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.

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.