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In part 3 of our AustroMars interview series, we speak to the first officer, Alexander Soucek, who spent the mission in April 2006 in Utah, as well as to Olivia Haider, who was working on homepage & communications in Salzburg during the mission. Johannes Nendwich of the back-up crew could not participate in the interview, but he provided us with information from his diary.
OeWF: Olivia, you have been working on homepage & communications at the Mission Control Center in Salzburg and the AustroMars mission had been your first mission. How did you experience the preparation for the mission?
Olivia Haider: The preparation for the AustroMars mission began roughly 1.5 years prior to the actual mission. After making the decision to try a purely Austrian MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station) mission and ensuring the availability of the station with the Mars Society, the first steps could be set into motion. One of them was to start an Austria-wide call for analog astronauts. The media in Austria took up the call which was reflected in the amount of applications. We had almost 200 applicants who were reduced through a multi-staged selection process until only 6 crew members and 3 back-up crew members remained. Besides reaction tests and psychological questionnaire, you also had to pass a fitness test, advanced psychological interviews and the so-called “snow-white coffin”. The Lower Body Negative Pressure (LBNP) test was conducted there. During this test, a negative pressure was created below our analog astronaut candidates’ belly, which simulated the strain during high g-levels. Usually, all test persons loose their conscience during the test. But one of our AustroMars candidates was able to overcome the “snow-white coffin”. But then again, this candidate flies black hawk helicopters professionally ;-). Find out more about LBNP: https://physiologie.cc/AHST.htm
Next to the selection process, which ran over several months, as well as a subsequent analog-astronaut training, the logistics also had to be organized in advance. Import and export licenses for the experiments’ equipment had to be requested, sponsors had to be found and last but not least, the whole equipment had to be safely packaged in order to be transported to the US.
I can remember having spent an entire weekend together with half a dozen people at the University of Innsbruck sorting, cataloging (for customs) and packing the equipment. And that was just one tiny part of the preparation.
OeWF: How did you experience the mission?
At the time when the AustroMars mission took place, which had been 3 weeks in total (1 week of preparation and 2 weeks of high fidelity mission), I just changed my job position and therefore could not be present at the Mission Control Center in Salzburg during the week. So I basically had the webcams of the MDRS running throughout half my afternoon, as far as my work permitted it, in order to observe the AustroMars crew during their morning activities (there was an 8-hour time difference to Utah) and followed the updates on our homepage. At the time, in 2006, social media had not reached Europe yet and there were no Twitter & Facebook posts to write :-D
I was looking forward the most to the weekend, which is when I got into my small FIAT Punto and drove to the MCC in Salzburg. The mood at the MCC was very distinct, they tried to support the crew in Utah as good as possible. Because of the time difference, the most intensive time was in the evening until late at night. Many at the MCC changed their own rhythm and stayed throughout the night shift. We even put up field beds at the library of the school where you could sleep very well…
OeWF: What was your highlight of the mission?
For me, the weekends at the MCC were a highlight since they glued the team together. We worked a lot, but we also had a lot of fun and everybody cared about the topic space & exploration.
I had the feeling to do something meaningful, to contribute a small step toward humans being able to safely explore planet Mars in the future.
Johannes Nendwich belonged to the “ghosts of Mars”, i.e. the back-up crew. They posed problems to the flight crew, which had to be solved, and saved them from problems, which the crew could not have solved on their own with given tools. They had to remain “invisible” for the flight crew given that it was a high fidelity simulation! Johannes could not participate in the interview, however he provided us with information from his diary “A day in the life of an (Austro)Mars-ghost”.
Having arrived late in the evening “outside (at the MDRS), I first put down “Wendy” (the primary diesel generator which had to be fixed), the tank still being half-full. Then I took the brought along tools into the engineer-lock of the habitat. On the full-moon-lit way, I already heard music (“Do kummt de Sun”) and voices – oh yeah, Yuri’s Night was still going on. Despite this background-noise-setting, I moved as carefully and quiet as possible, since I had a good reputation as a Mars ghost to loose (meaning that the hab-people should not notice that there were other people outside – high fidelity simulation!)
The peephole of the inner lock door was pasted up, good idea! I took the stuff they put inside for us back outside. … I gently closed the outer lock door again and left as an Automatic Remote Engineering On-site-support Rover (AREOR) – to the engineering area. There, I put the tools next to the other stuff and the rest into the car. Then I went to the back (to the Automatic Refill Station) in order to drive the three ATVs (All Terrain Vehicle) one by one into the engineering area … for maintenance by On Site Support, meaning us, on the following day. In this party atmosphere, the ATVs should not be heard anyways, given that there was a sand wall between the habitat and the engineering area and the vehicles were not louder than the generators.
