Martian Rhapsody: Chapter 1 – Landing



Harry Keller

Harry Keller


After receiving many comments from my article, “Mars One: Exciting Adventure or Hoax?“,  and exploring many issues of any such undertaking as well as the specifics of Mars One, I have decided that the conversation has become increasingly technical and therefore less interesting to our readers. In order to make our conversation more interesting and to bring more people into the conversation, I am presenting a series of episodes in a fictional future in which the first permanent settlers will arrive on Mars. While Mars One and our discussion have generated many of the ideas, this series does not claim to have a relation to any specific Mars settlement program. It just explores the issues involved in such a venture.

For the purposes of making the exposition and discussion more real, I will name the first four humans to arrive on Mars: Aleka (Hawaiian female: aka Allie) is the flight-trained captain, Balasubramian (Indian male: Balu for short and Bob among the crew) has the crucial survival role of botanist, Chun (Chinese female: aka Chunnie) functions as the engineer, and Dawit (Ethiopian male: everyone just calls him Dave) is the mission communicator. For the purposes of having a broad gene pool, the early settlers have genetic roots that include a worldwide geographical scope of origins.

I’d like to encourage you all to participate. Each chapter will end with a problem that must be solved. I am interested in seeing ideas different from the ones I imagine and may rewrite future chapters if better answers are submitted. If you are a science teacher at any level, please consider discussing these issues in your classes. We’re nearing the end of the school year now, and this sort of discussion may work nicely with the end-of-year mentality that you encounter. A fun, open discussion can make science come alive for students. Use NASA images to liven things up. -Harry E. Keller


mars-As the Google Mars shuttle continues its weeks-long deceleration toward its incredible destination, the crew of four busily checks the instruments on the attached Citigroup crew module where they have lived and worked for four months. They are so involved in monitoring not only their own module but also the Royal Dutch Shell supply module that they momentarily forget they’re about to become the first humans ever to set foot on another planet. The shuttle holds the two attached modules like a parent carrying twins in both arms. The configuration of shuttle and two landing modules may look awkward but creates no impediment to travel in the vacuum of space.

Four years of training guarantee that the anxious crew all know their roles in this landing precisely. The captain, Aleka (Allie), is the only flight-trained pilot on the mission, but all of them have spent countless hours in the landing simulator and can take over if necessary. Redundancy has been the watchword of the Mars mission from the very beginning.

For the landing at Amazon base, however, there could be only one crew module. Everything depends on its successful entry into the absurdly thin Mars air, about 1% of the density of that on Earth and containing 95% carbon dioxide, followed by the powered descent to the surface. Ordinary chemical rockets slow the landers as they approach the surface where the gravity is 38% of that of Earth. While the low gravity means that less fuel is required for descent, it still is strong enough to kill everyone if the landing module crashes. Every element from the heat shield and parachute to the landing engines must function perfectly for a safe landing. 

After the braking rockets have done their job, the landers will coast downward and be positioned bottom first so that the heat shield faces the thin air at a speed of nearly six kilometers per second, well beyond the speed of sound. The air slows the landers until they finally begin to drop more directly toward the surface. Careful steering during the heat-shield portion of the descent should put the landers near their landing sites. Next, the large artificial fiber parachute helps to slow the descent even in the thin Martian air. Eventually, this parachute will be recovered and used by the settlers. On Mars, the motto is “Waste not, want not.” The heat shield also drops to the surface. The landers are now falling toward the surface at a speed of about 100 meters per second, roughly the terminal velocity on Mars. The final landing uses the “grasshopper” technology pioneered by SpaceX so many years before.

Five modules have already arrived on Mars during three previous trips of the Google Mars shuttle. These modules contain crucial supplies, machinery, and living space. The Toyota greenhouse module will be crucial to long-term survival. The first two rovers, Sinopec and Gazprom, all-purpose vehicles sent in the space normally occupied by one module, already have slowly moved the modules close enough together so that the settlers can complete the linking of them into a total habitat manually. Once the last two modules have landed safely, the crew will begin final assembly into a working habitat

The module design includes means to move them on the rock-strewn Martian surface. Ultra-lightweight caterpillar treads made of composite plastic/nanofiber that extend after landing allow for slow module mobility. They have low-friction bearings to allow the low-powered rovers to move them over reasonably level surfaces. Once the modules are placed permanently, these treads will be scavenged for use internally as shelves and other purposes.

“Final pre-separation check,” snaps Allie as the about-to-be Martians go through procedures necessary to ensure a clean separation from the shuttle. The two modules will be left behind by the shuttle as it  continues on its pre-programmed trajectory back to Earth orbit for refueling, refurbishing, and acquisition of another cargo in preparation for the next encounter with Mars in two years. Allie glances out of the small thick window and sees the edge of the red planet against the black of space with its countless bright point lights of stars strewn haphazardly across its seemingly infinite reaches as though a child had thrown diamonds on a vast expanse of black velvet. A few weeks earlier, the entire crew was excited to see the small red dot of Mars expand and grow into a shiny red penny in the black, deep expanse of space  – nearly 14 billion light-years deep, far beyond human imagination. Now, it fills most of one side of their view. Earth has receded to a pale blue dot, left forever to the billions living there. A new world awaits. Will the humans or the planet triumph?

