Dissecting the Technology of ‘The Martian’: NASA’s Roadmap to Mars

The movie edition of Andy Weir’s fantastically popular sci-fi novel, The Martian, is set to hit theaters in just a few days. Although the storyline is fictional, NASA has taken a keen interest in the movie, providing consultants to Hollywood and hosting a handful of promotional events. Clearly, the agency sees something to celebrate in Weir’s vision of the future for manned spaceflight.

As we have seen in the previous articles of this series, there are numerous similarities between The Martian and how NASA actually handles things in space, such as water, air, electrical power and problem solving. In this final article we’ll examine NASA’s current plan for visiting Mars.

The Hermes spaceship in 'The Martian', via 20th Century Fox The Hermes spaceship in ‘The Martian’, via 20th Century Fox

Red Planet Ambitions

NASA is not being secretive about their plans for putting humans on Mars as early as 2030. They’ve even published a website with a slew of information. Yet, any plans that project 15+ years into the future are bound to be heavy with technical and financial assumptions. As the agency moves forward, the plan will certainly evolve to match the reality of the times.

We’re finding out that Mars has a very diverse landscape. Scientists are still trying to decide where the first manned Mars expeditions will land. It is a debate that will likely linger well into the next decade. Several satellites are currently orbiting Mars and mapping its surface. Lower-resolution, broad-brush mapping images will help the scientists narrow down the field of landing site candidates. Subsequent high-resolution imagery will be used to pinpoint precise landing locations.

MSL Curiosity's Gale Crater Landing Site. MSL Curiosity’s Gale Crater Landing Site.

While many fundamental aspects of a manned Martian mission remain in limbo, the basic timeline appears to be ironed out. If you’ve read Weir’s book, you’ll notice that it follows NASA’s plan nearly verbatim. It goes something like this:

Cargo ship launches

  • Precedes launch of Mars-bound crew by 2-4 years
  • Deposits supplies, “oxygenator”, and return vehicle on Martian surface

Manned Rocket Launches

  • Perform system function checks of transfer vehicle in Earth orbit
  • Head to Mars (6-9 month transit)

Crew Enters Mars orbit – Perform system function checks of Mars descent vehicle

Crew Descends to Martian Surface

  • Stay 300-500 days
  • Live in habitation module
  • Utilize Martian soil and water to extent possible
  • Rove to other sites for study

Crew returns to Mars orbit in Mars ascent vehicle – Rendezvous with transfer vehicle

Return to Earth – 6-9 month transit


To better understand the challenges posed by manned Martian missions, I spoke with two of NASA’s visionaries who are helping to shape the agency’s plans: Bret Drake, who serves as Chief Architect on the Human Spaceflight Architecture Team at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Dr. Jim Green, who is the Director of Planetary Sciences at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. Both served in advisory roles to the production crew of The Martian.

What are some of the primary technological hurdles that must be conquered before a manned Martian mission is truly feasible?

Dr. Jim Green : You can go back in history and see where NASA has said ‘We’re 30 years from being on Mars’, and then every 5 or 10 years, they’ve said the same thing…’We’re 30 years from being on Mars.’ So, it sounds like it’s never going to happen. But, we’ve really turned the corner. We now know so much about Mars. We know more about Mars than any other planet aside from Earth. Human exploration can leverage nearly everything that we’ve learned.

We have the necessary technologies in-hand, but we do have some things that we have to develop. One thing is the Mars entry system. We know how to deliver 1 ton to the surface of Mars [Curiosity rover], but 10 tons [estimated payload for human missions] is a little different and we haven’t done that. It’s an order-of-magnitude next step. But it’s obtainable to us and something that we can do.

SpaceX's 'Red Dragon' capsule concept could be used as a Mars Ascent Vehicle. SpaceX’s ‘Red Dragon’ capsule concept could be used as a Mars Ascent Vehicle.

