We’ve got the power!

Today we completed the electrical wiring of SAM, with the Workshop (20′) and Crew Quarters (40′) fully lit up and operational. We also conducted our first pressure test since January, and with the new 1HP Variable Frequency Drive. We can now bring SAM from ambient to full pressure in just under 3 minutes, a 4x speed increase over the original, 1980s blower which is now replaced.

This is a noteworthy and exciting day, for it marks months of sequential work come to fruition.

A proper photo essay coming soon!

By |2023-03-31T08:05:44+00:00March 30th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Comfort in simple things

Dwyer Magnelic pressure gauges at SAM, Biosphere 2

Kai Staats fabricates a mount box for a Dwyer Magnelic pressure gauge at SAM, Biosphere 2 There are those simple devices that defy the mindless trend toward smaller, smarter, and digital. The phonograph is back to stay, with more vinyl records being produced today than at any time history. A good pocket knife is an indispensable tool for anyone who lives and works outdoors. And the harmonica is a light, portable instrument able to warm the hearts of all who listen or sing along — without batteries, USB, WiFi, or Siri selling your private conversation to the highest bidder. They just work.

Sean installs a Dwyer Magnelic pressure gauge at SAM, Biosphere 2 The analog pressure gauge is simple, elegant, analog instrument. It will function for a hundred years or more, providing reliable data with little potential for failure.

At SAM, visitors both inside and out must know, without a doubt, if the vessel is under pressure. For those on the outside, opening the hatch while under pressure could mean getting catapulted across the Mars yard, or worse. For those on the inside, a rapid depressurization should only be conducted in the case of an emergency and need for immediate egress.

Dwyer Magnelic pressure gauge at SAM, Biosphere 2 Dwyer Magnelic pressure gauge at SAM, Biosphere 2 This particular Dwyer Magnehelic was selected for its 0-2 inches of water callibration, giving the highest accuracy for the maximum of 0.05 PSI over ambient pressure differential at SAM. We liked it so much, we installed five (for now): inside and outside the Test Module emergency exit; inside the exterior airlock door, inside the SAM Air Intake Room (AIR) just above the new blower, and on a new instrument wall on the interior wall of the lower SAM lung.

No matter which room a crew member occupies, the pressure will be visibly displayed. And for those visiting from the outside, a quick look to the large interface will make it clear if it is safe to enter.

By |2023-03-24T14:31:52+00:00March 14th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Power and the Bridge

Matthias Beach and Tasha Coelho apply stucco patch to the Mars yard walls at SAM, Biosphere 2

Matthias Beach repairing the Mars yard walls at SAM, Biosphere 2 In early 2023 the SAM project received its first round of funding dedicated to the renovation of the former Biosphere 2 rain forest greenhouse into a 6,400 sq-ft indoors Mars yard. The University of Arizona center for Research, Innovation, and Impact (RII) sees significant value in the creation of an advanced Mars yard, a place for education, research, and innovation.

Significant prior effort had been applied, from initial destruction of adjacent structures to tearing down the old roof panels; from work on the exterior walls to installing a new roof.

Now, we are continuing to renovate the structure, starting at the foundation walls. Once complete, we can design our first basic layout, install basalt left over from the LEO project, and place varied boulders (even if not igneous based) to form a terrain park for our first, visiting research teams.

John Z. and Luna Powell securing FRP to the interior of the crew quarters to workshop bridge at SAM, Biosphere 2 In parallel, fabrication of the interior of SAM continues, with immediate focus on completing the electrical panel, UA approved smoke and fire detection system, and routing conduit and circuits to the bathroom, kitchen, and crew quarters.

John Z. mounting grid wall to the crew quarters to workshop bridge at SAM, Biosphere 2 In order to bring power into the renovated 40′ shipping container, we must route Carflex conduit through one of two pressure hull bridges. This invokes a bottle neck as this is a passage the crew will use regularly as they move from the crew quarters into the workshop and subsequent Test Module (controlled environment for plant growth). As such, it is imperative that the conduit be non-intrusive and secured.

