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Ecosystem Explorations:
Life in Mars Base Zero
By Ray R. Collins


Mars Base Zero is a garden in a house. Or maybe I should call it a home in a greenhouse. It is designed to be a semi-closed ecological life support system, where all the food is produced, and the wastes recycled, for one person. In theory. In fact, we don't expect to quite support a person. Theory says it is possible, but our experience has been that more area will be needed. Our goal with Mars Base Zero is to determine how close we can come to the theoretical minimum garden area needed to support a person. Then we will use that number to build a fully closed ecosystem designed to support one or more people.

We named Mars Base Zero 'Mars Base' because it is designed so the ecological components could be transported to Mars and would function there in about the same fashion as on earth. There are a few differences between our earthly location near Fairbanks, Alaska, but these will probably have little impact on the ecosystem. The change in gravity is the largest factor we will not be able to model. The outside environment is not quite as hostile either (especially in regards to atmospheric pressure; though our winters can cause many problems similar to those you might encounter on Mars (as the dialog below will show). But it isn't on Mars. So we call it base zero. Maybe one day Mars Base One will actually be on Mars!

This account is mostly true. I have fictionalized it to the extent that I have placed it on Mars, but it reflects a true account of our activities in Mars Base Zero. Although I have written this as if we were actually on Mars, I have also added comments about our real activities so the reader can tell the difference between fact and fiction. These comments are enclosed in [].

I am writing this mostly for my own entertainment. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it! A number of items presented are not true. For example, I have no idea if Martian air temperature would have enough of an effect on a space craft using aero-braking to cause it to break up. I have attempted to comment all these discrepancies, but may have missed a few. So please disregard the scientific slips, and enjoy the story as a story.


At the time I began this (1/1/00) Frances (Frankie) Nichols and I had been living in Mars Base Zero for 3 months. These first three months have been devoted to getting the various hardware components up and running. For example: the enclosure was not yet complete; the heating system was not installed; the living space was more of a construction area (still is for that matter-but it is getting better!); the lighting system was non-existent; power was supplied by a simple extension cord; the chickens had no cage;1 the tarping was partially pulled loose from the ceiling;

First priority was the heating system; the temperatures were dipping below freezing on a regular basis. Because installing the permanent heating system was going to be a large task, we chose to heat Mars Base Zero with a space heater until the permanent furnace was installed2. This heater put out 110,000 BTU (British thermal units, a measure of the amount of heat) and was sufficient to keep the greenhouse warm (or at least, above freezing) at temperatures down to about 0 degrees F.

The second most important construction project was repairing and insulating the ceiling on the north half of the dome. In mid-September we covered the structure in visqueen (clear plastic tarp). Wire was run under the plastic and stapled to the trusses to keep the plastic from sagging. We put fiberglass insulation on top of the plastic. The plan was to spray in cellulose insulation on top of this, but the weather turned foul before this could happen. Plywood and blue tarps cover the insulation on the top of the dome to help the snow slide off.

We also had to figure out how to support the plastic over the south side. Since this is where all the sunlight enters in the winter, we wanted to minimize blockage due to supports. We had a local welding shop bend 18-foot long metal rods into arches to support the plastic. These rods were attached at the bottom by sliding them over metal spikes sticking out of the concrete wall and at the top, they slip into regular joist hangers. The rods are tied together with wire to keep them vertical.

Building a garden tends to take years. The first year you have a rough garden in freshly broken up sod. The next year you amend your soil, add fertilizers and organic materials. After several years of this you eventually end up with a very nice garden. Building an ecosystem is even more complex. So, although our biosphere is occupied, it is not expected to be a fully integrated ecosystem for a long time. Just figuring out what to plant when and in what order will take a significant amount of time. Consequently, ecosystem problems will be a large challenge. In these early stages we are not even certain what problems will prove serious.

Muddy Stuff: Planting

Saturday, January 1, 2000. -35 F to -45 F; dust [ice fog]; 40 kph wind [no wind]
Major food shipment arrived. The roosters had practically killed one hen, so we removed 2 of the roosters to a separate box. We have seven chickens; 4 roosters and 3 hens.
Sunday, January 2, 2000. -35 F to -45 F; dust [ice fog]; 40 kph wind [no wind]
Our air lock [arctic entry] is a major source of cold into the living area when it is this cold outside. In an attempt to make the living area warmer, we closed the door [blocked it off].

