 1000 millibars (approximately equivalent to 14.5 psi or 30 inches of mercury). Because oxygen is 21% of the atmosphere, the partial pressure of oxygen at sea level is about 210 millibars. In order for that oxygen to be absorbed into the blood stream in the lungs, the partial pressure of oxygen has to be higher than the partial pressure of oxygen in the blood. That’s not usually a problem down at sea level, but at 18,000 feet the atmospheric pressure is about half (500 millibars) of what it is at sea level. That means that the partial pressure of oxygen is only about 110 millibars.

This reminds me of the experiment that we did when I was in high school where we took an egg and soaked it in vinegar for a week. After several days the vinegar permeates through the egg’s membrane by osmosis until the pressure equalizes between the inside and outside. If you take the egg out of the vinegar the process will reverse itself because the pressure is higher inside the egg. This is similar to what happens in the alveoli of the lungs, where oxygen osmoses across the lung membrane and binds to the hemoglobin of the red blood cells. If you happened to be in an airplane that experienced a loss of cabin pressure at high altitude the partial pressure of oxygen in your blood stream would be higher than the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere, and breathing would pump the oxygen out of your body.

Hypoxia is a medical condition associated with a lack of oxygen in the body’s tissues. Although we most commonly think of this with regard to high altitudes where there’s a reduced amount of oxygen being pushed into the blood (hypoxic hypoxia), several other factors can impact respiration with similar effects. Low iron in the blood cells inhibits the hemoglobin’s ability to bond with oxygen and reduces the blood’s ability to transport oxygen to other parts of the body. Similarly, carbon monoxide bonds more readily to hemoglobin than molecular oxygen does, leaving the oxygen without a ride to the body’s tissues. One particular danger of carbon monoxide poisoning is that a person can asphyxiate even after moving away from the source of carbon monoxide to an oxygen rich environment because the blood won’t carry the oxygen while the carbon monoxide is still bonded to it. An ample supply of oxygen in the blood does not necessarily ensure that the oxygen will transfer to other body tissues. Certain chemicals can inhibit tissue from absorbing oxygen from the blood stream.

All of these variations of hypoxia have pretty similar symptoms, but they can be hard to recognize if you’re not familiar with them or alert to the possibility of hypoxia. Fatigue, lightheadedness, euphoria, headache, cyanosis (bluing of the fingertips), and reduced visual acuity are a few of the common manifestations of hypoxia. When I’ve experienced it a few times over the course of my career I’ve noticed that I just feel kind of slow. Here’s an interesting video of an Air Force pilot undergoing hypoxia training in an altitude chamber. You’ll notice his symptoms pretty quickly, even though he never really picks up on them.

4 of spades

Apart from avoiding high altitude environments (not exactly an option for pilots, astronauts, or Himalayan explorers), there are several things that you can do to reduce your susceptibility to hypoxia. Good physical conditioning and a balanced diet help to increase red blood cell count and stave off anemia. Smoking and alcohol use also have a detrimental effect on the body’s capacity to utilize oxygen. Taking time to acclimate to high altitudes is also important for mitigating the effects of prolonged exposure to high altitudes. In theory we could probably make our trek to Mt. Everest Base Camp in three or four days, but we’re going to stretch the journey out over a week to give our bodies a chance to adjust to the unfamiliar conditions.

All of this is kind of a poor excuse for sucking wind during my run this afternoon. I’m not interested in excuses, though— just motivations. I was hunting with my teenage daughter a couple years ago and we had a particular challenging night packing out of the forest in the middle of the night. When it was all over I asked her if she would do it again if she knew that it was going to be as difficult as it was. “No!!!”, she replied without hesitation. Two weeks later, though, she was asking to join me on my next hunt. I pointed out to her that we can choose to do hard things so that when we’re compelled to do hard things we already know that we can. Bring it on!

By the way, if you haven’t already been to my fundraising page please check it out here and consider donating. I truly appreciate anything you can spare, and I’m so grateful for all the support that I’ve been receiving.

Take Me Higher!

Mt. Everest

It seems that there’s a certain dichotomy that when life tends to be the most eventful there’s the least amount of time to write about it. If I were to reflect on that for a while I would probably find myself rededicated to the policy of living in the present, and yet I feel responsible to record my experiences of the past.