Rivets secure the FRP to the framing of the crew quarters to workshop bridge at SAM, Biosphere 2 Given that we cannot penetrate any wall surface that holds pressure, we must carefully select the structure elements able to receive a bolt, metal screw, or rivet. We were able to reuse two former steel shelf grids, reduced in size, as a means to secure electrical conduit to the wall in such a way that it can be readily adjusted, even moved in the future.

By |2023-03-24T14:33:24+00:00March 10th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Everything, everywhere, all at once

Sean Gellenbeck fabricates a steel fitting at SAM, Biosphere 2

This past two weeks has seen a number of disparate tasks completed in parallel.

The two decades old shipping container serving as our Crew Quarters was designed to be air tight but not to hold pressure over time. This is compounded by skirmishes with forklifts that resulted in a few patches, bowed panels, and disconnected interfaces. As we have this past six months repaired the major leaks, smaller holes have been exposed. Our most recent pressure test discovered a leak at the overlapping seam between the stainless steel frame and aluminum ceiling roll at the back of the 40′ shipping container. Kai removed the failed rivet and drew open the enveloped just wide enough to inject 795 silicone. A new rivet drew the the interface tight again. Bindhu then scraped and cleaned the entire interface that spans the width of the container, followed by an application of aluminum tape with assistance from John Z. The entire perimeter of the wall-to-ceiling interface is now complete.

Kai and Sean worked to prepare for the installation of the electrical sockets in the workshop (20 foot container) with fabricated aluminum plates to give strength to the in-house designed, modular wall mount system. Subsequently, three 20 amp electrical circuits were installed. The original, exterior steel door to the Test Module was removed last fall, sanded, primed, and recently top-coated with Rust-Oleum white enamel paint, the same that now protects the entire exterior of the refurbished shipping containers and airlock. With new, steel bearing hinges, the door was replaced and is incredibly smooth in its operation, ready for three more decades of service.

Following several applications of PB Blaster over the prior week, Kai and John Z attempted (in vain) to remove an old “J” pipe fitting on the exterior of the B2 airlock installed at SAM last year. The 4 foot, 30 lbs wrench was apparently not large enough, and in the end the fitting was cut free, the remnant filled with foam, to be capped and sealed soon.

Arizona State University undergraduate student and new volunteer at SAM Tasha Coelho applied diligent attention to the final effort in restoration of the original Test Module lung. She scraped free all loose paint and then hand-sanded the underbelly of the pan in preparation for a coat of Rust-Oleum primer. Luna then applied two coats of a beautiful, dark blue-grey semi-gloss enamel.

Sean and our new volunteer Matthias Beach tackled the installation of the new variable frequency drive (VFD) blower to inflate the lung and pressurize SAM. Matthias is a Former Air Force Computer and Switching Systems Specialist and citizen telecommunications field service specialist who brings skills in construction, electrical wiring, and equipment operation to this endeavor at a critical time. The VFD motor is 1 HP (as compared to the former blower of 1/3 HP) with a significantly larger blower which will result in our ability to inflate SAM in far less time than the former 15 minutes, and with the variable speed control, maintain a constant, minimal influx of air for those teams preferring to run SAM in either of the two pass-through modes.

In the midst of our third snow storm this winter, Matthias, Sean, Tasha, and Luna completed the wiring of the Test Module that was begun last year, with eight 20 amp circuits ready to handle the most arduous of hydroponic racks.

By |2023-03-24T14:35:22+00:00February 21st, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Bath and bobcats

Bobcat at SAM, Biosphere 2

Some would say the bathroom is the single most important room in a Mars habitat. We agree. And as we work, adolescent bobcats watch our every move. Not very Mars-like, but very much a part of the southern Arizona experience.

