LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, Calif. – For one family, an exotic summer getaway means living on Mars.
Martian time, that is.
Since the landing of NASA’s newest Mars rover, flight director David Oh’s family has taken the unusual step of tagging along as he leaves Earth time behind and syncs his body clock with the Red Planet.
Every mission to Mars, a small army of scientists and engineers reports to duty on Mars time for the first three months. But it’s almost unheard of for an entire family to flip their orderly lives upside down, shifting to what amounts to a time zone change a day.
Intrigued about abiding by extraterrestrial time, Oh’s wife, Bryn, could not pass up the chance to take their kids – 13-year-old Braden, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 8-year-old Devyn – on a Martian adventure from their home near the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory where the Curiosity rover was built.
We all feel a little sleepy, a little jet-lagged all day long, but everyone is doing great, Bryn Oh said, two weeks into the experiment.
Days on Mars last a tad longer. Earth rotates on its axis once every 24 hours – the definition of a day. Neighbor Mars spins more lazily. Days there – known as sols – last 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than on Earth. The difference may not seem like much each day, but it adds up.
To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the $2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.
The Oh family broke in slowly. A sign on their front door warns: On Mars Time: Flight Director Asleep. Come Back Later.
Days before Curiosity’s Aug. 5 touchdown, the children stayed up until 11:30 p.m. and slept in until 10 a.m. As the days wore on, they stayed up later and later, waking up in the afternoon and evening.
One day last week, the family ate a 3 p.m. breakfast, 8 p.m. lunch, 2:30 a.m. dinner and 5 a.m. dessert before heading off to bed.
To sleep when the sun is out, their bedroom windows are covered with aluminum foil or cloth to keep out any sliver of light. In the hallway, a handmade calendar keeps track of the days and schedules are written on an oversized mirror.
A digital clock in the master bedroom is set to Mars time.
Bryn Oh keeps a meticulous spreadsheet updated with her husband’s work hours and the family’s activities. They wear a wireless device that monitors their steps, calories burned and sleep patterns.
When David Oh tells co-workers on Mars time and friends on Earth time about the switch: Some of them think it’s really cool to have the kids along. Some who worked on other Mars missions have said, You’re crazy.’
Being night owls has its perks: Braden, Ashlyn and Devyn saw their first shooting star. The family went on night hikes in the hills around the neighborhood. They had a late dinner in Hollywood.
Earthly sacrifices were made. Dental appointments, harp lessons and play dates were scheduled around when the kids were awake.