Balasubramian (Bob to his crewmates) checks that the elevation radar and computer surface recognition software are functional and ready for the descent. “A-OK,” he sings out, mimicking the astronauts of a half century ago. Extensive mapping of the Mars surface has made it possible to pinpoint landing sites with feature-recognition software operating with high-resolution cameras. Automated guidance systems will take the crew module to within 500 meters of the surface where Allie will take over for the final landing. The human touch still provides a safer landing than machines can perform. The very difficult task of guiding the craft to the right spot requires so many on-the-fly calculations to ensure minimal use of precious fuel that computers do all of that flying unless there’s an unexpected emergency.

With over a billion people watching, this is the most watched event ever on television, far more than the most recent World Cup. While many do not own television sets, they still flock to bars and public squares. The latter have been provided with large television screens in many of the larger towns across the world. Millions may be watching on their mobile telephone screens or the new voice-tablets, called VTs in an odd reversal of the abbreviation for television from nearly a century ago, which have supplanted earlier tablets and, now, laptops. This will be the first time that a human has set foot on another planet, the first anthropod on Mars ever.

Chun (aka Chunnie) is watching the fuel pressure gauges and will monitor the engines as they begin the initial braking burn right through to the final moment of landing when the engines will forever become silent. “All systems go for descent,” she intones in a clear monotone of her unaccented English resulting from growing up near San Francisco. The engines will mix liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, ignited by a spark, to produce the fiery thrust to slow the module down and then to drop it gently on the Mars surface. Large quantities of water will be dumped into the Martian atmosphere just as has happened three times previously and will happen again in two years when the second group of intrepid pioneers leave Earth for their final home on a very alien planet. Remaining fuel will find use as reserve oxygen and, under more controlled conditions, as the raw materials for making water.

Dawit sees to all telemetry and communications. He’s already ensured that the systems on the planet are ready and nominal. He must now make sure that the people back home see the entire process in the highest possible resolution. While the relative nearness of Earth and enormous advances in video recording and telemetry make possible high-resolution video, the bandwidth available for this long-distance, deep-space transmission allows for only one feed at a time. Dave, as the world knows him, must act as a sort of television show director and decide on a moment-to-moment basis which of the live video feeds to send to Earth. All are being recorded and will be sent eventually for the documentaries that will be produced. The people on Earth will be viewing the images six minutes after they happen, but no one cares about that delay caused by the finite speed of light. The signals from Mars will travel at 300 million meters per second back to Earth – but no faster or slower. That speed is unaffected by the relative velocities of Earth and Mars, a result of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

The upcoming moment of hoped-for triumph has been a decade in planning. The most difficult part of the entire project has been ensuring adequate funding for the many very expensive aspects of the undertaking. From the beginning of selecting those who would go to Mars, the entire project has been televised 24/7 on a pay channel with commercials to generate the billions of dollars necessary. Naming rights have been sold to large corporations. Thus, the Mars shuttle that has been and will continue to be seen leaving Earth orbit every two years was named the Google Mars shuttle. The producers of all of the television being transmitted around the world and translated into a dozen languages guaranteed that the Mars shuttle would not be mentioned on television without being called the “Google Mars shuttle.” Every visible man-made portion of the program has a corporate sponsor name. In this manner, a billion dollars was raised early in the program and a guarantee of hundreds of millions of dollars more every year that the program continued successfully.

Major events were not only shown on the Mars Channel but also sold to networks and cable channels. All told, over ten billion dollars had been raised before this landing. Another billion will funnel into the mission coffers over the next two years as the second manned mission prepares to go again boldly where people had never gone before – if this mission lands successfully and survives.

The landing is the easy part despite a very complex process in which a myriad of things could go wrong. Landings have been managed before. They’re not new. Soft landings are the hardest and most challenging, but also are not new. Six modules already have landed successfully, although they could withstand a stronger impact than the members of the crew could live through. The landing must not crack the Citibank crew module, with its logo prominently displayed on the outside, although the crew has donned their spacesuits in case of loss of air. A soft landing is crucial because even though a hard landing may not kill the crew outright, it would threaten survival and may injure them so much that they will be unable to perform the strenuous tasks of habitat assembly and set-up required to survive.

That’s the truly difficult part of this unique-in-history exercise – survival. So much must go right, and so much can go wrong. As the settlement grows, the margin of error will expand and allow for mistakes and failures. Right now, four people, with a large fraction of Earth’s population watching, must have everything go right. Even a small mistake will place the entire mission, along with the four pioneer settlers, in danger. Will their training and native ingenuity get them past their inevitable problems? Only time can tell, and the Earth is watching their every move.

