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In the fourth part of our interview, we talk to Dr. Norbert Frischauf, the commander of the AustroMars mission. In April 2006, he was at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah together with other crew members who have already spoken during the first three parts of this review and simulated a future Mars expedition for two weeks.
OeWF: Norbert, you have supported the Aurora program at ESA, an initiative for human exploration of the solar system, and collaborated in the development of a 30-year long-term research strategy to reach this goal. Which insights from this program could you implement at the AustroMars mission?
Dr. Nortbert Frischauf: One of the big challenges of every long-term mission is the cohesion of the crew. Many studies were conducted to find out how the perfect crew for a 2,5-year mission to Mars looks like. What crystallized over time was that it should be a mixed crew with at least 6 members, including: One commander and his first officer – both are also pilots. One flight engineer who should also have some flight skills. One medical expert who also functions as a scientists and at least two scientists with additional training in engineering and medicine. This sounds like a military structure and it partly is – but only when it comes to safety – otherwise things will be handled in a democratic manner. Contrary to our NASA colleagues, at ESA we have also held the opinion that you cannot lead a crew for 2,5 years in a military, autocratic manner and tell them what to do every day. People would burn out within a short period of time which could lead from small fights to a breakdown of the group. Building on this European view, I chose the democratic leadership style as the commander at AustroMars – the mission put this to the test, even though 14 days do not necessarily constitute a long-term mission. My goal was to lead the crew by motivation and to guarantee group cohesion through vision, friendship and social bonding – Alexander, the first officer, helped me a lot in this regard. We both lead the crew in a friendly manner and stayed in the back on purpose, true to the motto: “You only intervene as the commander when the safety is threatened.” I purposely did not want to act like a strict commander who makes orders every day and I think that after a few days of getting used to it, you could see that this style works better in the long run.
Other than group cohesion, the us-and-them phenomenon is a big challenge as well. Mars is many million kilometers away from Earth, a radio signal can take up to 20 minutes. Simply by this delayed communication, difficulties can arise between the crew on Mars and a mission control center (MCC). Because the people in the field will often have the feeling that they (on Earth) do not understand us, they are not here. This is exactly the scenario (“mini-revolt”) which Willi, the flight director of the MCC in Salzburg, and I have thought of before and then tried. Only Willi, Alexander (first officer) and I were privy. Watching the group dynamics when orders from the MCC were ignored was very interesting. Though I have to admit that at certain times, I was not sure whether we were still simulating the us-and-them phenomenon or whether this was already serious… ;-)
OeWF: What kept you busy the most during the mission?
Sisi, our seventh crew member. I had built the rover “Sisi” at the time together with the TGM school in Vienna. After completion of the project, we presented it to the Mars Society and they were so excited that they invited us to Utah. The idea of the AustroMars mission emerged from this invitation.
Unfortunately, “Sisi” did not work when we arrived in Utah. I am an electrical engineer and can repair circuits and the likes, but with coarse tools (keyword: like the soldering iron with a 3 cm soldering tip that was available at the MDRS!) and without circuit diagrams, it becomes much more difficult. It took one week to get the rover running again. And this was important. Because behind it were more than 20 people (students, professors and volunteers) who worked on it for more than 1,5 years. So much of my time during the preparation week went into the repair of “Sisi”. The MCC and a hoard of voluntary supporters help me throughout countless Skype-sessions to spot the mistake and repair it – which wasn’t always easy given the 9 hour time delay between Utah, Salzburg and Vienna. In the end, the rover ran successfully. This was a very big success, especially on the emotional side, because without “Sisi”, the AustroMars mission would not even have come about.
During the mission, it was the compiling of many reports which kept us in suspense. From 7 to 11 PM (sometimes even longer), we had to write scientific reports, a medical and a technical report and even the first officer and the commander had to write a separate report. All of them had to be proofread – so we – as well the colleagues in the MCC – did not get a lot of sleep during the mission.
OeWF: Have you really been “on Mars” – did it feel like that?
Regarding this, there was a funny incident. At the end of the mission, the “landing” on Earth was planned. Our habitat turned into a “spacecraft” during the night and took us home. The landing on Earth took place at 6 AM in the early morning before sunrise. So the alarm goes off, we, the six a(u)stronauts, get up, put on our flight suits and finally stand in the air lock – but without a space suit, because outside was no longer Mars, but the Earth. Rationally, we were all aware of that, but emotionally, we had not yet returned to Earth. How do I know this? I can still remember going to the outer door of the air lock and taking the turning handle – like the ones on a safe – in my hands to open the door. I turn to my colleagues look at the five of them and they all stare at my hand on the turning handle with big eyes. I start turning the handle and suddenly they all hold their breath while I open the door of our “spacecraft” – myself included. It was totally bizarre but then again logic as well – the 14 days that we had spent “on Mars” had burned into our behavior: This is an air lock, outside of it is Mars. It has a poisonous CO2 atmosphere with just 10 mbar air pressure and -80°C – without a space suit, you cannot survive! So we stand in the air lock WITHOUT space suits and what do we do? We all hold our breaths – which would not have helped at all if I had really opened the door of our habitat on Mars. Every psychologist would have been really delighted with us!
Then you step outside, walk a few steps and suddenly, you once again hear the sand grating beneath your feet. When you turn your head to the left, you actually see what’s on the left. In the space suit, you’re in your own world. When you turn your head to the left, you see the left side of the helmet. Now you hear everything again, you smell again and you feel the world again.
Even though it had only been 14 days “on Mars”, it was still overwhelming to “land” back on Earth.
OeWF: Has this mission changed your life in the long run?
Nothing has changed directly. But the experience is still phenomenal; having been able to execute such a mission voluntarily and catching a small glimpse of the future. Professionally, it is something entirely different to be able to pass on these experience fist hand. You can simulate a lot on a computer, but in the end you have to test it, because only then will you encounter the real problems. A long-term mission to the Moon and to Mars will be confronted will a multitude of problems which have to be solved within the shortest amount of time possible in order to protect the crew. Analog research is of fundamental importance in preparing for these mission which AustroMars has demonstrated in a remarkable fashion.
OeWF: Great closing words, Norbert. Thank you very much for your time and your extensive answers!
The interview was conducted by Marlen Raab, OeWF editorial team
This article is available in: German
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