Resource management on Mars

The HI-SEAS habitat is off the grid. We have solar panels for electricity and tanks for water. Conservation of water, power, and Cheez-its governs much of our life here in the hab.

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That’s me on the ridge. Hi, mom!

Electricity

Most days, we don’t worry about electricity. The hab sits at 8200′; we tend to be above the clouds. If our batteries have a full charge come late afternoon, they easily last through cooking and crew nighttime activities until the sun hits our panels again in the morning.

Often enough though, fog rolls through all day, or thin clouds sit above our solar panel. On these days, we must conserve to ensure we get enough charge to last the night. Usually it’s enough to be careful with how we cook and to postpone running high-energy appliances.

Every once in a while, we have a truly cloudy day. Although we have a backup generator, we avoid using it. After all, on Mars you wouldn’t be able to get a resupply of propane. On these days, computers are unplugged. Cooking is restricted to minimal hot water/hotplate use. Lights stay off, including lights on our non-science plants.

Water

Our water tanks hold 1000 gallons. We receive a refill approximately every 4 weeks and aim to have 100 gallons left on resupply day. I’ll do the math for you – that works out to 32 gallons per day, or about 5 gallons per person – much more than the 7 liters I thought we were going to have. This is the water we use to drink, cook (including food rehydration and dishes), clean, and maintain our own hygiene. Cutting this to 27 gallons per day allows each crew member one load of laundry per month. Any other use – watering plants, cleaning up in the lab, rinsing the urinal, filling the jacuzzi – also comes out of that monthly budget.

Water conservation affects our everyday small habits. We rehydrate food with just enough water, and water plants with old camel pack water or sterile but non-potable lab water. I’ve been reheating the same water in my hot water bottle for the last two months (it’s not that disgusting, it gets boiled every few days). Many of us use the same dishes several times rather than washing them after every use. But it’s the big-ticket items like showers and laundry where conservation strategies make the most difference.

Showers

Officially, we are each allowed 8 minutes of shower per week. Some crew members prefer longer showers less often. Personally, I sponge-bathe most days using about a liter of water that I heat in the kettle. That leaves me enough time to have nice long (well, 2 minute) showers on hair-washing days.

We have a solar water heater that sits on top of our attached storage container. Practically, it takes about a minute for the hot water to make it through the pipes to the shower. A minute is a lot when you only have 8 per week; an entire economy has sprung up around the use of that cold water.

Dishes

We’ve got a three bucket system.

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By the way, all those strainers are for straining rehydrated food.

On the left, you see the soup bucket, so called because the contents often resemble soup. This is where all chunks should be removed from dishes. Dishes then go into the middle bucket, the soap bucket. Here the dishes are soaped and sterilized, then rinsed as much as possible. The rightmost bucket is the rinse bucket. This is the only bucket that gets new water. Water moves left, never right. When the rinse bucket is soapy, or the soup bucket is nearing stew, everybody moves down.

Laundry

We budget for one load of laundry per month per person. Like on a camping trip, normal societal standards of cleanliness don’t apply in here. That said, I have some non-negotiable standards of my own. I will not wear socks or underwear for more than one day, and I will not wear smelly clothes for general wear.

I’ve found that conserving laundry water is all about managing clothing cleanliness, which is all about not letting dirty things hang out with clean things.

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That shirt is a bad influence.

This is quite challenging since we do a lot of dirty things here: EVA, daily exercise, taking out the poop. So personally, I have several sets of clothes in use at any given time. I have my EVA clothes, my exercise clothes, and my regular clothes. I will only put on my regular clothes or my pajamas if I am clean. So managing my own cleanliness is critical to managing my clothing’s cleanliness. Likewise, since we don’t have enough water to wash blankets, I have clean blankets that I only touch with my clean clothes and a dirty blanket that I can use if I’m cold and in my EVA clothes or exercise clothes. Regular clothes rotate in as exercise clothes when they’re too dirty.

Congratulations, you got this far. You win a story.

Many of our conservation habits were formed out of necessity in the first weeks of the mission.

The hab sits a mile up a bumpy gravel road. The water delivery company that supplied the previous mission wasn’t willing to supply ours. So mission management had to find a replacement, but so far all were unwilling to make the trek to the hab. With no water delivery in sight, the crew had to conserve as much as possible. We got down to around 8 gallons per day. Then came an event so memorable it was immortalized in song and poem. The song is unshareable, but I leave you with the poem.

Listen, my children, and I will tell
of the water delivery of Bryan Caldwell
on the 8th of February, HI-SEAS mission 5.
Hardly a fly is now alive  // We had a fly problem…
who remembers that famous day and email.

He said to the crew, “When the water truck
comes up the road to the hab tonight,
hang the covers aloft on the window struc-
ture to block the resupply bots from sight.  // Visitors require covered windows

One in the lab and two by the sea
And they on the opposite side will be
ready to drive around to the sim
where all of the water tank’s levels are grim
to fill each one of them up to the brim.”

It was five by the kitchen clock
When the news arrived at the habitat:
T-minus-fifteen to the cheeky knock
Of the robots at the water tank
So listening for any crunch or clank
The crew activates to empty the vat.

They spring to the faucets and open them wide,
At first a trickle and then a tide:
A free for all with each pot, spoon, and bowl,
Each five-gallon bucket and pen cap is full
And a pot from the autoclave besides.

It was five thirty by the kitchen clock.
A water frenzy had truly struck.  // Seriously, it was a madhouse.
Each towel, each shirt, each blanket, each sock
Tumbled in the washing machine,
The shower hosing down each of the crew.
Even the plants get a soaking too.
All assholes and elbows and nosehairs are clean
And still no crunch of a resupply truck.

It was six by the kitchen clock
When each of the crewmates had taken a rinse.
Then to inboxes came a shock:
A second email from Kim on the thread.
The truck will not bring water – instead
Its purpose was mere reconnaissance.

UILA can tell you, the crew devoured  // UILA: our telemetry monitor.
One hundred gallons in half an hour.
A huge red drop that looked even more
ridiculous from conservation before
A number for the record book;
At quick consumption the crew excelled.
All from the email the crew mistook
As a water delivery from Bryan Caldwell.

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4 thoughts on “Resource management on Mars

  1. Hi Laura – You certainly have The Right Stuff! Amazing resourcefulness and resilience. When you come home, you need to indulge yourself in some serious pampering and an endless hot shower. 😎 💕 🌺

    Liked by 1 person

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