As the two landing modules decouple from the shuttle, pulses are racing above Mars and on Earth, literally across the entire globe. The crew uses control vents to increase the separation of the modules from each other and then fires engines to slow down below orbit velocity. The shuttle adjusts its path slightly so that it can use the Mars gravity well as a slingshot to aim it on the trajectory that takes it back to Earth orbit. It begins using its ion-propulsion engine to accelerate, a process that will continue for months as it slowly uses its reaction mass to reach high speeds. It will coast for a very long time and then flip around and begin to decelerate after passing the half way point. There’s no rush, and coasting saves on the total system mass during the trip to Mars. The energy comes from its nuclear reactor, which has more than enough for the purpose. Only the liquid hydrogen supply limits its ability to continue its acceleration indefinitely. The amount has been carefully calculated to allow the shuttle to go to Mars with its cargo and then to return to Earth for refueling and refurbishing in preparation for the next flight to Mars.

All systems are nominal on the crew module as it goes through the complex steps of its landing process. Allie makes adjustments that ensure the closest possible landing to the unconnected habitat modules. Once they land, time becomes important. The crew module and Mars suits can sustain them for a few sols (Martian days), but they absolutely must connect to the other modules with all of their machinery and supplies as early as they can, and it’s a slow process in the awkward suits and with the slow-moving rovers.

On the unmanned supply module, making its way down to land nearby, a cosmic ray hits the housing of a microchip. Such hits happen rather often in space, but this time is different. Cosmic rays are mostly protons of extremely high energy moving at near light speed and can pass through matter, which looks relativistically very thin from their “viewpoint” due to Lorentz contraction, without much interaction. Occasionally, one hits the nucleus of an atom in the material it’s traversing. Matter, even solid lead, is mostly empty space with electron clouds filling it very tenuously. Incredibly tiny atomic nuclei are scattered around, in a regular pattern in crystals, like motes of dust in the air – only smaller and fewer. When a cosmic ray proton hits one of these nuclei, much of its tremendous energy is converted into mass according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, a miniature version of an atomic bomb. A shower of very energetic, newly created particles rains down on whatever is below, shotgun style.

One of these shower particles hits a microscopic transistor in the microchip and flips a bit. Another hits a different transistor, the redundant partner to the first, and has the same effect, a million-to-one chance event. Bits are the language of computers and can either be a 0 or a 1. Changing a single bit can make either an insignificant difference or a major change in what the computer does. In ASCII code, used to represent written characters in some computer systems, a single bit can change an “A” to a “Q.” A different bit change could result in a “@.” In the supply lander’s computer, the change altered an instruction causing the supply lander to mistake the terrain nearby for the actual landing site. It landed perfectly safely – but over five kilometers away instead of the 100 meters planned.

Five kilometers would not be a large problem on Earth. It’s only about a half-hour’s leisurely walk. Things are different on Mars. The Curiosity Mars rover could travel at 90 m/hr using its RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) power. Improvements since then haven’t changed the speed much, especially because the rovers being used by the settlers are heavier than Curiosity was. Just imagine taking an hour to walk the length of a sports field or pitch a distance that sprinters can run in ten seconds. At a speed of around 100 m/hr (0.10 km/hr), it takes one of the two new rovers 50 hours to reach a site five kilometers distant. The Mars day is only 40 minutes longer than an Earth day meaning that the trip will require over two sols each way, but the return trip requires pushing the supply module and will take longer.

The settlers cannot survive on the Mars surface for that long, even in their Mars suits equipped with the most advanced imide aerogel insulation. Such long EVAs (extra-vehicular activity – some acronyms persist even when the literal meaning no longer applies) were never considered as part of the suit design. In fact, the batteries will only maintain temperatures for ten hours. Oxygen supply and, more importantly, carbon dioxide removal, are similarly limited. Water is also in limited supply and is not recycled in the suits, but you can go for a few days without water. Earth designers are working on a rover that will run on batteries charged from the extensive solar arrays the settlement will have along with air and water capability for long trips on the harsh Mars surface. These trips will raise more funds by allowing scientific research and save NASA and other countries’ space agencies vast sums of money. For now, the settlers much make do with what they have.

The supply module is crucial to longer survival on the planet. It contains supplies, especially food to tide the settlers over until their farm begins producing, that must be available. In one month, the situation will become dire. That module must be retrieved within four weeks. Even before retrieval, the settlers must connect the remaining modules, deploy the solar collectors, and get all air, water, and recycling facilities started. The time allowed for this purpose cannot be delayed.

The radiation shielding efforts were planned to take months and can wait even though one living unit should be shielded as soon as possible. The food growing operations can wait a day or so, although the group would love to have any fresh food as early as possible. The food stores, plant growing, and battery facilities of the missing module must be retrieved right away.