We were gone all day, exploring the leveler country to the north. When we returned: major catastrophe! The heater had died, and the temperature in the living area was down to the 20's F and the temperature in the crop area was just below freezing. The loft was down into the low 30's F. It turned out our bright idea of closing the door had caused the heat exchanger [furnace] to freeze. This in turn caused a number of pipes to freeze. We moved fans to blow (chilly?) air on the heat exchanger to warm it up. It didn't work too well, though it did get the airlock somewhat warmer. While we were struggling with the heating system we turned on the space heater, which helped keep it from getting much colder (though the temperature continued down-the space heater just isn't powerful enough at this temperature!). We finally got the heat exchanger working by applying a propane torch to the bottom of it. Unfortunately we never did manage to thaw one of the frozen pipes, so our overall inside temperature remained a bit colder than before.

We lost a number of crops, though the frost hardy ones survived. This narrows the margin for getting the agriculture system in production in time for the May deadline. We have a major food shipment arriving then, but if anything fails with it and we don't have the capability of producing most of our own food we will have to return to earth during the May launch window. Since our mission is open-ended we want to make every effort to keep progress going. Eventually our agriculture system will produce enough food to support the base. But we expect to have a lot of bugs to work out of the system before it is robust enough to rely on for food.

This freeze-up has cost us a month. We had planned on having the ag system fully operational (ie harvesting at the same rate we were planting) by the end of February. Now it will be the end of March before we can start harvesting on a regular basis. That only gives us 6 weeks before the May deadline. A very thin margin for error! More mistakes like this one and we will not be able to produce enough food to support ourselves and the base will have to be abandoned.

Monday, January 3, 2000. -45 F to -55 F; dust [ice fog]; 40 kph wind [no wind]
Installed shelves in the kitchen; rebuilt chicken cage (plywood floor to prevent dust, staples, etc);

Tuesday, January 4, 2000. -45 F to -55 F; dust [ice fog]; 40 kph wind [no wind]
Installed kitchen counter. After a fashion, anyhow: it is just sitting on a platform. But it is fully functional, and we probably won't mess with it further for quite awhile.

Wednesday, January 5, 2000. -35 F to -45 F; dust [ice fog]; 40 kph wind [no wind]
Today we spent most of the day investigating the north massif [really: working]. We had oatmeal for breakfast, and left about 7:30. We came back for dinner at 5 (having missed lunch, due to the fact we never got out of our space suits [too busy]). After a spaghetti feed we left again and, working under lights, we set up some more of the instrumentation [went in to the office].

I hope things slow down soon, so we can get a little more of our ecosystem working! The biosphere instrument package is due in tomorrow, I hope it arrives intact! There is a chance that the aero braking maneuver may not work right, if that is the case arrival may be somewhat delayed [shipping company may deliver late]. I am really looking foreword to getting it set up. Included are CO2, O2, relative humidity, and 2 temperature probes. We'll set it up and begin 24 hour monitoring of these 4 data as soon as it arrives.

The sick chicken is getting better, slowly. But she isn't eating or drinking much, so the prognosis isn't good. We discussed the situation with earth control [a vet], who said to try to raise the humidity. We still have the two roosters isolated in a separate cage; we'll probably end up slaughtering them soon. We really didn't need 4 roosters and 3 hens (we had hoped for more like 5 hens and 2 roosters, but it is a little hard to predict what sex a chicken is while it is still in the egg!)

Shortly after we went to bed, the heat system failed. The wind had uncovered the heat line and, even though there was a heat tape on it, it froze. [Actually the furnace fuel line jelled because it got warm enough during the day so the heat tape melted the snow that was covering it, and with it uncovered the heat tape wasn't hot enough to keep it thawed--#2 diesel jells at -15 F, and with the temperature going to -40 F it jells rather easily!] I covered it back up, manually re-started the pump [furnace] and we were back in business.

Thursday, January 6, 2000. -30 F to -25 F; dust [ice fog] in the morning; 30 kph wind [breezy]
We got up, had breakfast, and spent the day exploring the Little Ravine [working]. Geology is great, but when will we be able to get going on the Biosphere? I wish mission control [life] would let us get things planted. Our May deadline is fast approaching.

After a scrumptious dinner of baked potato, I took the shuttle up to the Mars Orbital Station to deliver the samples we've collected thus far [spent the night with my folks]. Frankie took the occasion to do some cleaning; the loft had gotten to be a mess, and the fish tank was getting cloudy. We don't have a lot of fish; these are just our breeding stock. Eventually we'd need to breed these into a large enough population to provide a few meals a week in fresh fish, so these fish are very important. [They are just goldfish--pets really. Eventually we'll raise Tilapia for food.]

Friday, January 7, 2000. Warm! Up to -5 F; high thin haze (ice crystals) [clouds]; no wind.
First thing in the morning I returned, and we went back to the Little Ravine, which turns out not to be so little--at least as far as doing geology is concerned!

