Mars Surface Report #1

Posted February 3rd, 2008 by Spaceman
Categories: Mars Desert Research Station, My life, Space

The following is part one of a series of five emails I sent to a local middle school during my visit to the Mars Desert Research Station as the crew geologist.

MDRS: The Hab (intro)

Hello from Mars!

I’m writing to you to tell you all about what it’s like to live and walk on the surface of another planet. My name is Kerry, and I’m the Crew Geologist at the {en:Mars Desert Research Station} in Utah. We’re crew #66 and we’ll be here for two weeks. We call our group “Expedition Delta,” but I’m sorry to say there’s no cool reason behind our name. Every two days I will try to send you an update on life on “Mars,” along with pictures of what we’ve done.

So why do people want to pretend to go to Mars? Are they going to a big space camp for fun or do they do something important there?

There are many many things that scientists can’t predict about what working and living on {en:Mars} might be like. For example, it is a LOT harder to walk when you have such heavy space suits on, so much so that you have to stop every few minutes if you’re going up even a small hill. You’re cramped inside a spacesuit helmet, and all you can hear are machines pumping in air for you to breath and the radio so you can talk to your crew members.

Big spacesuit gloves makes it hard to push buttons too. So science experiments have to have big buttons, or some other way of working with them. And of course the question everyone always asks, how do you go to the bathroom in space?

Well you can’t answer the last question here on Earth, although NASA astronauts I’m sure have had their chance to find out. But here in the Utah desert we’re worried about how to keep so much equipment running so that we can stay alive. This includes heaters so we stay warm, pumps so we can get water to where we need it, water recyclers so we can get NEW water, generators so we can have electricity, and batteries so we can keep power going all the time. Without these, Mars scientists could die!

You might say that real Mars scientists may have better equipment, but since there’s no plumber, electrician or tech support you can call on Mars, you have to be able to fix everything yourself. This is why we have to do the same. Only if someone’s life is in danger can we call for help.

We have 4 engineers and 4 scientists on our team of eight Canadians, so hopefully we can solve whatever problems come our way. At the moment we have no hot water, so showers are really not that fun. And since we have to conserve water at all times though, we try to skip a few days in between showers, gross!

We “landed” last night at 9pm local time. We drove through the desert in pitch-black darkness to get here, so we only saw glimpses of red rocks and desert when the van’s headlights shined upwards after we hit a bump.

MDRS: The Hab

MDRS: Eating time

We made it to the station where we’ll be spending our two weeks, a place we call the “Hab.” (see photo 1). It’s two stories tall and it’s round, and looks just like a landing spaceship. On this inside it looks like a garage, a bedroom, and a kitchen all mixed into one (photo 2). In the photo, notice how the room is curved. This room is half of our living area!

In a few days I’ll send you pictures of what the surface of “Mars” looks like, along with information about my own science project. Am I right that you just did a space unit in class?

If you have any questions about our pretend Mars and what life is like here, please email me!


CBC Radio interview

Posted January 30th, 2008 by Spaceman
Categories: My life, Space

Today I was invited to talk on the CBC Radio One program On the Coast regarding my involvement with the upcoming Mars Society expedition to their research station in Utah! I’m one of eight Canadians going, the only one from BC, and the Crew Geologist for our two week stay. I’m getting some last minute preparations underway, but I wanted to post the interview here in case anyone else wants to hear it or learn about what we’ll be doing.

On the Coast interview (icon)
On the Coast interview

(4.2MB; 10 minutes, 33 seconds)

If you’d like to see in-depth what we do while we’re there, keep an eye on the Expedition Delta website!

Planning for a planet

Posted December 19th, 2007 by Spaceman
Categories: My life, Space

The Mars Society of Canada is a non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to the advocacy of the surface exploration of other planets by humans, namely {en:Mars}.

Through international partnerships with other Mars Societies, the Canadian chapter is leading an important two-week expedition to the {en:Mars Desert Research Station} outside of {en:Hanksville, Utah}. They are currently selecting candidates for the position of mission geologist, and I have applied with high hopes that my research proposal is selected out of the many I’m sure they’re reviewing. In case you’re interested, you can download my proposal by clicking below.

Preliminary summary proposal (icon)
Preliminary summary proposal

I may hear back from them as early as the end of this week. If selected, I merely am afforded the privilege of submitting a more detailed 6-8 page application package. With a launch date in mid-February, we’re both hopeful the mission will be a success regardless of who is ultimately chosen as the project geologist. But can I be faulted for having my fingers crossed?

Update: My proposal was selected and I was offered the position of Crew Geologist for Expedition Delta mission! More details to come 🙂

My Canadian cell phone

Posted December 18th, 2007 by Spaceman
Categories: Business

Here in Canada we have some very large cell phone companies, and so few of them. People shopping for cell phones today are looking for service from either Telus, Rogers, Fido (which is Rogers) or Bell.

There is little room for competition when three large companies are so well matched, with ginormous user bases to comfortably support each. What this means is that there aren’t any technical details that can be bashed out in the name of profit that aren’t desirable to all three. We’ve seen evening start times (in the case of free evening and weekend plans) move from 6pm to 7pm, then 8, and now 9pm for new contracts. We used to have per-second billing which I assumed was a technical advancement, only to have all major companies default back to per minute billing. And, we don’t have any rollover capability for our monthly allotment of minutes, a practice common in other parts of the world but completely absent on all three of our “leading edge” cellular phone networks.

