Putting the Sim in Perspective

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(from left) Members of the cookie supply module retrieval EVA
        team, from left, Gregorio Drayer, Greg Michael, Alyssa Rzeszutko
(from left) Members of the cookie supply module retrieval EVA team, from left, Gregorio Drayer, Greg Michael, Alyssa Rzeszutko

Mars Desert Research Station, Utah; April 14, 2004—Our generator problems were transcendental. There’s no other way to explain it. The replacement generator that Don had given us when the first two had crapped out also crapped out. Three different generators, the same result. Don replaced the replacement generator with the same generator that started this whole mechanical death spiral—the “China Special,” as it was referred to in the engineering reports—after making major repairs to it. It died for the second time, but at least it waited until we’d gone into sim.

I volunteered to make one last run into Hanksville to pick up more ice and a few groceries. I had until 4 o’clock—that’s when the sim would start—and I planned to make every minute away from the Hab count. I hadn’t showered in nearly a week, so I brought along a towel and a bar of soap. At Duke’s Slickrock Grill, I ordered a cheeseburger. As soon as the waitress turned away from my table, I ducked into the men’s room to wash my hair and shave. I would’ve been glad to pay for the opportunity if it were on the menu. I didn’t want the cheeseburger.

Kathleen had given me a shopping list. She was big on lists and reports and anything that allowed her to express how she believed things should be done. For her, no rule was too strict, no protocol too oppressive. In the absence of structure, Kathleen invented it. For instance, on our first day, she suggested that everyone should have a rank, or, failing that, a specialty, like Health and Safety Officer. Gus wisely sidestepped that suggestion. Somehow, Kathleen assumed most of the responsibilities for cooking. She wasn’t a bad cook, so no one objected. I think she did it because she enjoyed delegating the prep work. Once, she asked me to grate cheese for quesadillas. No problem, I said, and dragged the block of cheese over the grater. Kathleen stood over me, watching. “Long strokes,” she said. She pantomimed the motion and repeated herself, drawing out the word “looong” as if she were talking to an autistic child. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like being told what to do—I’ve got a stubborn streak a mile wide—but c’mon, long strokes? For quesadillas? Short or long, the cheese was going to melt.

Johnson’s Market sold one kind cheese: bright orange “cheddar” in 2-pound slabs. Most of the food stacked on the shelves was sealed in containers that required tools to open. Cuts of meat were frozen solid and stacked like bricks in airtight cases at the back of the store. Kathleen wanted oranges. I dropped the block of cheese into the cart and looked around for the produce aisle. There wasn’t one, at least not in the traditional sense, where fruits and vegetables are stacked in neat little pyramids next to weighing scales. At Johnson’s Market, fruits and vegetables were tossed into cardboard boxes and stacked inside a cooler. The oranges looked mealy, but I bought them anyway because it was easier than explaining why I didn’t buy what was clearly on the list.

I tried calling my wife from a payphone outside the store. She was six months pregnant with our first child, and I wanted to see how she—how they—were doing. My wife is also a doctor at a hectic Level 1 trauma center. Luckily, I caught her at home. Although it was late in the day, she sounded groggy. She told me she had worked the midnight shift and had slept most of the afternoon. I asked her how the baby was doing. Before I left for Utah, he’d started kicking.

“Didn’t you get my e-mail?” she asked. I told her no, not with the generator problems and the wind blowing the satellite dish around. “Oh,” she said, and immediately I knew something was wrong. Then she told me. Last night, around 3 a.m., a mother came into the Emergency Department with her 11-year-old boy. Against my wife’s orders, the mother insisted on holding the boy in her lap. The boy was wearing work boots, and when my wife bent over to examine him, he kicked her right in the stomach. Within the hour, my wife was spotting blood. Then she started getting belly contractions. But she couldn’t leave the emergency department because there was no one to cover for her. She was home now, lying in bed and drinking cranberry juice, trying not to move. Listening to her, I felt panicked.

“I’m coming home, baby,” I said. “I’m getting in my car right now.”

“No,” my wife said. “There’s nothing you can do. Stay there and do your Mars thing.”

I explained to her that there was nothing I could do here, either. The generator failures made certain of that. And if I went back to the Hab now, I couldn’t leave for another 10 days. I couldn’t drive into town to make another phone call. If I was going to leave, now was the time. We were going into sim—I checked my watch—in 10 minutes. My wife was right, of course. There was nothing I could do. Drive or fly, if something bad was going to happen, it would’ve happened already. I had to trust that my wife would’ve told me if there was any chance she’d lose the baby.

I had calmed down a little by the time I turned on to Cow Dung Road. The thing that got me the most, besides wanting to strangle this kid who kicked my pregnant wife (and maybe strangle the kid’s mother, too, just for good measure), was how responsible I felt toward the sim as opposed to my unborn child. Of course I could leave the Hab any time I wanted. Of course I could make a phone call. There were no sim guards standing outside the airlock doors with sim rayguns at the ready. What the hell was I thinking?

I got back to the Hab at precisely 4:02. A piece of paper taped to the outside of the airlock door said, “Crew 28, April 14, 2004, Simulation Started 16:00.” I set the grocery bags down and swung the door open. The second airlock door, the one that opened into the Hab’s lower level, was locked. Faces appeared behind the scratched porthole window.

“Twenty minutes for depressurization,” Kathleen said, her voice muffled by the airlock door. Someone behind her laughed. It was a good joke, and if the situation were reversed, I’d have done the same thing. But I wasn’t in the mood for jokes, and I certainly wasn’t in the mood to abide by ridiculous simulation rules. I sat down on a plastic milk crate inside the airlock, reached into the grocery bag, and pulled the tab on a cold can of beer. Now I was ready to depressurize.