Completing the landing takes all of their attention even though they know they have a huge problem waiting when they land. The final braking runs smoothly, and they’re on Mars, the first humans ever to be there. It’s still morning on Mars, leaving plenty of time to complete post-landing procedures. Their module already has its treads down, and Gazprom is linking up to move the module into place. While being moved, the crew continues their checks and reports to Earth that all systems remain nominal. Finally, all four suit up and make final suit and module checks before depressurizing the module and stepping out. Dave will stay behind to handle communications.

With cameras on Sinopec beaming the event back to Earth, Allie steps out of the module onto the Martian surface. This moment has been planned for so long, required so much work, involved so many people. What to say to those back on their home planet? She would not echo the words of Neil Armstrong and say, “One small step for a woman; one giant leap for mankind.” That just would not do.

Once both feet were firmly planted on Martial soil, she spoke to the entire planet of Earth. “Greetings to the people of Earth on behalf of the first Martians. While we can only fervently wish for peace on Earth, we can and do declare peace with Earth now and forever.” Balu had joined her by now. Chun soon followed. Dave showed himself at the module hatch, and a picture of momentary triumph flashed  across the vacuum of space, carried by photons, for all of the news organizations on Earth. Finally, well into the 21st century, we were on two planets. The team now splits up for work. There’s no time to lose.

Allie directs the crew to begin assembling the modules while using their comlinks to discuss ways to retrieve that missing module. A rover might or might not be capable of finding the wayward module on its own. It wasn’t designed to traverse uneven terrain for such long distances without help. The slower return trip lies even farther from its design parameters.

– end of chapter 1 –

Special note to our readers: Please consider all ideas, rational or irrational but definitely scientific, to solving the question of bringing that module back. The rovers are powered by RTGs and produce very little power, maybe 150 watts. They travel at a speed of 100 m/hr (that’s meters, not miles) when unburdened. Pushing or pulling a Mars module may approximately halve the speed.

Extra special note to science teachers: You might consider, in addition to the solution to this problem, how heavy the rovers (or how light the modules) have to be in order to push or pull the modules without slipping in the sandy, dusty Martian soil. Both the rovers and the modules have caterpillar-style treads on which they roll. As a starting point, the Curiosity rover has a mass of one metric ton. Estimate the module mass based on it being about 5 m in diameter and 3 m tall in a truncated cone shape and filled, but not solidly, with materials for use on Mars. Assume that both objects have the same style of treads and the same coefficients of friction. A really light rover might just spin its treads in the loose material, unable to move the large module mass. What is the actual speed that the combined rover and module can achieve if they can get moving?We at ETC Journal will be watching and responding as much as possible to your ideas. The next chapter awaits your pleasure.

Harry E. Keller

29 Responses

  1. Harry, I love puzzles and riddles. My guess is that the issue is the module’s weight, and the question is how to efficiently offset it using the resources at hand. As you point out, the rovers may not have the necessary power to lift and move the module, and the terrain may hamper this option. You mention chutes that were used to slow descent. One possibility is to jury-rig them into sails or hot-air balloons for either or both lift and propulsion. They could then tether the whole to one or more rovers for control and direction. If they’re careful in their calculations, the Martians may be able to manually manage the steering. For this to work, the natural conditions would have to be right. Not sure if this will work so I’m looking forward to what others might suggest. In the meantime, I’ll try to think of other options to save the Martians from this challenge to their survival.

    • Just thought of this — if they can fashion wheels or skis and jury-rig them to the module, they could then push and pull and slide the module with the rovers, physical strength, or wind power (using jury-rigged sails) — or all three.

    • Thank you for your response. I’m not going to evaluate any ideas right away so that I can get as many ideas as possible. I will remind everyone that Mars has an atmosphere that is roughly 1% of that on Earth. The rovers can move the modules short distances, under 100 meters. They weren’t designed for longer excursions but could just go off into the Martian sunset if allowed to do so, albeit very slowly. Five km is far enough away that the settlers won’t see the module with the constant Martian dust in the “air.” They do have line-of-sight remote control of the rovers. The modules do have low-friction treads to allow for movement on reasonably flat ground for short distances. That’s how the first modules were maneuvered into position by autonomous rover activity.

      • OK, for a balloon on Mars, hot air is out. Helium might work, but the logistics make it impractical. The idea of land sails might still be workable. In combination with skis/sleds and rover/module power, the hauling may be possible.

        The ancients moved huge stones over long distances with logs serving as a kind of rolling medium. No logs on Mars but …

        • The Martian atmosphere is too thin even to blow sand around in gales. Sails would have to be ten times the length and breadth of those on Earth to achieve similar force.

          • Harry, here are some quotes from Wikipedia re winds on Mars. I’m not sure, though, if they support the idea of sail power:

            “There are areas where the thermal inertia of the soil changes, leading to morning and evening winds akin to the sea breezes on Earth” (Mars General Circulation Modeling Group. “Mars’ desert surface….” NASA).

