What is it like to live on Mars time? One family finds out.
The family of David Oh, a flight director for NASA's Curiosity Mars rover mission, opted to join him in synching their lives to the Martian day, which is about 40 minutes longer than the Earth day.
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To do that, the panel recommended that workers stay on Mars time instead of confusing their bodies by toggling between days and sols. They also suggested setting time limits for shifts, limiting caffeine to small doses, and filling the operations rooms with bright light to suppress levels of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a sleep medicine expert from Harvard University who served on the panel.Skip to next paragraph
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Not all of the recommendations were adopted. No “solarium” was built to help the engineers adjust, nor was bus transport arranged to and from JPL to keep sleepy workers from getting behind the wheel. But the lab did install blackout curtains to block sunlight in the middle of the Martian night and provide cots for sleepy scientists and engineers whose bodies were having a hard time adjusting to the switch.
When veterans of previous Mars rover missions first heard of the Oh family’s plans, they didn’t hesitate to tell David and Bryn they were nuts.
For workers with children, the logistics of living on Mars time are particularly complex: school car pools, sports practice, music lessons and other activities must be accommodated. But that didn’t stop the Ohs.
“I want my kids to have the experience of what it’s like to work on the Mars program,” David said. “Even the youngest understands Dad has a cool job, so for me to kind of disappear on them would be a pity.”
Bryn, like her husband, is an MIT-trained engineer. She’s logged the family’s meals, medical appointments, work shifts and bedtimes on a spreadsheet. She even took a month off from her job as a software training consultant to manage the elaborate Mars-time experiment.
To keep the kids awake when Mars days are Earth nights, she planned a 10 p.m. backyard barbecue, a midnight picnic in Santa Monica and a 3 a.m. run for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
The first few days seemed charmed. David came home around midnight to a brightly lit house with a cake baking in the kitchen. The kids yelled their greetings when he opened the door.
But a week after the Mars landing, the family started to drag. The kids — 8-year-old Devyn, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 13-year-old Braden — struggled to stay awake until sunrise, when it was finally bedtime on Mars.
Their schedules became so misaligned that the family stopped marking their days by Earth time. Instead, they used words like “yestersol” and “solmorrow.”
Even David, whose work and home life are both pegged to the Red Planet, experienced a disconcerting moment when he collected Devyn from a play date around 5 p.m. and asked the friend’s mom if the kids had eaten lunch yet.
“She was looking at me like, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” David said.
The time-traveling adventure kept the family together, but Bryn said she missed feeling connected with the world outside the Mars bubble.
“There’s just an amount of contact you get by being on the road, going grocery shopping, whatever it is,” she said. “I’m a little bit jealous that (David) gets to go into work in the middle of the night and be with people.”
For Bryn and the kids, the hardest part is now over. School started last week — just as Mars time had cycled around to nearly coincide with the East Coast time zone — so most of the family is transitioning back to their earthly routines.
“It really felt like we were on vacation, like we really had gone to another place,” Bryn said. “Seeing Los Angeles in a completely different light — we’re going to miss that.”
The vacation is almost over. Bryn has been watching their time zone edge ever closer to California. Last Tuesday, they were lined up with Rio de Janeiro; on Wednesday, New York. On Saturday, they returned to Pacific Daylight Time.
“Will miss Orion in the AM,” she wrote on Twitter. “Will miss looking forward to the dawn.”
For two more months, David will soldier on alone.