When we returned in the evening the sick chicken had escaped. We took this to indicate the other chickens had been picking on her, and put her in a milk crate. We bathed the sore on her head, hand fed her and otherwise pampered her for about half an hour. Since she seemed content to stay in the milk crate, we put it in a warm place. Hopefully she won't hop out during the night and get into the grain crops!

The kitchen counter had been unusable because it was not fastened down (anything put on it tended to tip it over). So we took a few minutes to fasten it to the wall. Now we can use it until we can build the cabinets and install it permanently. We are expecting the shipment with the next month's fresh food, refrigerator and stove Sunday. Hopefully the aero-braking maneuver will go ok, otherwise landing will be delayed [ie we may not have time to go buy them]. We are eager to have a working kitchen!

When we arrived, the downstairs was a very nice temperature, and the loft area was 85 F. After we had dinner and retired upstairs to read and write this, we turned the thermostat down. With the warmer weather it took a lot longer to cool down. Should be quite a bit more comfortable.

Today is a major improvement in our food supply: one of the hens laid an egg. Hopefully one of many to come. A month ago we got 4 eggs in a row, but none since. Possibly due to the amount of fighting between the roosters and hens, though there are many other variables (we have been changing the light levels irregularly; we rebuild part of their cage and made it more comfortable; any of these (or more than one) could be the cause. So we are very pleased; we were beginning to think the chickens were going to only be good for meat, not egg production.

Saturday, January 8, 2000. 0 to -10 F. high thin haze (ice crystals) [light snow]; no wind.
The sick chicken seems to be getting better, slowly. We have really been pampering her, hand feeding her (with the occasional ouch when she grabs flesh instead of food!). We are still not very sure she will ever be well enough to produce eggs for us, but we can decide about slaughtering her at a later date-we still have plenty of chicken feed.

Happy day, another egg! We almost have enough eggs now for a meal. They are a little small, so we think 5-6 will be needed to make it a main course (we now have 5). We aren't sure which of the two hens in the cage are responsible, but it is probably the same one that laid an egg yesterday (and the 3 from previously) because they are all pale blue.

We spent very little time inside today; most of the day was taking advantage of the warm weather for outside work.

We have gone to 24 hour lighting on our plants. Thus far we only have 2 lights turned on, so our power supply isn't strained yet. We will need a vastly improved power supply in order to turn on all the lights! [Thus far Mars Base Zero is borrowing power from the Smyth family, and their main fuse will only allow us a limited amount of power because it is too small for the kind of load we can put on it!]

Sunday, January 09, 2000. -10 to -25 F. Clear.
After debating about returning the sick chicken to the pen with the others, we decided to hold off another day. Just to make sure that she is really well! We made pancakes for breakfast today. We had to use some of our precious milk because it turned out one of our buckets of water has a funny taste and we didn't want to use it. Time for another trip to the remote drilling site, where subsurface ice is being automatically mined for our drinking water [a trip to a local spring, where many people in the Fairbanks area get their drinking water]. While the water for the crops is from the local ice lens, the purity leaves something to be desired. [The crops are being watered from the Smyth's well, but we want to track domestic use-and their well water is not very tasty-so we haul our domestic water.]

Happy, happy day! Our ecosystem (well, ok, the chickens) are now up to producing 2 eggs. Wonder if this will now be a daily occurrence? That would be a welcome addition to our diet (in spite of the shipment due in tomorrow). When we start depending more on local crops those eggs are going to be very welcome.

The temperature is headed down. The forecast is for much colder (to -60 F). If the forecasters can be believed [no kidding]. I don't think they have the Martian [Alaskan] climate quite figured out!

Today was rather uneventful. Frankie headed out to retrieve some scientific equipment [work], while I spent the morning working on the computer here in Mars Base Zero. In the afternoon I headed out and met her near east camp, and we spent the day there repairing some broken sensors [working]. We had dinner at the east camp igloo [my folk's] before returning to Mars Base Zero in time to feed the chickens and go to bed. For the last few nights we have left the plant lights on all night. I wonder if the chickens are producing more eggs because of the increased light?

Monday, January 10, 2000. -30 to -40 F. Clear.
Catastrophe! Our supply ship burned up in the lower atmosphere during the aero-braking maneuver. This will put us on slightly short rations until the next supply ship. [Actually we just didn't make it shopping.] The foodstuffs actually burned up, but the instrument package survived to the surface. It is theorized that the extremely cold air made it too dense for the heat shield, and the ship broke up [no idea if this would actually happen]. Unfortunately someone who loaded the instruments must have had the flu, because we both got sick with it the next day [actually I doubt a flu bug would survive the trip, and even if it would I doubt the clean room techniques used to prepare space craft would allow the materials to be infected].