            “At low latitudes the Hadley circulation dominates, and is essentially the same as the process which on Earth generates the trade winds” (François Forget. “Alien Weather at the Poles of Mars”. Science. Retrieved 2007-02-25).

            “During a global dust storm the diurnal temperature range narrowed sharply, from fifty degrees to only about ten degrees, and the wind speeds picked up considerably—indeed, within only an hour of the storm’s arrival they had increased to 17 m/s (38 mph), with gusts up to 26 m/s (58 mph)” (William Sheehan, The Planet Mars: A History of Observation and Discovery, Chapter 13).

        • The lifting power of a balloon depends on the mass of the displaced air less the mass of its replacement. Even if you could replace the Martian air with something of zero mass, you’d have only 1/100th of the lifting capacity of a balloon on Earth. The gravity is 38% of Earth’s making the necessary size of a helium balloon on Mars only 38 times as much volume. That’s truly a huge balloon! :-D

  2. A very dull story. Way behind your initial serious approach. No further comment.

    • Narration is not all that exciting, it’s true. It’s also true that I’m more of a scientist than a novelist. With some good criticism, I can do better. Give it some time. Assuming that I can get the character development going and do some decent dialog, you may find it more interesting. My primary goal in chapter one is to get four people on Mars while introducing readers to some aspects of that project.

      • Extensively revised now with the help of a Hugo Award winner. Many crtiical comments from a variety of sources, including our chief editor, helped greatly. It’s not Hemngway, but it is a decent story that asks you to think.

  3. Caterpillar treads are great for traction and power – low ground pressure and large surface area makes them a fine choice if you have the motors to run them – that, however, is also their weakness: they are meant to be powered from within.

    Pushing and pulling something on treads is not a happy experience due to the small radius of the inner wheels/gears and considerable friction (which is what gives them great advantage under normal use)

    For rolling an object across loose soils, large radius wheels are recommended: even if they cut into the soil, the friction is negligible compared to treads. With large wagon-wheels you can move 200kg of belongings across the Prairies by yourself, although I highly recommend some oxen – or a team of rovers…

    I have also seen large wheels composed of flexible segments – really a circle of pie-shaped air-bags that can deform over minor objects like small rocks – more friction than rigid wheels, but still much better than treads – well, that would be hard to make from scratch for our heroes, so nice idea, but… maybe we can fashion some wheels. Or maybe the engineers read Martian Rhapsody and already have some wheels and axles (that will be cannibalized for some other purpose later, of course)

    (another strong point of treads is low center of gravity, fewer rollovers and runaways on severe inclines)

    On a literary note: character development could be a little more organic (even introductions can probably wait until after the landing)

    Our intrepid explorers are the first human beings on Mars: that is the story, so it gets a little mucky doing too many introductions at the same time.

    What is the landing like? Silent? Scraping, bumping, warning alarms? Chatter? Maybe one of the crew is singing something? A hymn or a sea-chanty? And do they have a great voice or a grating voice? If they are told to shut up, who tells them and how?

    How do they feel about the supply module coming down 5km away? I would prefer to get the problems and issues through their eyes/thought process than as a separate technical paragraph. That is, it’s not “The settlers” it is them – her, his, my, our supply module. These are highly trained explorers who have been through the mill of a selection process, so it’s probably not, “OMG we’re all gonna die,” but certainly it adds stress to the situation, which is a good way to manifest how they deal with it. Hint: dialogue.

    The landing is a great opener, can grab the reader’s attention right away – I like it – so get technical in episode two (well not all of it, you don’t want them to put it down).

    • Thanks much for the suggestions. Yes, characters will develop during the coming chapters. So much to squeeze into chapter one!

      Definitely could have had much more sounds, smells, tactile experiences. Will be doing better in future and will rewrite chapter one when have time.

  4. The imagination and transformation of learning happened with my students a decade ago with the project, Marsville. We learned the proprietary information to be able to make decisions and to think i ways that were transformational. Our biggest challenge was the selling of the project from NASA as real curriculum as it was project based material.We had resources, posters, books and real life NASA people to help us sort through the ideas.

    The kids were into it to the point that they worked way above grade level and pushed me to the depths of my knowledge.

    Then came Mars City Alpha.. we had to design systems to work on Mars and to build the colony.
    Here is an example of a teacher’s project.

    What we learned was far and away a lot more than grade level.
    Project based learning took off. Students kept diaries, made books, and engineered their parts of the colony.

    My principal did not think much of the project, she said it took too long and I should move on to some other subject. Though NASA and visiting scientists proclaimed excellence in our work, she demurred until I got a letter from George Lucas.

    Teachers have always been teaching STEM, before it had the name. The problem was NCLB. We were asked to teach to the test.

    There was little room for anything but the various waves of testing.
    It’ s not just the test, there are pretest, tests for the test and a practice test. My principal won. She had me moved to a new school. The kids by the way tested way above grade level. But there was no confidence in innovation.