Right now, we’ve done a little work on a Mars ascent vehicle [the ship that will carry astronauts from the Martian surface to an orbiting transfer vehicle], but we haven’t made enormous progress. Part of that is because we’re really pretty good with rockets. We have plenty of companies that, once we turn their attention from developing commercial rockets for Earth, they can make ascent rockets for Mars. I think that will rapidly fall into place.

We actually know a lot about the radiation environment [on Mars]. Curiosity has taken a dosimeter with it, so we know what the radiation environment was all the way to the planet. We know what it’s been on the rover as it’s moved around. We also know that we have to develop some mitigation strategies for that.

Water is a great absorber of a variety of radiation that is solar induced, and also galactic cosmic rays. We can develop a hab [habitation module] with water in its walls. There are some things there that have to be worked out. We know the directions of research that we need to do, but we’re not developing or building any of those things right now.

Can you give an example of a significant breakthrough that’s been realized within the past five or so years?

JG: The biggest achievement is our understanding of Mars itself. For human exploration, it is absolutely essential to know that there are underground aquifers. The last several missions that have landed, like Curiosity, are working in conjunction with our Martian orbiters to do what we call ‘follow the water’. The goal is to look at Mars, understand its water history, and then determine where the water went. We also aim to determine if water is readily available…and if so, where that would be. Consequently, we now know that there are all sorts of water resources…because we’re finding them. We see water pouring out of the sides of craters at certain times of the season…water running down the sides of the craters and then evaporating away.

Five years ago, we would have been looking at a much different Mars to live on. We didn’t have enough knowledge about the soil. We didn’t have the water table that we have now. We hadn’t seen or understood the large amount of water that’s available. We’re making tremendous and rapid progress.

Do you see this as a US-only endeavor, or will it be an international effort?

JG: The agency has always said that we would not do it alone. Our experience on station [International Space Station] has been fantastic. We’ve worked with many countries that have developed all kinds of space capabilities. They are very capable partners and they will be playing an ever-increasing role as we begin defining what we’re actually going to do [on Mars].

What are the primary physiological constraints with sending humans to Mars?

Bret Drake: Besides the human health issues associated with long-duration transits, I think the biggest thing will be the astronauts’ ability to adjust to Martian gravity [approximately 3/8 of Earth gravity]. After spending several months in zero G while getting there, it will take them a few days to adjust to gravity. We can mitigate the impact with nutrition and conditioning – through exercise – during the flight, but there will still be a transition phase.

It’s a lot like we see today with astronauts returning from the ISS. The big difference is that on Earth, we have a large cadre of support folks on hand to unbuckle them and get them out of their recumbent seats. Obviously, they will have to do it all themselves on Mars.

Matt Damon in 'The Martian', via 20th Century Fox Matt Damon in ‘The Martian’, via 20th Century Fox

What are the psychological concerns?

BD: The crews that go to Mars are going to be truly isolated for a long time. It is critical that the astronauts are able to get along and work together. When we get ready to select these crews, we’re going to have to use a deeper selection process than we use now to make sure that they are compatible. We are looking for guidance by analyzing how Antarctic expedition teams and submarine crews are selected.

Is there any medical data you’re hoping to glean from Scott Kelly’s 1-year stay on the ISS that applies directly to plans for visiting Mars?

BD: We have a lot of good medical data from astronauts who have done the normal 6-month rotation on the ISS. What we’re hoping to find out from Scott and Mikhail [Kornienko – a cosmonaut who is also spending a year on the ISS] is whether the trends we see keep going. For instance, do bone loss or eyesight changes plateau at some point?

This mission will only provide two data points, so it’s not statistically reliable data. We need to get more people up there for long-duration missions. Before we go to Mars, we may want to do an intermediate step where crews will spend longer than a year in cislunar space [between geostationary orbit and the moon].

Scott Kelly is seen inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, in preparation for a yearlong stint on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA Scott Kelly is seen inside a Soyuz simulator at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, in preparation for a yearlong stint on the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Moving Forward

While ‘The Martian’ is in lockstep with NASA’s script for putting humans on Mars, there is no question that the plan will change to accommodate ever-shifting technologies, budgets and priorities.