Indeed, this has been a week worth recording! When I wrote about my experiences at the Mars Society conference last month, I mentioned that I had been invited to participate in a research expedition to Mt. Everest Basecamp this winter, hosted by the Mars Academy USA. Due to scheduling conflicts during the same time frame of the trip I didn’t expect to be able to participate, but the prospect continued to taunt me for several weeks. I knew that it would be a great opportunity, but wasn’t sure how to it would contribute to my goals or how to make it work.

Last week, as I was reflecting on these concerns, I decided to learn a little more about an organization called the Explorers Club. This group is “dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore.” They have been associated with numerous monumental achievements including the first expeditions to the North and South Poles, the first successful ascension of Mt. Everest, the first exploration of the deepest point in the ocean, and the first human exploration of the moon. Aside from this storied success record, what attracts me to the Explorers Club is their access to funding resources for furthering members’ endeavors, and the opportunity to mentor with other members who can provide firsthand insight into making groundbreaking advancements in scientific research. These are some people I need to be around! To qualify for membership in the Explorers Club, applicants must demonstrate significant contribution to some field of scientific exploration, and must be endorsed by two club members. Getting in isn’t exactly easy, but participation in the Mars Academy USA Mt. Everest research expedition would help me meet the first qualification for membership in the Explorers Club.

I decided to revisit the the possibility of participating in the Mt. Everest expedition, and reached out to Dr. Susan Ip-Jewell of Mars Academy USA. MAU is dictated to providing analog training and research in austere conditions similar to those that will be experienced by crews on Mars. Their emphasis is on medecine, health and wellness, biotech and the biomedical innovations that will enable human exploration of Mars. When I spoke to Susan at the Mars Society conference she had been very encouraging about my plans, but the response she offered to my inquiry was more than I could have hoped for. Several months ago I posted a call for mentors to collaborate with me in my endeavor, and Susan is answering that call with zeal!

Dr. Susan Ip-Jewell and myself

Susan astutely pointed out to me several important ways that participating in the Mt. Everest expedition will help prepare me for Mars. First, it will expose me to rigorous conditions of temperature, pressure, and terrain, and really give me a sense for the challenging environment that I will face on Mars. Second, I will be able to establish credentials that will give me greater credibility as I promote my journey to Mars. It will also provide immediate opportunities to network and collaborate with specialists with the technical expertise that I need to develop. Finally, it will qualify me for membership in the Explorers Club and open doors for funding and partnership with other organizations and individuals who are in a position to help make my vision a reality.

After talking to Susan I was sold on going, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get my wife Hilary on board. After all, it’s three weeks and a significant financial expense to commit to. Forgive me please if I go off on a tangent for a minute, but I would be horribly ungrateful if I failed to edify my wonderful wife. When we got married I essentially gave up on my dream of becoming a pilot. I didn’t know how I could afford to start a family and continue to pay for flying lessons, so I figured I’d just have to compromise and make a living doing something I was less passionate about. When we were on our honeymoon she asked me what we were going to do about “this flying thing”, and I explained my thoughts on the question. “Oh no! You’ve already put too much money into this!”, was her response. I don’t think that she really knew what she was signing on for. I’ve dragged her all over the country chasing flying jobs, been away more nights than I’ve been home, and essentially left her to singlehandedly raise our four daughters. I have no right to ask more of her and I’ve taken her support for granted too often. And yet when I told her about my conversation with Susan, Hilary’s support was immediate and unconditional. I can’t adequately express how grateful I am to have her in my corner.

Airplane love! Hilary and me in front of the chariot of our first date.

So all of this is a roundabout way of explaining that I’m going to be going to Mt. Everest Basecamp in February 2020! I’m very excited about this amazing opportunity and the doors that it will open. I’ll fly into Kathmandu, Nepal and then take a flight Lukla, Nepal where our team will begin a nine day trek to our simulation facility adjacent to the Everest Base Camp at approximately 17,000 feet above sea level. We will then enter a simulation scenario that replicates the conditions of isolation and confinement similar to those that will be experienced on Mars. During this time we will be conducting a number of research projects relevant to future Mars exploration.