[Missed writing this for several days because of the flu. Temperatures continued in the -30 to -40 degree F range; inside temperatures remained fairly constant at 70 in the loft and 60 in the plant canopy. During this time about the only work we got done on the greenhouse was to set up the instruments to monitor the air; we are now continuously monitoring (with the computer) CO2, relative humidity, temperature inside and temperature outside.]

Saturday, January 15, 2000. -30 to -40 F. Clear

We were gone most of the day today, but when we returned it was to a frigid greenhouse. It was 17 degrees inside. The heating lines running from the nuclear power plant were frozen [not sure why the furnace went down, but it did]. Our secondary heater [space heater] had come on, but it ran out of fuel. So the place froze pretty hard. Several inside heater pipes were frozen, and the plastic heater lines were frozen solid. We immediately refueled the space heater and set up it up to thaw out the unit heater (a large unit up in the rafters that accounted for about half the heat output). The unit heater wasn't frozen very hard (or it would have broken). It took about 4 hours to get the unit heater thawed and running, which was enough to get the loft temperature up to 65 F. Since it was 3 am, we called this good and went to bed.

Sunday, January 16, 2000.
Installed extra insulation in the air lock, which had been leaking cold air into the kitchen area [actually I installed the door-up to now we had only a blanket and visqueen (plastic) as a door!!!]. We hope this will give us a slightly greater margin the next time the furnace fails. It will also help prevent the heat exchanger [furnace] itself from freezing up.

[More missed days, due to relapse of the flu.]

Thursday, January 20, 2000. 20 F. [snow]

Our egg "factory" is producing very nicely now. A couple of days ago we built a nest out of a wooden box. It took the hens a day to figure out how to get to it (it was at the top of the cage, so it would be easy to remove the eggs from it). Now that they have it is a lot easier to get the eggs, for they use it regularly.

One chicken is producing an egg every day, and the other one is producing an egg every other day. So we are getting a dozen eggs every 8 days. Sure is nice to have some fresh food! Today we got an enormous egg; 3.5 ounces. Turned out to be a kind of double egg with 2 yolks in it. We put it in the pancake mix_yummy!

Saturday, January 22, 2000. 20 F, [snow]
Two furnace failures today. The first one shortly after we left at 11 am. We came back to check on things at 6 pm to discover a cool place (low 50's F); the space heater had kept it from getting too cold. We restarted the furnace and left for another 5 hours_and when we returned, the heat was out again-it had died shortly after we left last time. Again the space heater had kept the temperature in the low 50's. The first time we returned we didn't think the space heater had been on (no odor), but we had just arrived after it had cycled off for awhile. The temperature log for the day told the real story.

Sunday, January 23, 2000. 20 F.
Today we fetched another 10 gallons of water for drinking and washing. Not that we are really doing much washing; dishes is about all we wash right now. Even then we don't wash very often; we are very conservative and try to keep our dishes as clean as possible so we can re-use them several times between washings. This would not be advisable in a warmer or less isolated environment, but here there are few germs to cause problems.

The really warm outside temperatures has meant that it has been very warm inside. Unfortunately we haven't been able to take advantage of the really warm weather because we have been so busy doing other things.

Monday, January 24, 2000. 20 F.
Today was a nice relaxing day. Nothing went wrong, we downloaded [rented] a nice movie from earth to watch in the evening. But we accomplished nothing on the ecosystem.

Tuesday, January 25, 2000. 20 F.
Wow, our temperature seems to be really stuck on 20 degrees F! Not that I am complaining, mind. But the frost that has built up around the edges is melting, and the kitchen has something of a puddle on the floor. And now the frost [snow] in the far end of the greenhouse is melting and the far end is flooded with nearly an inch of water. Ah! Life on the wet frontier.

Today we had a very busy day, and managed to miss about half our normal calories. First we skipped breakfast entirely (we hadn't slept well last night because of the lights, and the chickens). Then lunch came up short. We didn't get back until late-ish, and then I got the rover [plow truck] stuck in the 'driveway'. Took 3 hours to dig the dust drifts [snow] out enough to get it unstuck. So we had leftover rice for dinner, which was not sufficient. Since we had some orange juice we topped dinner off with orange juice and peanuts.

We don't have a freezer. Although we don't have very many frozen things, we do have a few. This isn't a problem though, for our frozen stuff is just set outside the door! This solution may not work in the summer time, but for now it works very well. We do have an apartment sized refrigerator en route [at the store] which has a tiny freezer in it. So by the time it gets too warm to keep things outside we'll be able to keep it inside.