Clearly, Weir has done intensive research to ensure that his story accurately portrays a mission to Mars. That is likely one of the reasons for the book’s runaway popularity. Prerelease buzz and reviews suggest that the movie will be no less popular.

While Weir is in lockstep with NASA’s script for putting humans on Mars, there is no question that the plan will change to accommodate ever-shifting technologies, budgets and priorities. Such ambitious long-term aspirations are living things that must mature. Whether the adult state of a manned Martian mission ultimately resembles its current form is hardly the point. The only thing that matters is that it stays alive.

Author’s Note –Thanks to Dr. Jim Green and Bret Drake for taking considerable time to educate me on NASA’s Mars missions.

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight

How I Built a Furiosa Cosplay Prosthetic Arm

This is a guest post by cosplayer and fabricator Michelle Sleeper, aka Overworld Designs. We previously shared Michelle’s Half-Life 2 Gravity Gun project.

Last year, I was talking with a friend of mine about some of our “holy grail” projects. I told him that it was one of my dream builds to make a T-800 Endo Arm, as an actual prosthetic for an amputee. You know the scene: in Terminator 2, Arnold cuts off the skin of his left arm to expose his robotic endoskeleton.

I told him how it would be a dream project to build an Endo Arm like in this scene, for someone who is missing a limb. I’ve met or been made aware of a few people over the years who used their unique body attributes in their costumes, but I never had the chance to connect with someone.

He said he wanted to introduce me to someone. This is Laura.

Laura is a left arm transradial amputee, meaning that she is missing her left arm below the elbow since birth. She’s also really into cosplay, and living in Atlanta, she has been a “featured zombie” on The Walking Dead. You’ve probably seen her in the shambling hordes.

We met and I told her about my idea and what we could do, and she was enthusiastic. I felt really lucky because this really was one of my dream projects! She said she had done a few costumes in the past that incorporated her arm, but nothing really to the scale of what we planned. The idea was to 3D print a CAD design for the Endo Arm and possibly wire it up to an Arduino and some sensors and servos to make the fingers open and close. It was going to be a fun and really challenging build, and I was really looking forward to getting it started.

And then, Mad Max: Fury Road came out and changed everything.

You might have read Laura’s blog post on her Tumblr that went viral a couple weeks after Fury Road hit theaters. To quote Laura’s blog post, “If I don’t cosplay this character immediately I’m pretty sure all my friends will riot.”

“If I don’t cosplay this character immediately I’m pretty sure all my friends will riot.”

We had a short conversation at MomoCon here in Atlanta and I asked her permission to build her the Furiosa arm as a real actual prosthetic, much like we were going to do for the T-800 Endo Arm and she couldn’t have been more thrilled. Our plan was to finish it for Dragon*Con 2015, and we both couldn’t wait to get started.

During our planning for the Terminator Endo Arm project, I took a 3D scan of her using an Xbox Kinnect and a software called Skanect. It allows you to easily get a rough 3D scan of a person or an object. It’s not high enough detail to look photo realistic, but it’s enough to get basic proportions. I use this myself to scale Pepakura files and do other digital sculpting where I need to have the proportions of a person or a thing. We tried getting a 3D scan of Laura’s arm and the results were all right. It was just enough to use for scaling and “subtracting” her arm from the Endo Arm model.

When we shifted gears to Furiosa, I decided the first thing to do was to get a plaster cast of her arm, because the prosthetic would have to actually fit her, and there was no way for me to “try on” the prop myself while building it. After an afternoon at the shop, I had one of the weirdest casts I’ve ever made, but it was exactly what we needed!

At this point I got a lot of help from Adam Greene of Pixelbash Props, who took a higher detail 3D scan of the plaster cast, and assisted by creating the 3D model used for the build. Laura and I agreed that we should 3D print the arm to cut down on as much weight as possible. I was worried that if it was too heavy that she wouldn’t be able to lift it, or she would become fatigued after wearing it for a short period.

