Workdays Fit for a Martian

Times Staff Writer

Cindy Oda and her husband, both NASA engineers, sleep with eyeshades in the middle of the day.

Their kids have missed swim practice. Take-out food boxes are piling up in the garbage. After work, they aren't sure whether to say "good morning" or "good night."

"The dishes don't get done," Oda said. "There are toys everywhere."

The cause of this havoc is Mars.

Since the landing of the Spirit rover on Jan. 3, more than 200 scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have shifted their work schedules to match Mars' alien rhythm.

The Martian day is 39.5 minutes longer than an Earth day, meaning our night and day rarely coincide with Mars'.

To stay in sync with the rover's most productive daylight hours, mission controllers must shift their work schedule as well.

Thus, team members who started work at 8 a.m. at the beginning of Spirit's 90-day mission started at 12:37 p.m. a week later and would start at 3:48 a.m. after a month.

It's enough to throw off the delicate circadian rhythm of human beings and make them a little spacey.

"It's not easy," said Nagin Cox, deputy team chief of the rover engineering team. "We are earthlings, after all."

Keeping accurate Martian time is important because controllers can schedule work for the solar-powered rovers only during daylight hours on Mars.

The work of earthbound scientists and engineers is so specialized -- and the timetable so strict -- that they can't work regular shifts and hand off unfinished work to others.

NASA has gone to some lengths to work with the odd hours.

Clocks keeping time on both planets are projected onto white boards throughout the lab. Blinds keep out sunlight to minimize day-night confusion. Food carts come through work areas at night on a schedule that moves 40 minutes later every day. And two local jewelers were asked to produce specially calibrated watches that accurately add those minutes to every day.

But it's a hopeless exercise.

Humans, such as they are, make lousy Martians.

After millions of years of evolution, humans are adapted to 24-hour days. We can't even handle jet lag very well.

"I just keep asking: 'What time is it? What time is it?' " Oda said.

It's actually lucky that Spirit landed on Mars and not, say, Saturn's moon, Titan, where a day lasts 382.69 hours.

"Time would really drag there," said Michael Allison, a space scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. He is working on a NASA mission to Titan and will have to deal with Titan time when a probe is scheduled to land there in January 2005.

Of the nine planets in our solar system, Mars has the most similar "day" to Earth. Each Martian day is called a "sol," which, in Earth style, is divided into 24 "hours." But because Mars spins around its axis at a slightly slower speed than Earth, its day is a bit longer -- 24 hours, 39 minutes and 35.244 seconds to be exact.

Mars also has its own time zones. Spirit, which landed at a spot named Gusev Crater, is in what NASA calls "Local Solar Time A."

When the second rover, Opportunity, lands on the opposite side of Mars at a plateau known as Meridiani Planum on Jan. 24, engineers and scientists will get another time zone that is 12 hours ahead, "Local Solar Time B."

Adding to the time confusion are the myriad other time frames used on the mission.

There is Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), also known as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which many scientists and engineers prefer to specific U.S. time zones.

The rover's activities are recorded in "Space Craft Event Time" (SCET), which is UTC, counted by the craft's own clock. Because a transmission from Earth takes about 10 minutes to reach Mars and vice versa, mission crews also talk about "Earth Transmit Time" (ETT) and "Earth Receive Time" (ERT).

It all adds up to confusion for workers living on Pacific Standard Time (PST). "You have to qualify everything," Oda said.

Although scientists have been interested in seasonal weather changes on Mars since the early 1900s, hourly clock time on the Red Planet has been an issue only since the first U.S. spacecraft, Viking 1 and 2, landed there in 1976, Allison said.

The Pathfinder mission, which ferried the little rover Sojourner to Mars in 1997, was one of the first times scientists tried to live on Mars time. But that was only for a month.

Spirit and Opportunity will keep them out of sync for three months or more.

Oda, a 39-year-old Monterey Park resident, worked on the Pathfinder mission and didn't mind the odd schedule.

She was pregnant then with her first child and Martian hours harmonized with her wacky body clock. "I could take a nap whenever I wanted," she said.

Now she has kids, and it's more complicated.

Oda works about 12 hours at JPL, helping to code and transmit computer instructions for the rover. When she gets home, her husband, Jeffrey Biesiadecki, heads to the lab to program flight software and schedule Spirit's daily activities.

Her daughters, ages 4 and 6, are stuck on Family Standard Time -- meaning that every second is crammed with frantic activities and chores.

"It's hard because the kids are on a regular schedule," Oda said. "They have to go to swimming and dancing and music and they have to do their homework and we have to feed them."

Sometimes, she said, the kids don't make it to some of those lessons.

Oda, who has had to rely much more on her parents to baby-sit, is already worn out.

"I think you're very fuzzy and you have a very short-term memory at the end of your shift," she said. "It's hard to process information."