I’ve also been invited to participate in a mission with Mars Academy USA at the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah in January. This mission will have similar research goals and activities- just a little closer to home.

I’m really excited to make a real contribution to this important work. My background in aviation brings real world perspective and experience in dealing with hypoxia (lack of oxygen in the blood) and other altitude related medical concerns. This will be a wonderful learning opportunity and I anticipate that it will open lots of doors to help achieve my goals.

I’m starting a GoFundMe drive to raise money for the participation fees for these two research events. Mars Academy USA has also offered several prizes for the first to contribute. Please check out the funding campaign, contribute what you can, and share with your friends. It’s something very significant that you can do to bring us all closer to making the cosmos a little smaller. Thank you for your support!

The Things I Think About When I’m Half Awake

I woke up this morning with a bit of an epiphany. I’ve been working on a post discussing selling points for the Mars NOW mission architecture, but that’s been postponed for the time being. One of the points that I was considering for that discussion is why I can get to Mars before SpaceX can get there with the Starship. This line of questioning brought me to my semi-conscious realization this morning.

The current plan for SpaceX to go to Mars is to send a cargo mission in 2022 and then a manned mission in 2024, both utilizing the Starship vehicle that is currently in development. This is a great plan, and if anyone can pull it off it’s SpaceX. That being said, there’s a really good reason that it makes more sense to send just one person in either the 2022 or 2024 launch windows.

One of the things that I learned at the Mars Society Conference last month is that not all Hohmann transfer windows are created equally. Because Mars has an elliptical orbit that is much more eccentric than Earth’s, the energy required to go from Earth to Mars varies depending on where the transfer orbit intersects Mars’ orbit. To illustrate this idea, this is what a normal Hohmann transfer between Earth and Mars would look like if both planets had a circular orbit.

Hohmann transfer with circular orbits

The green orbit is Earth, the red orbit is Mars, and the blue orbit is the Hohmann transfer from Earth to Mars (funny, the whole thing looks a little like my Mars NOW logo). This is the lowest energy transfer between the two planets because it is just tangential to both of the planets’ orbits. Because Mars orbits the sun more slowly than the Earth, the transfer orbit needs to be initiated when Mars is slightly ahead of Earth in its orbit. Since the transfer orbit captures Mars on the opposite side of the solar system from where it was initiated, the journey essentially takes half of a year (that’s a little oversimplified, but call it 6-8 months). This example is great for understanding the basic principle of the Hohmann transfer window, but the eccentricity of Mars’ elliptical orbit complicates the picture.

Hohmann transfer with intersection at perigee

This is a more realistic depiction (within the limits of my artistic skills) of what the transfer would look like taking into account the eccentricity of Mars’ orbit. This particular example depicts a transfer window at perigee. Sorry, that’s not the tasty Russian dumplings- that would be pierogi. Perigee refers to the point of an elliptical orbit that is closest to the Earth, and for the transfer to Mars this is the best case/lowest energy scenario. Unfortunately because Mars orbits the sun more slowly than the Earth, this ideal arrangement only occurs every 15-17 years. Last year was the most recent occurrence, and this alignment won’t happen again until 2033.

Hohmann transfer with intersection at apogee

This last illustration depicts what we’re looking at for a 2022 transfer window. Mars is at apogee- the opposite of perigee- meaning that it is at its furthest distance from Earth’s orbit. Because of the larger elliptical transfer orbit, it requires more energy than would be required during more ideal transfer windows. The transfer energy in 2022 is approximately 55% higher than it would be in 2028, which results in higher fuel requirements. Since it requires greater force (and more fuel) to accelerate a larger mass to the velocity associated with a particular energy level, minimizing mass reduces thrust requirements to establish a transfer orbit. In addition, since velocity has to be dissipated to capture Mars’ orbit on arrival, the fuel penalty for increased mass is basically doubled in comparison to a lighter vehicle.

These considerations underscore the eficiency of the Mars NOW concept as compared to Starship. Applying the 55% increase in energy requirements to the lower payload mass results in a much smaller performance penalty than if the same increase were applied to Starship. That’s not to say that it can’t be done or even that it shouldn’t be done, but it’s worth considering using a light efficient platform now and waiting until a less energy intensive window to send the larger vehicle.