NASA knew that Martian dust would be a kicker, and they dreamed up plenty of mitigation strategies: flexible airlock seals, positive pressure inside the dome, brushes and portable vacuums with filters throughout the habitat, suitlocks so that no exterior suit surfaces ever came inside the habitat.
The 5 men and one woman that made up the team to establish Mars Base One had plenty of training and background and thought they knew how to handle the dust. They included people with multiple specialties: physicists, chemistry, a couple were certified doctors, and were engineers and master machinists. Two had advanced geology degrees.
Martian dust is chemically active, like cream of tartar, and only needs to have water added to start fizzing. It is small enough to insinuate itself into almost everything, and when it gets into lungs, begins to corrupt and eat the soft tissues of the alveoli. It is small enough to pass through the blood/brain barrier, and acts similarly to prions in causing Mad Cow (Mad Mars?) disease. They thought they were ready.
And it wasn’t as if they were alone. With Earth and Mars as close as ever, they were only a 5 minute lag time away from radio contact.
Despite their best efforts, dust still got in within the first two days of their planned two week stay. Dr. Hancock (physician and geologist) noticed his socks were pinkish when he took them off after returning from his second EVA. He rinsed them out, dried the residue, and examined it under the microscope to confirm it was Mars dust. It was migrating through his suit.
More was brought it when they passed samples through the small cargo airlock. The flexible seals began showing signs of corrosion and discoloration on Day 3, as did the seals on the suitlocks. Evidently the combination of sweat condensation and room temperatures made the dust more corrosive than anticipated.
After much discussion, it was decided to try to coat the seals with something that was sticky, flexible, and could be easily replaced: their feces.
The commander of the expedition, Ed Schultz, astrophysicist, turned to Dorothy “Red” Jenson, (the other physician, and mechanical engineer) and told her to collect the current day’s feces from the latrine, and spread it on the airlock seals on the small cargo airlock, and on the suitlock seals for suits 5 and 6.
Red refused. Absolutely not. You just singled me out because I’m the female. I will not accept the position of doing the shit work because I’m female. I took the same leadership classes you did. A commander should be willing to do any job they ask their crew to do. Prove it… You do it for the first two days, and then rotate through the rest of the crew first, and then I’ll do my shift.
Commander Schultz ordered her to carry out spreading the feces on the seals.
Red responded with a smile. Tell you what, commander. You’ve been trying to get into my pants since we started training for this mission. How about we start pretending we are husband and wife for the rest of the trip?
Commander Schultz, relieved it wasn’t a flat refusal, said: ‘OK, that would be a good start.’
In that case you can spread your own shit on the door seals. And piss on them, too, as far as I’m concerned. And with that, she turned and walked into the next chamber, slamming the airlock closed behind her.
Jerzy Kaminski spoke up: ‘I think this marriage is headed for a divorce. I’ll take the first two day shift, and we’ll see if we can’t survive this honeymoon.’
On day 5, geologist Steve Nealy slipped while digging out a rock sample, and tore a gash in the sleeve of his suit from his shoulder to his elbow. They quickly wrapped a bandage around it and slowed the air leakage from inside his suit, but didn’t stop it completely. The dust, of course, prevented any adhesive patch from sticking to the outside of the suit.
He made it back to the dome, and attached his suit. Larry and Commander Schultz were outside in suits to help him exit the suit and clamp the gash shut as soon as possible from the outside. Jerzy was inside the suitlock bay, with an internal air mask to help Steve exit the suit from the inside, and replace the exit door over the suitlock as soon as possible. They had closed the door and isolated the suitlock bay from the rest of the habitat in case something else went wrong. It isn’t one thing going wrong that gets you, it is three things going wrong at the same time.
They decided to try to bring the suit in through the large cargo hatch and attempt to repair it.
Jerzy volunteered. He would wear the facemask and be very careful vacuuming the suit 6 times before touching it, to achieve the 6 sigma reassurance of cleanliness.
They isolated him in the suitlock bay/workshop, and watched from the main room.
As he was beginning to start the sixth and final cleaning, he stopped and removed his facemask to wipe the sweat from his forehead when the collection bag on the vacuum blew out, causing him to inhale a cloud of Mars dust.
Red immediately grabbed a face mask for herself, undogged the hatch between the two rooms and rushed in to turn off the vacuum.
Jerzy stood there wiping the dust off his face with his handkerchief and a grim look on his face. I’m dead, aren’t I?
Not yet! Get your clothes off and stuff them in a waste bag. Wipe yourself down and come back to the lab as soon as you can. And then Red left, closing the hatch behind her.
She went straight to the lab and stripped herself. She bagged her clothes, put a scrub cap over her hair to prevent any dust that may have made it to her hair from spreading, and began irrigating her nasal passages.
Commander Schultz began banging on the door.
I’m contaminated! You can’t come in!
He continued banging. I need an explanation for this!
Geez, she thought, didn’t he watch the same scene I just watched?
He quieted down, and then another knock and Jerzy asked if he could come in.
When he came in, she had him irrigate his nasal passages, and spit as much as he could.
I can still feel it in my lungs, he told her. A metallic smell, and it’s like acid reflux burning in my lungs.
She did a chest x-ray, which showed fairly clean lungs, and listened and heard only faint bubbling.
She gave him Ibuprofen, and told him to get some rest.
Two days later, Jerzy died in his sleep, his lungs filled with fluid.