Our lack of a refrigerator was no problem at all when it was -40 F outside, and the kitchen area [especially the floor] was consistently down near freezing. Indeed we had to watch it that things didn't freeze! On several occasions we had to move things off the floor because it got below freezing. Indeed our slop bucket had a skim of ice on it for about a week, during the coldest weather. Now with the warmer temperatures outside our floor doesn't make quite so good a refrigerator. But so far nothing has spoiled.

Wednesday, January 26, 2000. 25 F.
Gosh, talk about warm!! Pretty unusual temperatures [no kidding_nearly freezing in January in Alaska?!].

Today was extremely productive. We got a new communication system hooked up [the phone line], set it up with a remote sensor so we will be automatically notified if the heating system dies again-or if it overheats, or if there is a power failure [the sensing system will call my beeper]. We also got 3 square meters (yards) of wheat planted, under which we buried heat pipe. The airlock [door] had never been properly welded, and we got that welded [screwed] on.

Thursday, January 27, 2000. 25 F.
More warm weather! Didn't have much time to work in the greenhouse, but I did get a little bit planted. Buried a few more feet of heat pipe, on top of which I planted a couple of the potatoes I dug up yesterday [these were the potatoes from the summer planting, some of the few which hadn't yet been harvested].

In the evening I cleaned out the chicken cage. Main water supply is running low; we are going to have to get more soon.

Friday, January 28, 2000. 20 - 5 F.
Oh, happy day: first harvest! Not much, just a couple small radishes that we had to pull to thin the pot, but it is a start. Very, very slow for radishes. I think we have abused them too much (too cold mostly). They were very mild, though a little woody.

Cooler temperatures meant we had to turn on the fans (which we'd shut off during the warmer weather).

Saturday, January 29, 2000. 10 to -5 F.
Slowly, slowly loosing our nice warm weather. I still haven't repaired the heat radiator on the S wall; I need to do that pretty soon if it is going to get cold again! Though we can keep the place fairly well heated without doing so, it would be a lot better heat if I do (fewer cold spots).

Did a little planting, but not much other work in the greenhouse. Spent too much time investigating the south butte [working]! We did get 2 eggs today; I think the egg factory is now up to more than a dozen a week; we have gotten 9 eggs in the last 5 days.

Today we celebrated our first month on the restricted diet (restricted to roughly things that can be produced in Mars Base Zero_very roughly). To celebrate we dug out 2 pounds of hamburger we had [bought] and made hamburgers. We only used half of it, to stretch it out over more than one day. Tomorrow we'll have hamburger sauce over noodles. :).

Sunday, January 30, 2000. 0 to -10.F.
Very little work on the greenhouse today. We are pretty much out of water for watering things, so there was no point in doing anything in the garden. We were also out of drinking water. We didn't have time to run out to the remote drilling site [Fox spring] for water, so we raided the dehumidifier [Frankie's apartment], which doesn't taste very good but it is at least potable. We got 10 gallons. We seem to be using about a gallon a day, though we expect that to increase markedly when we start bathing here_

Two eggs again today_:)

Monday, January 31, 2000. 0 to -5 F.
We are very nearly out of plant water. Hope we have time to get more soon! Of course I want to finish repairing the broken heat pipe before we do, so we can re-fill the furnace water at the same time, and it would be nice to get the heat pipe buried under plant area D, so we can re-fill that too. Our water system right now is a garden hose which runs over to the well; eventually we'll burry it and insulate it so it won't freeze, but for now every time we want water we have to unroll the garden hose to get water. The we have to roll it back up again so it won't freeze. Too many projects, not enough time!

Leftovers of noodles and hamburger sauce tonight. We are going to be really spoiled by all this rich food! But we finished it off tonight, so it is back to the (basically) vegetarian diet.

Tuesday, February 01, 2000. 0 to -5 F.
Nothing much happened. But we did get 2 eggs.

Wednesday, February 02, 2000. 19 to +51!!! F.
Structural failure! The wind blew down three of the metal trusses on the west end of the south side It was a bit tricky fixing because of the frost [snow] buildup in the corner weighing down the plastic.

Cracked chicken egg_? Not sure why it was cracked. Maybe a rooster stepped on it?

Out of water for plants; had to use drinking water for chickens.

Thursday, February 3, 2000. 15-20 F.
A few more repairs on the structure. Tried to melt the ice at the end, no luck. Only 1 egg.