    • Interesting link – I’m a little dubious about hovercrafts in the dome, unless they are hovering with some new technology other than forced air, but I can only imagine how hard I would have worked on a project like this (had there been one) when I was in school. You could even do some basic hydroponics/aquaculture, it has so many possibilities – and how much more exciting is math and physics when you can’t breath any more if you get it wrong?

      • Ok ,either you are a student of mine or able to read my educational footprints in STEM. We ,in my classes did raise Tilapia, and vegetables from the “Moonbase America” We measured ourselves for space suits, and created recipes.. and we even had songs that we sang .. the art was incredible… assisted by using the NASA resources and posters. We visited the planetarium. We did star hikes viewing the night sky. We dreamed…

        There was a child in my class who wanted to know how would he get his favorite food, hamburgers on the moon if the base actually materialized. He and a NASA scientist, who came to my school, had lunch and talked about this.. whether it would be miniature cows, or food that was made to taste like hamburger meat. We raised tomatoes and basil and made space salads with sprouts.

        We read science fiction and did our writings and made our own books.This was at the beginning of the Internet years.

        At the time the Smithsonian had an incredible exhibit of hydroponically grown plants, a mock up of them in a part of a space station, there were fabrics to look at and select, a section on engineering. ( We used Legos to try to build our systems, ie transportation, education, as the Mars projects evolved)..Mars City Alpha became the project of choice)At the time I was on the Advisory Board of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, so I had films, the set of Star Wars movies, and lots of games that were developed for kids by another part of the industry, Industrial Light and Magic.

        We Had Imagination

        ** I was catching heck from my principal who said we were spending too much time on a project based initiative. It was not easy being a STEM pioneer.My training from NASA not the school system

        I was educated at Langley NASA and at Berkeley in Astrophysics
        not bad for a teacher from a HBCU school, eh?

        HINT The principal wanted me to do science in the book.
        **She did get rid of me by transferring me to another school eventually

        To show you how teaching the sciences in PBL have footprints here is a blog I wrote when students reached back to me on Facebook to save the Planetarium.

        The Planetarium and the Participatory Culture, Stars, Students and Studying Space
        Posted by Bonnie Bracey Sutton on May 9, 2010 1 comment
        Saving the Planetarium in Arlington

        I got an urgent message from an ex student , now a friend. She said ” Miss Bracey they are going to close the Planetarium!!” We tried to figure out what to do. In the end it was a passionate teacher and parent who saved the day, but we oiled the wheels to get the fight started. You can read about it here We talked to the Washington Post. We wrote letters. We enlisted the help of other former students. A parent with this video saved the day.


        Maybe someone taught me about the stars in school. If so I don’t remember it. What I remember is some lady from NASA who did a presentation on the cultural aspects of astronomy at the Smithsonian. Pictures from Egypt, the Maya and many other sources. That kept me reading and thinking a long time. My first visit to a planetarium was as a teacher in Arlington , VIrginia. Steve Smith was the director and the link to NASA for me. I am a Challenger Fellow. I don’t know how to repay NASA for the things I learned, but the first link was from the Planetarium. The second link was Star Wars and the imagination and interest of the children I taught. We built robots, we created space ships, we made planetary cities and yes, we made telescopes.

        I live in Washington DC. You don’t see a lot of stars in the night sky here. I taught in Arlington Virginia and had access to the Planetarium there. I discovered that a planetarium was a fascinating place. My students and I went often. It was before a lot of technology, but you know there are things that can be shared in a planetarium that make sense because you see them. The children and I found out about NASA resources and some of us were on a lifelong journey. Young Astronauts, the Challenger Center and working to follow in Christa McAuliffe’s step, kept me busy. When Christa died, I had created a classroom to show a simulated inside of a shuttle. I left the broadcast for a moment. It was the fatal moment.
        When I returned all eyes were on me. The explosion had happened. All day long children hugged me. They thought because I had an astronaut jumpsuit that I might have been a candidate for being in the shuttle.( not) I was heartbroken but the lesson I learned from that day is that children are colorblind and that hard work is easy if it is interesting. I followed the NASA initiatives. I thought, if the children think I can be an astronaut, I can at least learn more. And I have done a lot. But the work that the children did was amazing.

        Most of the NASA initiatives happened in the Arlington Planetarium. What is that? It is the David M. Brown Planetarium. I am afraid I never knew or did not remember to whom it was dedicated. Here is the link.

        Linking the Planetarium with the Night Sky

        Another adventure I had was with Phoebe Knipling at the Outdoor Lab. Mr. Hunsucker used his flashlight to tell us about the night sky ( I never saw a thing with that flashlight), but Phoebe had a ginormous telescope that she would get Mr. Hunsucker to open the shed so we could use it and point to the night sky. We could see the stars from Haymarket , Virginia.

