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Journalist Report: 02/04/2013
Melanie Newfield

The Proving Ground

MDRS is a place for ideas, but more than that, it is a place to try out ideas. The thing is, an idea that sits in someone’s head, or is bounced around a random conversation in the pub, never actually does any good. You know those conversations – where someone always knows a better way, but never bothers to actually fix stuff. If an idea remains an idea, untried,
untested, unproven, it’s no good to anyone. 

Eventually, someone has to stand up and say “right then, let’s see how that works”, and then go and do it.

“Proving ground” is a military term for a test area – a place to try out the latest bomb and see if it explodes with a satisfactory boom, or to try out the latest jet and see if it actually flies. It’s a rather old fashioned term, because the word “prove” has shifted in meaning over the years. We usually use it to mean “show something to be true”, but once it was simply another word for “test”.

The thing with ideas is, not all of them are going to be winners. They might seem great when you’ve woken up in the middle of the night, and some even seem good the next morning, but they just might not work. But you’ll never know unless you try, and sometimes it’s not just a case of trying it once, but living with it.

That’s where MDRS comes in. It’s not just a dream of a future Mars base, it’s a concrete test – a proving ground for all the dreams, crazy ideas and wild theories that might just turn out to be genius. Or not, as the stairs in the hab show.

You can see the idea behind it – alternating steps which are supposed to fit with our natural way of walking. The tallest person in the hab finds them quite good. Those who are a little shorter, however, end up adopting a rather curious climbing action – knees turned out, hips twisting, helping ourselves up by hauling from the underside of the handrail. Sound awkward? Try carrying a bulky vacuum cleaner, or two weeks’ worth of food.

It’s fair to say that this stair design is unlikely to make it into a future Mars habitat.

The crew quarters are a slightly different example. The challenge of providing sleeping quarters for people in the minimum of space is well established. The most space-effective option is to use temporary beds, so that the sleeping quarters can be used for other purposes. The Captain might have had his stateroom, but the men aboard early sailing ships got
to sling their hammocks below decks when they wanted to sleep, and put them away when they got up. Then someone had the bright idea of stacking, and bunk beds were born. Even today, they remain a popular choice.

One thing that bunks don’t give – especially in places like backpacker lodges – is privacy and personal space. Catering for the budget-conscious business traveller, the Japanese invented the capsule hotel. It combines the spatial benefits of stacking people on top of each other, while providing everyone with their own private space. Admittedly there’s not
much more space that most of us get in our final resting place, but it does the job for a night or two.

In the age of sail, men survived months in extremely close proximity in the hostile environment of the open ocean. Most did not have privacy or personal space, let alone anything we would recognise as “comfort”. But we live in a different time and culture, and recognise that brutal discipline and deprivation are not a particularly good way to get people to perform
at their best – particularly when they are hurtling towards the unknown in the vastness of space.

Which brings me back to the MDRS bunkrooms. These are a strange combination of bunk and capsule hotel.  Basically, there are three sets of bunks (for the usual number of six crew members), but the top and bottom bunks are accessed from opposite sides, and enclosed so that the top and bottom bunks are actually in separate rooms. Each crew member gets his or her own private space, which is a real luxury for those of us used to sharing in field bases. I’ve shared rooms with strangers for similar lengths of time, and I know I can cope, but it is lovely to have my own room, to have somewhere to keep my stuff and set up as I like it. If you were looking with an eye to create the perfect bedroom for a Mars base,
you might suggest some changes or improvements, but that’s kind of the point.

Without testing it out, you never get to know an idea well enough to perfect it. That’s MDRS, a place where ideas evolve and our dreams take shape.


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