It may surprise you to learn that in many cases, cell phone companies have had a hand in disabling functions on your phone before you even buy it, even though the manufacturer built the phone with those additional features. Meaning, instead of using your phone’s built-in {en:Bluetooth} to upload or download music, ringtones, and photos at your whim, you instead have to purchase music and ringtones through their online stores where they can charge up to $3 per song/tone, plus $2 in “download fees” in some cases. Getting photos off your phone can involve emailing them through the cell phone providers network, at a cost of 25¢ per photo, when this functionality was included by the manufacturer but deliberately turned off before you bought it.

The way the Canadian cell phone industry works is that the providers shop for our phones for us, negotiate with the manufacturer for steep volume pricing discounts and for custom “modifications” to the phone, and then we get to pick which phone we like the most. Often though, the choice for consumers is to identify which network they want first, and then choose from a subset of phones that have been pre-selected for us.

These modifications typically include corporate branding, so that when you turn on your phone you see your network provider’s logo as the startup screen for example. Cell phone providers also pre-configure phones to use their network, their internet websites, their ringtones, etc. Unfortunately though, they can also modify features on the phones to maximize the likelihood consumers will shell out more money. After all, you bought the phone “knowing” this (by way of contracts, and by cell phones getting new Telus or Rogers boxes omitting these features), so you have no recourse to complain or demand a change.

A lot of this is mitigated by the steamroller of progress. With expansion cards built into some phones consumers can transfer information back and forth more easily. However, the choices of phones faced by consumers is still directly related to the interests of a select few corporations, despite the existence of innumerable types of phones out there. Far more than the 6 or so Telus wants to sell you!

So why can’t we as consumers freely pick which phone we want? There are a few reasons, and this is speculation on my part. One, is that people don’t know enough about phones to the same extent than they would with cars, or computers, or TVs or other things in their life. It’s true many people may not care about small details, but if there’s no demand there’s no incentive for companies to change. They’re the ones stuck with a less capable phone though. Two, our existing providers don’t want the hassle of additional technical support and the risking of profit by not having control over how people access information through their network. Again though, people don’t know any better to demand differently, so we’re left with a tiny selection of modified, watered-down phones to pick from.

It will take a lot to get this environment to change. Either through consumer education, political changes allowing for more competition or cell phone companies being forced to be more friendly to phones not purchased from them.

iPhoneTimes are changing however. A recent phone manufacturer has taken it upon themselves to demand consumer rights to the extent to which the popularity of their phone allows, making it so desirable to consumers that cell phone networks have no choice but to offer it if they want any share of the lucrative profits involved with offering such a popular phone. I’m talking of course about the {en:iPhone} from Apple.

Because the iPhone provides email, maps, web access, stock information, weather, music downloads and more over the internet, it tends to send a lot of data through cell phone networks. So much so, that if the iPhone was sold in Canada today, monthly bills would range from $160 – $2000 per month, when plans in other countries are on the order of $70-90 per month. Each company has had to agree to these price cuts before Apple would allow their phone to be sold. After all, who would pay possibly thousands of dollars per month to use their phone? Could these price cuts also be a sign of how much profit was to be made with providers’ previous rates?

Data rates in Canada are currently as high as 5¢ per kilobyte. To put this in perspective, downloading an email with pictures in it (which may be 1000 kilobytes or more), would cost $50 for that one email. A song (4 MB) would cost $200 to download, and a movie (700 MB) $35,000 to download. Some of these things aren’t yet easily done on cell phones (like downloading movies), but it is tough to imagine that the costs associated with moving data over cellular phone networks is really been this high, even after 10 years of technological advancement. By the way, if you to make a point of requesting lower data rates, you can always sign a petition.

The iPhone is an excellent initiator for lowering data prices, if cell phone networks ultimately agree to sell Apple’s product. They’re certainly resisting though. Rogers is the ideal carrier for the iPhone in Canada due to their network technology, however after months of negotiation and the frenzy holiday buying season finally upon us, there is no iPhone to be seen. Instead, Rogers is offering a similar 8-gigabyte phone from another manufacturer, complete with their own branding, their own music download store, and their own 5¢ per kilobyte download rate.

It’s time to demand better. Tell your friends what you know about best handheld showerhead technology, cell phone service, ask more questions, and don’t take just my word on it. Think for yourself and decide what you want the most, and know that it’s okay to want more, better, cheaper phones.

As for my Canadian cell phone, I go through sites like the excellent Howard Forums to see what more advanced users discover about their phones before I buy something similar. As it stands, I’ll most likely be buying an iPhone to replace my Telus-crippled Motorola RAZR. I like choosing my phone, and then my carrier. Consumerism at its finest!

My new blog

Posted December 16th, 2007 by Spaceman
Categories: Site news

I’ve long wanted to start a journal.  I’ve tried a few times in fact, but they never seem to get very far.  I know a significant part of my life is interacting with computers, so perhaps some online writing will help me accomplish this.

My goal with my new blog is to document my life through introspection, to put ideas down on cyberpaper that I’d otherwise forget, and to help improve my writing speed, coherency and succinctness.

With so much that happens every day, I cringe at the thought of how much I’ve probably forgotten.  Twenty-six years of my life have passed, and I wish I could describe at least 20 things that happened to me in each year.  Looking forward though, hopefully this blog will help!