        Sometimes when it was the right time of year there were amateur astronomers who would come to the Outdoor lab and let kids look through their telescopes. Our school was near enough to NSF that I could run and get some wonderful posters and information.

        The Planetarim…First you teach the seasonal stuff and then…

        Using telescopes As Planet Earth wheels its way around the sun, our nightly sky-viewing platform redirects our view to a different part of the celestial sphere. While nightly changes are not so noticeable, monthly changes welcome new star groups into view and bid farewell to others until their season in the sky returns. I guess you can teach this on a computer, but the problem is everyone does not have one. A planetarium is an experience that is
        what I called an involved aesthetic experience.
        It is art and music and vision and light and so on. It depends on the skill of the person
        teaching the lesson and the teacher supporting the lesson and the resources that are available. Some years I had Mike Lounge , the astronaut and a couple of others who came to the classroom. Some years I was taking courses at the Hubble Space Science Institute. We had books, resources, a computer and constructivist projects.

        But I digress

        You know what S-mores are ? WHen I saw kids pass up anothe S’more and hot cocoa to get in line for the telescope, I knew that it was fascinating. We used the planetarium, we looked at the night sky and we had NASA as a resource, later in my teaching career we had
        the Challenger Center. The NASA initiatives were wonderful. There was Moon Base Alpha, and then Marsville, and later Mars City Alpha. It never was a problem to get the kids to learn
        the information. My students were generous enough with their learning to create a Mars CIty Alpha for kids who were not in my class. They did it after school. I saw it when I was driving my car home. I almost ran off of the road. We loved those learning projects. While the visit to the Challenger Center was one day, we worked to build the knowledge to be able to work on that one day. It was fascinating for the students and for me.

        We wore NASA out. We had parents who were astronauts, access to Langley and some of us, as teacher advocates took lessons from NASA and we had stuff. We had access to tapes, books, and there was a thing you could do with wonderful posters from the NASA science resource center. You could make your classroom so beautiful with those posters , which were learning experiences. We built systems for space, pondering the problems. We did bottle biology and fish farming. George Lucas fueled our imagination with his movies and at the time I was on the advisory board, so I would come back from the ranch with movies and games. We had lots of things, but the planetarium was our meeting place for initiatives and learning more.

        I signed up for the moon rocks, but we never got them. I never had a principal who cared enough to allow me to share the moon rocks. But , the Smithsonian was there. Here’s a view of what I can share with kids using the Smithsonian, and the resource out at

        I did get the space suit to let kids try on from time to time. Never got the van that was supposed to come to the schools either. Principals were often suspicious of these initiatives . So I went to Langley to learn and to bring what I could back in the way of knowledge. The kids and I flourished with the knowledge I gained in the various initiatives. But I also went to Goddard and learned a lot.

        Close the Planetarium?

        When they said they were going to close the Planetarium, students, wrote to me on facebook. What can we do? These students are parents now.. but we were concerned because we remembered the planetarium visits and the study of space. One student asked if the computer was a good exchange for a planetarium visit. I replied NO!!

        We wrote to the Washington Post. The media picked up the story. I wrote to the school board, but the participatory culture gave us all a place to create support for the planetarium.

        The stars will shine in the David M. Brown Planetarium next year, after the Arlington County School Board unanimously approved a new budget Thursday night.

        The $442 million operating budget includes $114,000 to keep the planetarium open part time. The budget includes a part-time teaching position for the facility, which now has 2 1/2 positions for teaching and scheduling shows.

        “The main thing is the doors will stay open,” School Board Chairman Sally Baird said.

        School administrators recommended closing the aging planetarium this year, citing its outdated equipment and questionable educational value.

        “Parents and community members rallied to save the facility, which was named for a graduate of Arlington’s Yorktown High School who was killed in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster. More than 900 people signed an online petition, and more than 3,000 joined an online Save the Arlington Planetarium Facebook page. Some residents formed a Friends of the Arlington Planetarium group, which has pledged to raise money to update the 1960s-era technology. ”

        Here is the WashingtonPost story

    • The excitement here in thinking about Mars and the future is small compared to the excitement of students who bought the dream of going to Mars. I will confess that I am a Challenger Fellow and that my students and I participated in thinking, immersed ourselves in exploration ideas, systems, and STEM learning. You can learn about the programs here.

      Imagination , innovation and big ideas .. important to schools and students. I nearly had an accident regarding Marsville. The other teachers in my school did not want to do the hard work of creating, teaching, and preparing for Marsville, As I rounded a corner going home, I saw that my students had erected a Marsville and were sharing what they learned with the others in the community. It was an unexpected pleasure.

  5. How can anyone begin to compare the thrills of being involved in a truly big project with the problems that all such projects bring? If you think only of the problems, you may never take the great risks that have, in a manner of speaking, built our world as it is today. If you ignore the risks, you will not be prepared and will fail.