The pieces were 3D printed on my home 3D printer, as well as the printers at Freeside Atlanta, the non-profit hackerspace that I work from. After a few long prints–a total of about 30 hours print time–everything was ready to be cleaned up and assembled.

The process of cleaning up a 3D printed prop is pretty simple: Rough sand the surface to get rid of some of the print lines, then (in the case of an ABS print) use “ABS sludge”–a thick mixture of acetone and ABS–to coat the surface. This acts like a body filler and will help fill in the remaining gaps, but as the acetone evaporates, the ABS bonds to itself, so you have a single rigid object. The part is then sanded again with a finer grit sandpaper, and coated in a thin layer of spot putty to fill in any remaining pits or print lines. After that dries, the excess is sanded off, and then primed for painting.

Once the 3D printed parts were cleaned and roughed together, I designed and laser cut the mesh screen for the fingers. It was cut out of 3mm acrylic and heated with a heat gun, and then bent to shape around the fingers. Since building this I’ve discovered the actual prop likely used a motorcycle exhaust baffle, but the acrylic worked out great for us as it was lightweight and readily accessible.

There are two wrenches in the arm, one attached to the “pinky” finger and one lashed to one of the forearm pistons, that needed to be fabricated. I rummaged through the autobay in the shop to find a couple of wrenches that were of suitable size, and then molded them in Mold Max 30, one of the molding silicones that Smooth-On produces. I wound up casting these out of Smooth Cast 320, but my original plan was to use a light and flexible foam. That turned out to be unnecessary since the resin ones were small and light enough to not cause issues.

The hand and the finger grilles were hit with a primer, and then a base coat of matte silver. I then did a light dusting with a darker metallic paint for the the lowlights and to bring down the “shiny and chrome” factor. After all, Furiosa’s arm is a functional piece of equipment and has a lot of wear and tear from being out in the Wastelands!

Laura came in for a test fitting, and for us to size and finish the strapping system for the arm. Scrap leather and spare belts were cut down to size and riveted together for the harness. Laura sewed the shoulder pad which goes underneath the pauldron, and we attached those together.

For the support pistons, I used some 6mm fiberglass rod laying around the shop, and 3D printed connecting joints for them. Those were then bolted on to the 3D printed arm, giving the wrist a range of motion. In other words, Laura will be able to pose the wrist.

The two wrenches came out really well. The small one was attached to the pinky finger, and the other was wrapped tightly to one of the support rods with some leather cord. Fun fact: I believe the leather cord is there to cover up the manufacturer of whatever wrench the prop crew cast off of, because it’s placement is exactly where you would expect to read “SNAP-ON” or something. So, I followed suit and covered up the name with the leather.

Then it was on to weathering, which is my favorite part of any project. I did a few light washes in black and various tones of yellow, orange, and brown, but I wiped most of it away to keep it looking metallic. The movie has an orange filter applied to most of it, so I relied on B-roll and behind the scenes photos for true to life colors. The arm isn’t rusted as much as it is worn down and dirty, but I did apply some light rust around the bolts that connect the finger grilles and the other hardware attachments.

The shoulder was designed in CAD from looking at stills from the film, then laser cut out of EVA foam. There is what appears to be a model plane engine on the front, so I grabbed a random DC motor from the shelf and glued that in. The pull strap I quickly 3D printed based off of product photos for a weed wacker. Then the whole pauldron was weathered as well.

There are three cables connecting the shoulder to the arm: a braided metal hose, a clear/yellow tinted tube, and a brake cable. I got similar looking things of each and bolted them on to the arm, and attached them on to the shoulder end.

She also wanted me to make the belt buckle emblem, which I quickly 3D printed up, and cleaned and weathered. I grabbed this model off of Thingiverse, which you can download here.