Friday, February 04, 2000. 20-25 F.
Fixed it up to 'water' ice/frost [snow] that had built up in a corner of the west end. I had tried to shovel it out, but portions of it were frozen, and it was difficult to dig without ripping the plastic. So I set it up to pump water from the portion that had melted, and ran it over the part that hadn't. This managed to melt the majority of it. Dug 2 trenches across one plot, and buried some heat pipe (to warm the soil). The chicken's nest was getting a little bare, so I added a little more straw to it. Cleaned up the kitchen. Cut off 'cement' bucket rim [when we poured the concrete floor we put a 4 inch pipe from a 5 gallon bucket in the floor to the outside of the greenhouse, to run power and water down-and the rim stuck up about two inches]. We got 6 pots of herbs planted.

Saturday, February 5, 2000. 20-25 F.
Today we made excellent progress on the greenhouse. We got 2 more runs of the heat tube under the soil in square D, and a third trench dug. We made an attempt to get water, but had so many difficulties we ran out of time before we managed to get very much. Everything got watered, and about 10 gallons in reserve.

Sunday, February 6, 2000. 20-25 F.
Goodies arrived! The arrival was perfect; it aero braked west of here, and the chutes opened up almost overhead. The landing was soft so nothing got bruised or broken. This fast transit [we went shopping] actually got us some fresh vegetables and fruit [actually I think it is pretty unlikely that you'd actually be able to ship fresh stuff from earth to Mars fast enough to keep it from spoiling-at least without burning an exorbitant amount of fuel]. We also got a bunch of new parts to upgrade the greenhouse; stove, refrigerator, desk, more heat pipes, etc. The desk came in 2 flat boxes; we chose it as the first thing to add to our living area (it will be some time before we can add some of the other things)_it took the two of us 3 hours to put it together. But it is well worth it. Our loft is very small to start with (less than 7 foot by 12 foot), and with the computer spread out all over the floor it was messy and uncomfortable to use. Now the computer and accessories are nice & neat. Of course now we don't have an excuse to have a messy loft, so we have had to do something with our clothes, which we've had a tendency to just leave strewn in corners here & there!

Monday, February 7, 2000. 10-20 F.
Very little time to accomplish anything on the greenhouse.

Tuesday, February 8, 2000. 5-20 F.
Very busy day away from Mars Base Zero. Today is Frankie's birthday so we had a special dinner and downloaded [rented] a movie from earth for a relaxing evening together.

Wednesday, February 09, 2000. 5-25 F.
Dan came over from the Nearside Base, and will be helping us for the next few days. Today he only managed to help for an hour, for some problems [work] came up he had to deal with. But we made a lot of progress; we got the heat loop that had frozen and broken a couple of weeks ago repaired. Then we extended it by 8 feet (~2.5 meters). This was a little more complicated than it sounds, for we are extending it over an area that was planted in wheat, which just came up! (Also up are a couple of potatoes, so our ecosystem is really starting to come alive.) To work over the wheat we removed the walkway that extended out from the loft (really just a board 2 inches by 12 inches, 14 feet long). We put the board on a couple of bricks, over the garden. This gave us full access to where we needed to work.

Thursday, February 10, 2000. 5 to 25 F.
Dan arrived around 9 and we worked until noon, extending the hot water baseboard pipe on the south wall down the entire length of the building. We took a long break for lunch, and while Dan went back to Nearside Base [work] for a couple of hours, I went to the landing site and picked up Mike, who came down from the orbiting command ship to help. After a short afternoon, one of our remote sensors had to be checked [I had to go pick up Frankie, and do our swim meet]. Dan continued working with Mike until 5, and then had to head home before it got too dark (the sun is returning, but it is slow!). Mike will be spending the night here, so we set up a cot in the kitchen. Things are a bit crowded (I'll say-3 people living in an area 7.5 feet by 16 feet, with a 7.5 foot by 12 foot loft), but we'll manage.

Hen pecked. I never really appreciated the term until we got these chickens. Our black hen was picked on by the roosters we had (which we took out: two of the 'extra' roosters that were doing the worst of the picking, and slaughtered {yum} a third), and she mostly recovered. But then the hens started picking on her. Now, I'm not talking about minor damage. I'm talking deep, deep cuts (as in to the bone on the skull!!). So we decided to cut our losses and have her for dinner sometime soon. We separated her from the other chickens this evening (put her in a milk crate) and will slaughter her tomorrow. **sigh** At least they shouldn't make a fuss at 5 am any more picking on her (which they did this morning).

Friday, February 11, 2000. 5 to 25 F.
Dan and Mike and I worked hard on the heating system about half the day. The western leg is finished and the northern (which feeds the western leg) is half done. Refilled all the empty water containers (except domestic, which we only filled one jug since it was the bad water).