By |2023-03-23T07:38:34+00:00February 7th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

A study of adhesives

Adhesive comparison at SAM, Biosphere 2

In building SAM there are three primary objectives with each material chosen:

  1. Will it last 15-30 years?
  2. Does it provide the required strength and seal?
  3. Does it off-gas once cured?

The SAM team has gained a deep understanding of working with metal, from cutting to cleaning, welding to grinding, primer, and paint, and with foam insulation panels and plastics too. The fiberglass reinforced panels (FRP) were installed in the 20 foot shipping container (SAM Workshop) over preformed Insofast panels. Given that the walls of the shipping containers cannot be penetrated for the potential of forming a leak, nor can the 40′ be welded due to the potential of melting the insulation between the stainless (interior) and aluminum (exterior) walls, adhesives must be employed. With a selection of dozens of brands and types, each of which carries its own marketing and promises, the SAM team has learned (sometimes the hard way) what works and what does not.

Silcone-base adhesives will adhere to most materials, but the final product is not a structure bond, the kind that can carry a load. While the Dow Corning 795 is foundational to the success of Biosphere 2, the Test Module, and SAM, it is not applied where load-bearing elements come to play (e.g. the shipping container wall, aluminum-based foam panels, and furring strips).

Loktite PL3 is the low-VOC adhesive recommended by Insofast and used in their instructional videos. While the final, cured product is stable and strong, it was learned that this product loses integrity when pressed too thin between the adhere layers. When pressed to a few thousandths of an inch, as is desired with wood glue, the product fails and the two layers can be separated by hand. But with the toothed ribs of the Insofast panels, the PL3 bead remains 1/8-1/4″ and provides substantial integrity, as marketed. However, this presents a challenge if the surface of bonded layer must remain parallel to the underlayment or even across multiple panels.

Sika Construction Adhesive is not found in the adhesives section of the local vendor, rather with concrete block and building materials. It is much thicker than PL3, gray in color, and does not appear to harden completely, rather it remains relatively flexible yet holds to a greater diversity of surfaces, including FRP. It is very difficult to work with, but holds to polystyrene where PL3 specifically states it cannot adhere to this medium.

Roberts 7200 Base Bond is a very different kind of product from the PL3 or Sika adhesives. It is much easier to work with, spreads with a toothed trowel and covers like oat paste. It is “zero” VOC (1g per liter according to the package) and has no odor when being applied. It provides quite a bit of working time in low temperatures, and can be cleaned up with water before it begins to harden. However, it must have at least one porous surface in order to form a bond, with the other surface designed for vinyl baseboard trim. The instructions make it clear that even a coat of paint on the wall must be removed in order for the paste to adhere to the wall board.

Tightbond III is the standard among woodworkers, the strongest of this family of wood glue products, and a staple in any wood shop. As the amount of wood in SAM is limited, it was used only to build the reinforced door frame and overhead beam that gives tremendous strength and stability to the nearly free-standing SAM bathroom.

Nashua Aluminum HVAC tape is what Mark Watney should have brought to Mars. It is one of the most versatile, capable products on the market, and the modern replacement for duct tape. While 795 and rivets have been used to seal more than 200 holes in the refurbished 40′ container (SAM Crew Quarters), it is aluminum tape that has properly secured the entire interface between the stainless steel walls and aluminum roof. We found it to be highly adhesive, malleable (to a limited degree), water resistant, and air tight.

This following test matrix was developed by SAM team member Luna Powell. All samples were tested at 24 hours, 3 days, and 5 days. The following summary is at the close of 5 days.

Adhesive Wood Backer Board Aluminum
PL3 Cured to the point of not moving Strong, almost impossible to peel up Did not even adhere (at all)
Sika Remains soft to the touch after ~5 days curing Remains malleable, not impossible to peel up Peeled up easily
Base Bond Won’t shift side to side, but easy to peel up Readily peels up; did not stick to backer board Peeled up easily; wet in the middle

With bonded interfaces between dissimilar metals, metal to foam, foam to wood, wood to wood, and wood to polystyrene, the types of applied adhesives varies. This past month has seen a good bit of experimentation, some failure, and success with what is hoped to be a multi-decade solution. While there are certainly many more to explore, from off-the-shelf two-part epoxies to marine grade epoxies; from UV activated cements to fire resistant silicones, SAM has been built principally from what is immediately available from the consumer market.