I met up with Laura at Dragon*Con and delivered the prop to her in her hotel room. We did some final fitting of the prop on Saturday so she could wear it to the costume contest, and to make sure everything was 100% for the big Fury Road photo shoot on Sunday afternoon.

That about wraps it up! It was an incredibly fun and rewarding build and I’m happy I can scratch one of my dream projects off of my list.

Photos courtesy of Michelle Sleeper

Find more of Michelle’s projects at blog, Facebook, and Instagram!

Meet the Glowforge 3D Laser Printer

Four months ago, we visited the offices of Glowforge, a company developing a new kind of 3D laser printer. The Glowforge simplifies laser cutting by moving software to the cloud and making use of smartphone sensors. That both lowers the price and allows for incredible user features that makes the Glowforge extremely easy to use. As Glowforge readies to launch, we check in to check out the final product!

Shot and edited by Joey Fameli

Dissecting the Technology of ‘The Martian’: Solving Problems In Space

The previous articles of this series have focused on the real-life NASA hardware which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir’s novel (and imminent movie) The Martian. Specifically, we looked at many of the components that are used to process water, air, and electrical power in space. This article will be a little different.

Readers of The Martian know that one of the recurring themes in the book deals with fixing broken equipment using whatever is on hand, combined with plenty of ingenuity. Those scenarios have a very real parallel in NASA’s day-to-day operations of manned and unmanned spacecraft. Space is an extremely harsh environment and spacecraft components break…a lot. Let’s take a look at how NASA deals with these in-flight failures.

Photo credit: 20th Century Fox Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

Stuff In A Box

It would be difficult to talk about hardware problems in space without mentioning the Apollo 13 mission and the countless miracles performed by mission control to get the crew home alive. In one memorable scene from Ron Howard’s 1995 movie about the ordeal, engineers in mission control begin working to reverse rising carbon dioxide levels in the Lunar Module. Someone empties a box of random-looking parts which represent the total resources of the spaceship’s crew. The challenge is immediately obvious: use these parts to find a solution or people will die.

In a recent conversation with present-day flight controller Tom Sheene, I asked if the “stuff in a box” scenario still happens. He replied, “All the time… it’s the most challenging and rewarding part of my job.” Sheene went on to tell me about a custom tool that his team had designed to lubricate the space station’s robotic arm, and another that was used by spacewalking astronauts to free a solar array that refused to unfurl.

Flight Controller Tom Sheene is part of the OSO group that is responsible for the maintenance and repair of all systems on the ISS. Flight Controller Tom Sheene is part of the OSO group that is responsible for the maintenance and repair of all systems on the ISS.

When these custom tools are being designed, aesthetics takes a back seat to functionality. But no one seems to mind as long as they get the job done. The names given to these tools are equally low-key. Apollo’s hacked carbon dioxide scrubber was the “mailbox”, and the solar array tool was the “hockey stick”. Tools that become a part of the permanent inventory are renamed with more scientific terms and, as with all things NASA, branded with an acronym. Case in point: Sheene’s robotic arm tool graduated from “fly swatter” to “BLT” (Ball Screw Lubrication Tool).

While a failed component on the International Space Station (ISS) rarely triggers an immediate life and death battle of wits, the stakes are invariably high. Whatever the failing component may be, it was sent up there for a reason and at great expense. You can’t just roll down the window, turn up the radio, and pretend that it isn’t squeaking.

Repair Bears

Sheene and his colleagues man the Operations Support Officer (OSO – pronounced “Oh So”) console in mission control. In the multi-layered symbolism that often surrounds names and acronyms at NASA, the official OSO patch contains a rendition of Ursa Major. The inclusion of this constellation, also known as “The Great Bear” is a subtle nod to the Spanish interpretation of “Oso”.

Most flight controllers are tasked with the operation and management of specific systems under their purview, but OSOs are a slightly different breed. While the group does have some hardware assigned to them (namely the interfaces where visiting spaceships dock with the ISS), OSOs are responsible for the maintenance and repair of all of the spaceship’s systems. As Sheene puts it, they are the “glorified janitors” of the ISS. He later suggests that it would be more accurate to think of OSOs as NASA’s version of Scotty from Star Trek.