A few minutes later, I enjoyed the sight of the moon and the stars in the once-again quiet night, sent a salute to Mars, which stood next to Orion and the Bull, and finally drove back (to the hotel), not without scaring up a long-eared rabbit at the desert road, but other than that without any special occurences.”
Back-up crew members Johannes Nendwich (left) and Rene Vidalli (right)
OeWF: Alexander, what was your highlight of the AustroMars mission, which you attended as first officer?
Alexander Soucek: One could answer this with many technical details – ranging from the exciting canyon-journeys in a space suit on a quad to getting put in plaster as a simulated accident victim – but perhaps my most beautiful impressions mark the beginning and end of the mission. The beginning: We are abandoned at 5 in the early morning in a space suit, at the side of the road in the darkness – that was our “landing” on Mars! From the side of the road, the three of us – Norbert Frischauf, the commander, Gernot Grömer, the medical officer, and myself, the first officer – first go for a short walk through the dust with our flash lights, then we start to climb while the stars are slowly fading in the desert landscape. Right at sunrise, we stand at a rock plateau and look at the Mars station deep below us: After a year spent working, preparing and hoping, you blink through the visor into a yellow-orange sun at the horizon and know – now it begins. That was a strong moment. And the end: After two weeks of isolation on “Mars”, where getting outside was only possible through the lock procedure and in a space suit, we step outside into the sand for the first time just in a T-shirt and sneakers. You feel so light and strange! You naturally want to hold your breath so that the Martian atmosphere does not reach your lungs! Then all colleagues and assistants gather on a hill, there is beer, stories and … well, fresh apples! And funnily enough, you once again blink into a sunrise, but this time with a 14-day-beard, tired but still pretty relaxed.
OeWF: By now, you have already experienced both, field missions and analog missions at the Mission Support Center (MSC, at the time still MCC), where do you like to work the most? Or, put differently, what’s the charm of either option for you?
As far as I know, I am the only person at the OeWF until today who has filled three very different roles in our missions: Analog astronaut, flight director and also principal investigator, which is the head of a scientific experiment in the field. All three positions have their charm. Obviously, the role of an astronaut is something special, even if your kit bag abrades your shoulders and you have sand between your teeth. The charm here is being the extended arm of a whole machinery of people. Basically the farthest link of a chain that takes samples and answers questions by radio in the field – in the truest sense of the word: the field! But I have been a flight director at mission control / support on Earth much more often. And the charm here is clear: keeping together a large team of great colleagues and collectively giving the mission a structure. And the range of decisions from “large” – like flight plan changes, bad weather front, CO2-levels in the helmet – to “small” – who goes to the scheduled ORF-interview, do we want pizza or pasta for dinner, and so on. Great! Oh well, and as a PI it’s once again all different: You really start to develop “father feelings” in regards to “your” experiment. Interesting … and once the first own data comes in: The baby has arrived! Well, I’m not a hard-boiled scientist.
Here and now, I use the opportunity to clear up with a prejudice: Who gets the least sleep during a mission? The field crew says the answer is clear. As flight director, I dare to say: It is by no means that clear!
OeWF: The danger of a cabin fever is generally always present when people work together closely (almost) all days long. Where are such tense situations more difficult to handle, in the field or at the MSC?
There are specific problems on both sides: First off, Mars – there, the situation appears to be straightforward: the narrowness, the small group, the field stress, the tiredness. The positive part is that the analog astronauts undergo a protracted training and that the whole field crew becomes a well attuned team months in advance. This does not happen in the same way at the mission center on Earth. So, on Earth: a large group of people who come and go, wheels that have to mesh first, but also sometimes the famous feeling, below the surface, “Why am I not out there in the field?”. Nobody would openly admit it, but subconsciously, it happens again and again, when you catch a glimpse of the adventure-romanticism by radio or photo while sitting on the public bus in early morning traffic at 7. And this leads to the third problem area: Tensions between the field and earth, the famous “Us versus them”-feeling. It creeps in, despite all preparation and professionalism, after many days or even weeks of stress on both sides. That can only be confronted with a lot of experience and instinct – on both sides.
OeWF: Is there a piece of wisdom that you learned during the ten years since AustroMars?
I will tell you my favorite sentence, which contains more wisdom than it appears to at first sight: “A Mars mission always takes place on two planets: On Mars – and on Earth.”
Thank you for your time, your records and the nice impressions that you were able to convey.
The interviews were conducted by Marlen Raab, OeWF editorial team
This article is available in: German
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