Oda said the girls miss their parents. Biesiadecki, 35, remembered one crayon drawing in particular. "They've drawn pictures showing Daddy, with 'Daddy's not home. He's at work,' and a picture of the rover," he said.

Bedtime for the kids used to be 8:30 p.m., but that keeps getting pushed back. And the thought of dressing up for work makes Oda shake her head. Now, she just wants to be warm and "ultra-comfortable." She used to favor cotton dresses; now she sports sweatshirts and stretchy pants.

Eyeshades to help her sleep in the day have become her latest fashion accessory.

"The kids have eyeshades too," she said. "Sometimes when we take a nap, we make them take a nap too."

Sleep experts say these are normal responses to trying to live on an extended schedule that keeps shifting.

"It's almost like sleep deprivation, basically, because their day is lengthening," said Dr. Clete A. Kushida, director of the Stanford Center for Human Sleep Research. "They're fighting their natural tendency to want to sleep."

Reactions will vary, but earthlings on Mars time may feel a more intense form of jet lag, with fatigue, moodiness and difficulty concentrating, doctors said. But it is easier to lengthen the day than shorten it, they added.

"There's a segment of our population working on that kind of time anyway," said Dr. Susan Sprau, an associate clinical professor of medicine at UCLA who studies sleep patterns.

Teenagers, who stay up late and get up late, work on a circadian clock that takes slightly more than 24 hours, she said.

"In a sense ... teenagers are the closest to inhabitants of Mars we have," she said.

NASA officials have tried to help the staff prepare for the lengthened sol.

Shifts were mapped far in advance so that people could arrange for baby-sitters. Mars-watchers participated in eight test runs, which ranged from a few days to two weeks.

Scientists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, home of the space agency's astrobiology program, offered pointers on staying on schedule, such as taking naps, avoiding daylight and eating regularly.

They counseled mission controllers to stay on Mars time even during their days off.

To help keep track of Mars time, several JPL workers asked Tic Time in Pasadena and Executive Jewelers in Montrose to build special Mars watches. The timepieces, which cost about $150, have been adjusted to add 40 minutes to each day, said Garo Anserlian, a watchmaker at Executive Jewelers.

So far, the watches, which look like normal Seikos and Citizens, have been disappearing as fast as they are made. The Montrose shop has sold about 120 Mars watches to rover team members.

Cox, the deputy team chief of the rover engineering team, wears three watches set to PST, UTC and Mars Local A. When Opportunity lands, she may add a fourth for Mars Local B, but she is running out of arm space.

For all the little tricks and gizmos, there is no easy solution to the most difficult problem: It's lonely living on Mars time.

Andy Mishkin, a deputy mission sequence chief, likened it to living aboard a submarine. "It does make you kind of an exclusive group," he said. "They're the only ones to relate to."

Mishkin, 45, met his wife while they were both working weird hours on the Pathfinder mission.

The couple now work different shifts at JPL and fight over who gets their only Mars watch.

To manage their schedules, Mishkin has printed out a spreadsheet and posted it on the refrigerator in their Altadena home. A green line shows his work schedule; a yellow line shows his wife's.

Next to the schedule is a list of tasks for the person who is at home in the morning (feed cats Mango and Sinbad), and for the evening person (fetch mail and newspapers).

Mishkin's wife, Sharon Laubach, a 35-year-old surface sequence integration engineer, said she can't tell what effect Mars time has had on her body. Since the landing Jan. 3, "there's been so much excitement, so much adrenaline," she said.

But she said her second rover experience is likely to be much like her first in 1997.

"I was on such a high," she said. "Mars Time was great. After two weeks, oh man, I started noticing how isolating it was. I could tell what time it was on Mars, but I had no idea what time it was or what day it was on Earth."

Her stomach wasn't helping. "I would be hungry and I'd have no clue that it was 3 a.m. and everything was closed," she said. "I stocked up on a lot of ramen."

A good coping strategy is to look at the bright side of the Martian lifestyle. For many scientists and engineers, working on Spirit and Opportunity is a chance of lifetime.

Most worked a heavy schedule leading up the Spirit landing, so the hours now are actually a little shorter and more regular.

Oda said that coming home at different times has allowed her to pick up her children from school and play with them in the afternoon, something she usually can't do.

Her husband said he appreciates his liberation from dropping off the children at school every morning.

"I'm not really a morning person naturally," added Biesiadecki. "Basically, the kids' schedule had forced me into being that way....I kind of like working at night now."

At least one other earthling also prefers the altered clock.

Edison, a stocky American shorthair cat, happily beds down next to Julie Townsend when the cruise operations team member naps in the middle of the day. The 27-year-old Pasadena resident has been taking a lot of naps with Edison lately.

"When I'm on Mars time, he thinks I've come to my senses," she said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
53°