The crew took to wearing surgical masks at all times. Steve had worked to clean up the suitlock bay/work room. He bagged his suit without attempting a repair. I’m probably not going out again, he explained.
Two days later, when he complained of being tired all the time, and aware that he wasn’t as mentally sharp as he was used to, Red examined him. Listening to his lungs, she heard telltale burblings and crackling, and confirmed with an ex-ray that his lungs were filling with fluid, too. He wasn’t getting enough oxygen. She gave herself an x-ray, and had Dr. Hancock listen to her lungs to confirm. Then she examined Dr. Hancock. His lungs, too, were filling with fluid.
She called an emergency meeting, and tied in Mission Control in Houston. She explained that everybody’s lungs were being destroyed by the dust, and they needed to leave Mars as soon as possible, and head to Earth, and hope that they could survive while the dust in the inside environment gradually was cleaned and contained.
Commander Schultz was adamantly against it. Almost violently so. Steve, Doctor Hancock, and Larry agreed with Red. After a 10 minute lag, the response from Mission Control took a 20 minute discussion, but they agreed to abort the mission and return to Earth with the samples that had already been collected and drop the rest of the experiments. Their best return launch time was in five hours, just barely enough time to pack and run through the launch checklist.
Except Commander Schultz began ransacking the workroom, and almost succeeded in opening the large cargo airlock before being restrained by Larry, Steve, Red and Dr. Hancock.
Dr. Hancock directed that they drag the Commander to the lab and x-ray his head. He explained: This isn’t like the Ed Schultz I know. I need to check out a possibility.
They were faint, and small, but scattered through the x-ray of Ed’s brain, were several voids, and some lesions.
That’s happening to all of us. Red murmured. Is there any hope for any of us?
Where there’s life, there’s hope. Dr. Hancock responded. As long as we keep trying, there’s hope. Now we need to get packed.
They strapped Commander Schultz into his seat, wrapped in duct tape and tranked to the gills.
Their launch was uneventful, and Mission Control set them on a new trajectory that would get them back to Earth from their current position.
They began to work on cleaning the dust out of as much of the environment as possible. Washing, damp mopping, and wringing it out into wash water that was then centrifuged to separate the dust. They exercised 3 to 4 hours per day, attempting to clean fluid from their lungs. Dr. Hancock told them about cases where men and women had had accidents or diseases that destroyed half their brains, and had gone on to live active, productive lives. One man, a machinist, hadn’t had a problem and wasn’t diagnosed until he had a brain x-ray for some other reason, and then the doctors noticed. Another woman had backed into a spinning airplane propeller, and surprisingly lived. More surprisingly, had again qualified for her pilot’s license, and gone on to set speed and acrobatic flight records. They began to collect and work on brain teasers to try to offset the damage they could sense being done to their brains.
Commander Schultz died with his lungs filled, compounded by being tied motionless all the time.
As their thinking began to get more muddled, Dr. Hancock and Red agreed they should turn over the guidance and control of the motors to allow Mission Control to direct them remotely.
The days wore on, and Steve became less and less responsive, but whether from the voids in his brain or the fluid in his lungs, it didn’t matter. One day he didn’t wake up.
Then, although robotic computerized vehicles had successfully functioned in the Martian dust for more than ten years at a time, that was in the dry, almost airless, very cold Martian environment. When the dust settled onto electronic parts in the warm humid room temperature environment inside the ship, very different effects developed. In particular, metal corrosion of some parts, and crystal whiskers grew between other parts that should not safely be connected. One board involved with communications shorted out and started a fire that soon spread to another board that controlled navigation, and insulation began burning and giving off smoke that spread through the ship. Dr. Hancock died before waking. Red and Larry fought to put out the flames and finally managed it, but in her weakened state, Red collapsed and died while trying to clean up.
Mission Control only was aware that communication to the ship abruptly cut off, and they were unable to contact the ship again. It wouldn’t respond to radio calls, and wouldn’t respond to navigation commands. Without course corrections near the end of their journey, the ship would not return, but miss the Earth, and continue on an elliptical orbit carrying it in towards Mercury, and then out again past Mars. It would pass through the orbit of Earth every two years or so, but wouldn’t come around when the Earth was nearby for another three hundred years.
Larry eventually stopped eating, and lived for only another month before dying strapped into his chair.
After the ship passed Earth on its inward trek, with no response, and no change in trajectory, the Mission Director, realizing his career had probably just ended, finalized his report and added the phrase that he was sure others would add if he didn’t: Loss of vehicle. Loss of Crew. Loss of Mission.
A month later, Congressman Derek Jenkins rose to speak on the floor of the House of Representatives. ‘In light of the failure of the recent Mars mission, with no return after an investment over ten years of nearly 30 Billion of our taxpayer dollars, I move that the budget for NASA manned spaceflight be reduced to zero, and further space exploration be carried out by robotic missions only.’
This story was written in response to a competition that NASA@work held for short stories featuring the first trip to Mars. It was to be less than 2,000 words, contain accurate science, and finally, finish with a successful mission. The first two criteria I could do with ease, but I had just finished an activity on the internet showing that if you only look for positive results in your testing, you will be led badly astray. You will never learn what the limits, or criteria that define what does work, and what does NOT work. It explains why so much public policy goes wrong.
So of course, when the criteria demanded that the story be a positive story about NASA exploration, the story that presented itself turned into a horror story. I’m sure that much that I’ve written here keeps NASA Civil Servants worried, and sometimes wake up with shivering cold sweats. I should probably title it: Dust – A Horror Story, just to make it clear.