Saturday, February 12, 2000. 5 to 25 F.
Hank, who had stopped by from the eastern base, was a great help putting up the Mylar bubble wrap (essentially bubble wrap that has been aluminized on both sides to make it reflect light and heat) on the northwestern corner of the greenhouse. We also began picking up the construction material. More wheat in square D is up. Frankie painted the wicker cabinet. A couple of potato plants are up.

Sunday, February 13, 2000. 15 to 25 F.
Frankie cleaned all the dishes; I upgraded part of the electrical system, getting a distribution box put in by the power plant [Smyth's power pole, where we are borrowing power from]; our current power supply [electric line] is only capable of running 3 of the 1,000 watt lights (plus domestic), and with the new plants up we need to turn on another 10 lights_More potatoes are up_

Monday, February 14, 2000. 15 to 25 F.
Really dug into the greenhouse. Mike moved back in, and we spent the day working on it. We added 2 lights over the wheat (only had the power available to run a total of 3 lights in the greenhouse though, so we disconnected one of the lights over the current wheat and hooked up one over the new patch). We put in considerable effort into cleaning the far end of the greenhouse (from the living quarters), for it had been used as a catch-all for construction debris, and was getting pretty messy. We installed some shelves that had arrived with the last shipment [brought from my storage shed], and reduced a work platform into a work table (cut the legs off so it was 3 feet high, instead of 4 feet; put plywood on it instead of the 2 x 6 inch boards).

While watering the plants I noticed the radishes, which had not been thriving lately, were covered with aphids (sap sucking insects). Upon inspecting a few other plants, I found that we have a severe aphid infestation. Fortunately with our last shipment we received some biodegradable insecticidal soap [I had ordered it], so I mixed up a batch and sprayed every plant in the greenhouse.

We used about 100 gallons of water today, for I am adding water to the trays, trying to bring the soil moisture level up.

Tuesday, February 15, 2000. 5 to 15 F.
Today was a busy day working in the field [attending classes], upgrading our local instrument network.

Wednesday, February 16, 2000. 10-20 F.
What a lot of work we managed to accomplish today! Mike was a great help, and between the two of us (Frankie was off reviewing the new instrument network [working]) we managed to get the kitchen about half rebuilt. First we removed everything from the kitchen area (not a huge task, since the area is only 7.5 feet wide and 16 feet long!) Then we laid the linoleum, brought in the stove and the refrigerator that we'd gotten with our last shipment [bought]. We hooked up the natural gas [propane] line through the wall to the stove, but we were missing a critical part so we were unable to complete the hookup. We will have to 'borrow' a part tomorrow from the rocket refueling attachment [buy it].

While I was off taking readings on the SW instrument network [going to SCUBA class], Mike shoveled the dust [snow] that had piled up in front of the door area, and along the front edge of the greenhouse. The dust tended to collect on the roof of the greenhouse, slide off and had piled so high it was blocking the sun! And with our daylight really coming back, this is a serious loss.

After returning, we spent a few minutes putting linoleum in the entry way. This may not be such a good idea, for it is very slick in the cold and our moon boot tend to slide on it real bad.

Well I hope this has given you an idea of what it is like to live in Mars Base Zero. From here on we did not keep a regular diary. Instead just a few notes to give an idea of what we were doing. These notes gradually taper off until we didn't keep it any more, as we got busy with spring projects away from Mars Base Zero.

Thursday, February 17, 2000. 15-30 F.

Spent the day working w/Mike on MB0. Installed the stove, worked on cleaning up the work areas, hauled in more construction material, cleaned out airlock [Arctic Entry].

Friday, February 18, 2000. 10-25 F.
Today we worked on getting the kitchen counter and shelves properly installed. We also did a lot of cleaning up from previous projects. There is still a serious infestation of insects, so we sprayed soap on every plant in the building. Now have a 2nd pest; a very small fly-like bug seems to be sucking on plants. Possibly white fly.

Saturday, February 19, 2000.
We moved over to the east base [went out of town] to do some work there. While we were gone Steven came down from the Orbital Station and stayed in Mars Base Zero to keep it running smoothly.

Sunday, February 20, 2000
Gone; Steven watching.

Monday, February 21, 2000
Today we turned down the CO2 scrubbers [actually we started leaving a burner on the propane stove on all the time] and began CO2 enrichment. This will hopefully promote plant growth.

Tuesday, February 22, 2000
[Class] Consulted with earth about aphids; concluded if the soap solution failed (which is supposed to clog up the insects breathing) by end of week to use insecticide.

Wednesday, February 23, 2000
Wheat is up 10 days & growing very fast. Watered everything.

Thursday, February 24, 2000
Aphid problem slightly reduced, possibly due to CO2 enrichment.