    Who can accurately balance these opposing forces? History teaches us that some have erred on one side or the other repeatedly. We also know that the risk-averse can be extremely so and block entire societies from advancing.

    As an entrepreneur, I understand the risk issues and the balancing problem. I have one great purpose: to move ever forward and never go backward.

  6. Harry, I have taught the space program at Gifted and Talented Level, at 4/5 grade with a diverse group of students and at the Smithsonian Summer Camp. At the time that the press followed NASA, it was a story ever unfolding as it is now with your story making.

    In a Kindergarten- First Grade grouping on the celebration of the landing on the moon, we had videos, DVD. books, and the whole museum to explore and docents to help the students become interested, to immerse them into the learning journey, to excite them. Imagine making a beautiful telescope that you could take home.We even watched the Japanese explorations looking for water on the moon.

    You might think these are little kids so what really can they learn?Rocketry, planetary knowledge, and the integration of music and art with the unit. I have a ton of pictures that show their interest.

    We went from little film canister rockets to Goddard Rocketry .. it was
    a part of the educational outreach for students.

    The children at the Smithsonian met the men who walked the moon and then we went back to the classroom to make our imaginary footprints on the moon, and to practice picking up moon rocks.

    What is so amazing is the resources at the LRC.. the various resources are available at Learning Resource Centers, you can get training, the manual, posters and on lint the stunning pictures of what we called the eye in the sky..

    Sad to say the people who benefit the most are the teachers , and permission is not always given to , or was not given before STEM became a passion in the US. My principal turned down the reception of a moon rock ( you qualify for this) because she thought it was too much trouble.

    I did not grow up with Legos or the concept of Rovers..We did really well constructing with the Legos after I learned to have a put away mantra so the custodian would not sweep them up and ok, after I had gained a little in the way of use of them ..taught to me by the kids.

    What made teaching it wonderful was that there was and is ongoing learning, and the possibility , which kids like of knowing that they know sometime that sometimes adults are also just mastering..

    Green Bank… the kids seemed to love the deer as much as the whole concept

    Here is their set of educational sites.

    One day a little boy looked at me and said.. you don’t know so much about astrophysics do you. I said, I am learning. His father was creating an astrophysics workshop at Berkeley for teachers and so I got to go. Pretty fun as it was a room full of mostly men. But I thrived in that atmosphere.

    Maybe we short kids by assuming that they cannot learn and get the big ideas. I love this site
    This site is on three learning levels and has a lot of topics and can be used as a technology tool by a teacher. It is a complex site
    Look at this. Smile when I tell you that we , the students and I learned a lot together.

    George Lucas had a set of games that were quite difficult and unusual at the time. but now NASA gets the idea and uses games to teach as well.

    Innovation, curiosity, expanding knowledge, we don’t have excuses now.
    I never knew that I would love physics..

  7. Not that much can be done now as the mission has already landed but I wonder if it would have been feasible to equip the modual with motorized treads so that said models could be positioned without the need to tug them around. this way the modual could activated remotely and begin moving toward the colony without needing waste time traveling to it first.

    did the mission planers not include such a device due to added weight or was their a fundamental roadblock in the engineering stage of such a system?

  8. I’m sorry Harry, but in your crew a *crucial* element is missing. A geologist. For sure that one will be on the first mission to Mars, no matter its main objective.

    • Leader, botanist, and engineer — these are absolutes. With just four people, the primary issue is survival. Geology does not advance that cause. Still, geology must be a part of the early landings. Remember that this is not a NASA or even a science mission.

  9. I would have to imagine an physiologist would also be a key member of the team. not so needed for a short term stay but for a permanent settlement I would think they would need an expert to help them adjust. what this crew will be experiencing is literally unlike anything anyone on the planet earth has ever felt before. I do not feel that the obstical can be prepared for ahead of time. I can only imagine what effect it would have to look up into the martian night and realize you will never see civilization as you know it. never see an ocean, maybe never hear another child laugh or feel rain on your skin. so many things we take for granted growing up here. I am concerned that without a professional to offer one to one guidance, physical programs wont be all they encounter.

    • The psychologists on Earth will be monitoring everything. The leader must understand people very well and lead from behind as often as from in front. All settlers must have an optimistic life outlook. Any signs of depression must be closely followed.

  10. Hi Harry, where are the other chapters?

    • I have been spending lots of my very scarce free time finishing the entire novel — 68,000 words in all.

      It’s now a 99-cent e-book on Amazon with the paperback version soon to come. That price is the minimum that Amazon allows. The paperback price has yet to be determined.

  11. I’d like to see the chapter preceding this one: the voyage there, which should be quite the trial.

    • Four months in space with repeated landing drills is not all that exciting unless something untoward happens. Just as with airplane flights, the dangerous parts are the takeoff and landing.

      Space flight has been written about so often that I prefer to spend my writing minutes and time on what it’s like on Mars. You’ll find plenty of flashbacks to the training activities.

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