Much of what the OSO team does involves routine scheduled maintenance. Sheene notes, “It’s just like your car. If you don’t do preventive maintenance, like changing the oil, it’s ten times worse later on.” In a similar fashion, the ISS is chock full of filters, pumps and other expendable items that are on a prescribed Remove-and-Replace (R&R) schedule. Sheene pointed out that the overhead of executing these caretaking tasks can be significant for the crew aboard the ISS. “Sometimes an astronaut will spend their entire day just on maintenance.”

In spite of the planned expiration dates of the R&R items, the OSOs do not necessarily replace every part on schedule. Due to the costs involved with some parts, and the difficulty of keeping orbiting supply shelves stocked, select components are kept in use until they fail. Of course, this only happens with non-critical systems and in instances where failure of the R&R part would not cause trickle-down failures in other components.

A crowd in mission control inspects the mailbox during the Apollo13 drama. The contraption was created on-the-fly to remove carbon dioxide from the lunar module. A crowd in mission control inspects the mailbox during the Apollo13 drama. The contraption was created on-the-fly to remove carbon dioxide from the lunar module.

When the Going Gets Tough

Despite the best efforts of the OSO team, space happens. Unexpected failures and never-before-seen problems are inescapable facets of life with the ISS. These are the situations that often require the seat-of-the-pants ingenuity that NASA is known for (and celebrated in The Martian). While the solution may require a significant dose of improvisation, the path to get there is often well-mapped.When a problem pops up on the ISS, the OSO team is tasked to solve it. Not that they work in a vacuum, mind you. At a minimum, OSO will work with flight controllers who are responsible for the affected system(s) and the flight director, who has final say on all matters. The complexity of the situation may dictate that astronauts, hardware experts, contractors, and others are brought into the fold as well.

The method for fixing a problem begins with a process called Failure Impact Workaround. The first step of FIW is to gain an understanding of what is actually broken.

Sheene stated that the method for fixing a problem begins with a process called Failure Impact Workaround (FIW). As we discussed the nuances of FIW, Tom used the scenario of a MMOD (Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris) puncturing the hull of the ISS. The ISS does indeed absorb MMOD hits from time to time. Thankfully, none of the “hell in a handbasket” MMOD damage scenarios that flight controllers routinely train for have come to fruition. Even so, the MMOD example provides broad insight into NASA’s crisis management methodology. So, I will carry it forward here.

The first step of FIW is to gain an understanding of what is actually broken. Sheene explains:

“A lot of times we don’t actually know what the failure is…the best we can do is say ‘Here is the failure signature.’ For instance, we’ll see that this box, this computer, has completely lost power. So what is the failure? Is the box dead? Is the power source to the box dead? We treat it like your typical tech-support guy on the phone. We have to ask fundamental questions like ‘Did you turn the power on?’ That sort of thing helps us hone in on the root cause of the issue.”

Sheene goes on to explain that MMOD strikes rarely cause just one issue. There are likely to be a number of affected components that are spread across multiple systems. The array of issues could create greater confusion, but it is just as likely to provide additional clues that help pinpoint what went wrong.

“While we’re working these cases, the ADCO [Attitude Determination and Control Officer] might tell us ‘We’re [the ISS] pitching up and yawing.’ And maybe the crew told us that they heard a noise in Node 2. Now we know that we lost a computer that’s located in that module, the crew heard something there, and we’re venting air that’s trying to rotate the station. From this, we can be relatively sure that we took an MMOD hit in Node 2 that breached the hull and knocked out the computer. Based on the direction that the ISS is trying to rotate and the location of the bad computer, we also have a good idea where to look for the hole.”

Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, Expedition 11 commander, uses a power tool as he makes repairs to the Elektron oxygen generator in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, Expedition 11 commander, uses a power tool as he makes repairs to the Elektron oxygen generator in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station.

