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Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Mars Now: A Review

Greetings from Mars!

These could very well be the first words heard over the airwaves transmitted back from the Red Planet. If it were me, and if I were the second person to land on Mars, my first words would be, "I can see my house from here!"

Anyhow, this post is all about Mars, and a team project I'm working on at the ISU involving the possibilities of sending humans to Mars, one way, thereon to settle and build a colony. A lot of work has been done to this point, and I would like to walk you through it!
Conceptual art by Chesley Bonestell
In an earlier post, I discussed the two team projects at the ISU and some of my thoughts concerning them. That was soon after the teams had been assigned and the work had just begun.

The first thing our team did was meet and discuss the topic. Our faculty adviser had given us a presentation and some information concerning the ISU's expectations for the project, but the topic was still quite grand, "One Way Missions to Mars". What does that mean? What should we do? How does this title alone narrow the scope of the work? All excellent questions which have been addressed by our team in subsequent project deliverables.

The first such deliverable was a literature review. For those unfamiliar, a literature review is an activity which involves finding and evaluating all the relevant information on a topic, essentially having an idea of the current state of affairs. For our team, we had to know who else had been thinking about human missions to Mars, specifically "one way", and what constraints and conclusions had been made before. This activity would help us understand what had been done before so that we could build upon this knowledge. It would also help us understand the challenges associated with this kind of mission, and what information was still missing, what gaps existed in the literature.
It was a big undertaking, and with 18 of us on the team, it required some serious management. After discussing this among the team, we had a vote, and at the end of it all, 2 Project Managers and a Deputy Project Manager were chosen. The Deputy Project Manager would assist with managing the team and step in should there be need of a "tie-breaking vote". I was voted as one of the Project Managers, a role I have undertaken with as much seriousness, enthusiasm, and dedication as I possess.

The ISU promotes an interdisciplinary approach to all things so the team divided the mission to Mars into the various disciplines and team members assigned themselves to researching these various topics. Several students volunteered as Chapter Managers, those who would manage the content and people involved with a specific discipline, and an editing subteam, presentation subteam, and a graphics subteam were assembled.

While enthusiasm for the project was quite high, so was uncertainty. We had all come from various educational and cultural backgrounds and this topic was very new to all of us. It took longer than it should have to get us moving forward with our work, but once we did, I am proud of the results. Between classes, assignments, and workshops, we were able to get our literature review together, all 91 pages of it, and deliver a presentation.

Due to the lack of time, the organizational structure created was not as effective as it should have been. We, the Project Managers, had imagined a hierarchical system which moved the content up, refining the work along the way. The entire team would be Authors of the work, submitting their content to the Chapter Managers. These Chapter Managers would assemble the work of individuals into chapters which were logical and written in one style, or voice, and then submit this work to the Editors. The Editors would assemble the final product. However, the lack of time meant it was difficult to effectively follow this process. Everyone worked hard, but there were some very late nights toward the end.

The presentation subteam had a similar problem. Assembling the information together early, they practiced once or twice before doing so in front of our faculty advisers. The results were not favourable. The advisers had numerous suggestions and comments which required a new presentation to be made. This was once again due to a lack of time, and a lack of understanding between the team and advisers. While we all had experience presenting material, we were unsure of the expectations of the ISU in this matter and it caused us to deliver a presentation which was not compatible with their expectations.

However, the team came together like never before. Meeting in the Concurrent Design Facility, CDF, an ISU workspace which was donated by the European Space Agency, the team discussed the work needed to be done, and everyone got to work! The CDF is a room full of computers, with 3 presentation screens at the front of the room. In the centre, there is a master computer which has control of the screens. In a typical mission design environment, similar to an orchestra, the manager would sit in the centre composing and conducting the work of the various subteams assembled throughout the room. The ISU students have made excellent use of this room, including our team. Reworking the text, format, and imagery of the entire presentation, we assembled something which had a direction more coherent than the one before. I must particularly praise those in charge of the imagery and format as they worked tirelessly late into the night ensuring that the presentation slides were clear, neat, and professional.

Higher quality photos to appear in later blog posts and on our team's website! (Provided by several members of our team)
With the literature review complete and submitted, the team was ready to present the work and field questions. The presentation team did an excellent job, delivering without issue. Our entire team moved to the front of the room to show solidarity, and we fielded questions effectively. It was a rewarding experience for me personally because while we had not discussed who would be answering questions, it ended up mostly being me.

When the first question was asked, I had a quick look about our team and stepped forward to take the microphone. I was concerned about such initiative, concerned it might be taken negatively by the team, but I handled the questions well, acknowledged the team's effort and expertise, and afterward everyone was extremely happy of the way I had handled it. I have been working to improve my leadership abilities, and one aspect I am striving to improve is the acceptance of authority. I am normally comfortable with taking on the role of a leader, but I always do my best to ensure that everyone else is comfortable with me as their leader. While this consideration is an admirable trait, I believe, it can cause one to hesitate unnecessarily. When you have earned a leadership role, and are supported by your colleagues, you should have the confidence to take charge, since it has in fact been given to you by your team. I am much better at this now than I was in the past, but it is still a balance, a fine line I am always walking. I have a friend who is currently attending leadership seminars, perhaps I'll ask him for some advice. Like I said, I didn't hesitate in this situation, and I was rewarded for it with praise.
Composite photo of Mars, from 102 photos taken from the Viking lander, showing the Valles Marineris, a canyon over 4000km long, 200km wide, and 7km deep!
After a delightful Christmas break, mostly spent in Canada, I came back ready to continue our work! We had a Project Plan document and presentation to deliver and not a lot of time to complete it. We had tried to be efficient by working on some of the aspects of the project plan before the holiday, but while we had reached a consensus, one look at the plan after the break made us realize our efforts were not refreshing enough. The work was straightforward, but unoriginal, and ultimately, would not be that exciting on which to work or read later. All of us wanted to make a positive difference and create something which would be relevant and interesting to those in the industry, so we worked on it. After some long days, some long nights, and wipe-boards turned black with the amount of ink on them, we finally had it!

We had learned our lessons concerning presentations and it clearly showed. The presentation team was ready, focused, and delivered a presentation which had every faculty member praising our clarity and our effort. We had a plan, we were organized, and we had a lot of work to do, but we are happy with how things have been progressing.

And that catches you up to the present, and the deadlines we've met. In a subsequent post, we will continue along the process, learning some of the particulars of our mission and understanding what choices we have made considering the direction of the project. Thank you all for reading, I know there have been long gaps between posts, but I am working at providing content in a more consistent manner, so I thank you for your patience.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with some words from Buzz Aldrin:
Mars is there, waiting to be reached.

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