The space station orbits a mere 400km (250miles) above Earth so there is no appreciable time delay. Astronauts can literally pick up the phone and call for a pizza. It won’t be delivered, but they can still call. So if there’s a problem they’ll let us know and we’ll work on it while the science continues above. They don’t really have time to troubleshoot.
On Mars, not so much. With a 6 to 45 minute round trip time delay we’re on our own, so conversations must take place through email. We aren’t simulating this delay, but the email method remains. Onboard the Space Station the US crew and ground will get the occasional calls for question and answers, or to trade tidbits of information throughout the day while the Russians have full blown conversations. At the beginning and end of each day there is an all-inclusive summary. It’s quick, efficient, and totally dependent on mission control being available – which is why we’re there in the first place. We fly while they science.
But here at MDRS our comm window opens for only two hours a day, from 7pm to 9pm and all of those little tidbits and summaries take place at the same time. It’s a lot of back and forth information all at once. Several times I sent emails about issues before we had done any troubleshooting, mostly for situation awareness. Each time the polite reply was to please do the troubleshooting first and on our own. Whoa. I had also asked for a single email rather than a dozen, but the gracious volunteers who act as our CAPCOMs are spread out all over the place – so each message is packaged, sent, and replied to separately. Double whoa.
So I, and perhaps the astronauts who really do go to Mars, will need to change the way we think about communicating. Luckily NASA is already very much aware of this and ironically I’m even working on just such a project; one to help the astronauts become more self-sufficient as we prepare for our journey into deep space.
I think the public underestimates just how far away Mars is and how different it will be. But that is exactly why I am here today.
Executive Officer / Acting Commander