The next step in the FIW process is to determine the criticality of each of the issues and prioritize how resources will be allocated to address them. This task is made somewhat easier by a non-negotiable hierarchy of obligations. The top priority is always to look after the well-being of the crew. Sheene explains:

“Our primary goal is to keep the crew safe. If you can, save the vehicle…obviously. But you don’t want to put the crew in harm’s way to save the station or to somehow isolate the crew from their escape vehicle [i.e. the 3-seat Russian Soyuz ships that remain docked to the ISS].

OSO works with the affected disciplines [flight controllers] and the flight director to figure out what impact is the most important, and that’s the one we’re going to work on first. Most of the time it’s going to be the hull. You might lose multiple systems, but they usually have layers of redundancy built in. Other flight controllers may begin working on a recovery plan for their systems, but OSO is likely going to be focused on patching the hole in the hull first.

The main problem with a hole is that it can get bigger. In these cases, what we’ll usually do is get the crew out of that module, seal the hatch, let it vent to vacuum, and think about it for a few days. Once we have a solid plan, we’ll repressurize the module and go back in to patch the hole. [note – Sheene is talking about simulation scenarios. Thus far, flight controllers have never needed to seal off any modules on the actual ISS.]

If somehow the crew immediately happened to know exactly where the hole is, that’s a no-brainer…you patch the hole right away. But even in that case…the station is so full of stuff that they might spend an hour moving racks and hardware out of the way just to get to the hole.”

The final element of FIW involves actually fixing the broken components. In the case of broken rack computers and other common hardware, there are usually spares available on board. The crew pulls out the bad unit and swaps in a new one.

Holes caused by MMOD impacts can be a little tricky to repair based on their size and location. There is a small variety of prefabricated patches to choose from for this task. Rigid patches are used when the hole is on an open and accessible part of the hull. Flexible patches are used when the hole is near a bulkhead or other obstruction. There are also options for using Duxseal or a 2-part epoxy-like mixture to deal with particularly troublesome breaches of the hull.

Doug Wheelock shows off the improvised "hockey stick" tool that was used by his spacewalking partner, Scott Parazynski, to untangle a snagged solar array. Doug Wheelock shows off the improvised “hockey stick” tool that was used by his spacewalking partner, Scott Parazynski, to untangle a snagged solar array.

Inevitably, there will be times when the toolbox on the ISS simply doesn’t have a tool for the task at hand. That’s when the OSO team goes off-script and works to develop something to get the job done. Mailboxes, fly swatters, and hockey sticks are the results. Not only are the OSOs tasked with developing the solution, they must also instruct the crew on how to assemble and use the new widget. This is usually done with written procedures that are uploaded to the ISS.

The problem is not always urgent. In the case of the robotic arm, Sheene was able to spend time with the Canadian team that designed and manufactured the arm components. Perhaps it is more significant that he was able to get with the astronauts who would use the BLT in space. Sheene provided them with training on the tool before they ever launched. The luxury of such lead time and hands-on training opportunities is rare.


As long as humans continue to occupy space, whether on the ISS or as far away as Mars, there will be technical issues to deal with. It helps to have a plan and a process in place to meet these issues head-on. Yet, it is impossible to anticipate every scenario. As The Martian’s Mark Watney illustrates, a cool head and rational, yet innovative thinking can be the most effective tools at your disposal.

Author’s Note – I offer my sincere thanks to Tom Sheene for sharing his knowledge and experience as an OSO flight controller.

All images appear courtesy of NASA.

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight

Show and Tell: Nerf Rival Blasters (with FPV Video!)

These new Nerf blasters are the most powerful we’ve seen! For this week’s Show and Tell, Norm tests the Nerf Rival Zeus blaster that uses new dimpled foam balls and a magazine-based reload system. The rounds fire quickly and launch at an impressive speed. To test its effectiveness in the office, we mount a gimballed GoPro to the blaster. Now where’s Will?