Friday, February 25, 2000. 0-15 F.
Today Mike came and we tackled the new chicken cage. We got it about 1/2 done.

Monday, February 28, 2000. 5-25 F. Sunny

Tuesday, February 29, 2000. 10-30 F.

Ran out of propane.

Thursday, March 2, 2000. 20-40 F. Sunny
Temp in the greenhouse loft went up to 100 F due to the sun.

Saturday, March 4, 2000. 20-40 F. Sunny
Temp in the greenhouse loft went up to 100 F again.

Sunday, March 5, 2000. 20-35 F. High, thin clouds
2 eggs. Spent the day in long canyon [doing errands]. Started working on thermostats and power to the far end of the greenhouse. Up to now we have been using extension cords. Not a very safe or satisfactory way to do it, especially now since we will be running our air conditioner [fan] from there. [This is a fan to blow air into the greenhouse from outside; we'll use that for cooling until we close the greenhouse in May.

Fixed the CO2 balancer [bought propane] and resumed enriching the atmosphere.

Monday, March 5, 2000. 18-40 F. Sunny

Thursday, March 8, 2000. 0-20 F. Sunny

We baked homemade pizza for dinner. The only thing we put on it that we could not produce here was cheese. Until now, the hot water circulating pump (for heat) has been on whenever the heat exchanger [furnace] was on. Today we hooked up a thermostat which turns the pump on and off at a set temperature independent from the heat exchanger. This allows better control of the heat.

Friday, March 9, 2000. 0-20 F. Sunny
We will be leaving the base for a week of training in new technologies [SCUBA science diving], so we need to train Mike in daily operations. Air conditioner [fan to the outside] was installed up in the top of the west end wall today. It is hooked into a thermostat, which will automatically turn it on when the temperature in the greenhouse gets too warm.


During the time we were gone in March we lost all of the wheat and some of the other plants. Partly due to overheating, watering and insect problems. Our first winter of operation was a great learning experience, and we are looking forward to resuming living in Mars Base Zero in the spring of 2001. Unfortunately in May 2000 we had to shut the operation down for we did not have enough money or time to keep it operating. This year-long shutdown will allow us to collect more money and support, so hopefully we'll be able to run it for a full year the next time we get it going. We continued living in the greenhouse until early May, though from the trip in March until then we did not try to keep the ecosystem alive.

Using CO2 appeared to greatly speed the plant growth and retard the bug problem. Another factor that seemed to really help retard the bugs is to cycle the temperature at night (ie down into the 50's (10C) instead of the mid-high 60's (15C) which we did in April-initially to help control the overheating during the day) more deeply than we had been doing during the middle of the winter. Structural & mechanical problems also posed considerable operational problems. Lack of a good door during the first half of the winter promoted fast cooling when the furnace went out, which it did with dismaying regularity. The furnace failures were helped a great deal when we changed to the more expensive #1 fuel. This problem can hopefully be cured when we bury the fuel line (we had been unable to bury it in the fall because the ground froze before we found time to do it).

Lighting was a severe problem. We started out with a single 10-2 wire running to the power pole, which is only large enough to power a few lights before it overheats. Later in the winter a second 10-2 line was added, but now the Smyth's power capacity was exceeded, and we had a number of occasions when something heavy (like their well pump) switched on it would pop the master breaker. This was not a good situation, so we had to keep the number of lights down to 6. Since we had about 25 square meters planted, and this needs a minimum of 12 lights for proper lighting, we were a long ways short. Especially in February when there was so little daylight. After about the middle of March this wasn't nearly so important, but we think in the lack of light played an important part in the rapid insect infestation; the plants didn't have enough energy to resist them like they normally would.

By experimenting with the rate at which CO2 declined after the propane stove was turned off, we estimate that the structure turned over it's air about every 3 hours. This is considerably different from most greenhouses which turn over (complete exchange of air) their air several times an hour! Indeed, when using fans for cooling, most people figure you need to turn over the air in a minute or so! So, while we are much better than most greenhouses, we do have a long way to go to achieve anything near complete sealing. Of course when we do we'll have to watch our CO2 a lot closer-especially since we are burning propane (which can produce carbon monoxide) to produce our elevated CO2. Our target for CO2 was 1,200 ppm but a lot of the time we settled for 900 ppm, which we could maintain with a single burner. With a better job of sealing we'll be able to reduce this even further, which will reduce our propane usage (which was about 100 pounds every 2 weeks, with one burner on all the time.)

1 Actually the chickens were being kept elsewhere until we managed to get a cage built for them in early October.
2 Naturally on Mars a space heater would probably be electric rather than our diesel fired heater.

Copyright © July 2002