By |2023-03-14T05:56:17+00:00February 3rd, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Doors, bath, and beyond

Kai with a jigsaw, cutting the toilet drain for SAM at Biosphere 2

From January 16-27 the SAM construction team continued to check off tasks, one by one. With the bathroom platform (originally built in April 2022) reinstalled, and the hole drilled for the toilet outlet, the waste water storage tank was adjusted to its final position and secured, the inlet and vent openings cut and rubber flanges installed.

Construction of the bathroom walls was conducted from the shower stall to the door and then far wall, each section building upon the prior for both placement and stability. With very limited space (even if luxurious by NASA standards), every fraction of an inch had to be just right, literally built around the shower basin on three sides while leaving room for the plumbing that will be the 100% recycled water system with small water storage, pump, and filters.

Two significant challenges emerged: building a sturdy, essentially self-stabilized bathroom box within the 40′ shipping container without penetrating the walls, as a screw or rivet could introduce a leak point behind a structural member we’d never be able to reach again; and minimizing condensation formed at the interface of warm, moist air (from the shower) and the cool, interior metal lining of the 40′ shipping container in the winter months. We decided to enclose the top of the shower to reduce condensation and to give us an overhead surface on which we can mount a water storage tank, pump, and/or filter.

The steel bathroom door was reduced in height to match the vertical dimension of the crew quarters-to-workshop bridge. This required a rebuild of both the top and bottom, and total refabrication of the door jam itself. The end result is beautiful and strong, with interlaced, laminated joints. The bathroom has been a work in progress since the start of 2023, and will surely require a few more, but it will be well worth the effort when complete.

We chose colors from the SIMOC-SAM logo to hi-light a few exterior elements of the physical SAM structure, including the lower, outer lung wall and the outer entrance to the Test Module. Sean continued his critical work in revitalizing the three pressure doors, all original to the Biosphere 2 experiments of the 90s. This included multiple applications of PB Blaster, a steel brush, and bucket of soapy water.

In addition to the physical work at SAM, critical components and key appliances were ordered, including the electric actuated valve control the SAM AIR blower, convection microwave oven, bread maker, rice cooker, and water filters. A WiFi hotspot will provide internet for the first mission until a narrow-beam transceiver is in place, providing dedicated, point-to-point communication from Mission Control to SAM itself. The SAM internet and email server is ordered and on its way, with a very unique means to simulate the light travel-time delay developed just for SAM.

By |2023-03-14T06:27:31+00:00January 28th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

The (brighter) light at the end of the tunnel

Yes, the title of this essay is an often used phrase, but one for which we seldom tire—especially when we have a tunnel, and with the final coat of paint the light really is brighter!. We are entering 2023 with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and forward momentum. For the hundreds of tasks we completed in 2022, many of which were monumental, multi-week undertakings, what remains is an exercise in a half dozen well defined projects (with many components) until all systems are functional.

Every Sunday evening SAM project lead Kai Staats delivers an email to the team with a list of items accomplished, those that remain, and where to focus our effort. The top five foci for December into the New Year are:

  1. Sealing SAM, with validation through consecutive pressure tests.
  2. Electricity in the 20 and 40 containers, then finish in the TM.
  3. Complete the bathroom construction, then add power and running water.
  4. Build-out the kitchen, shared space, and sleeping quarters.
  5. Build-out the sensor array and start collecting data.

And a summary of most (not all) of the tasks completed in the past 45 days:

Test Module
– Install and seal 2 replacement windows – DONE
– Sand TM-to-lung tunnel – DONE
– Prime TM-to-lung tunnel – DONE
– 2x coats white enamel paint TM-to-lung tunnel – DONE

Workshop (20′ container)
– Complete roof panels – DONE
– Install all wall panels – DONE
– Poor concrete and mount workshop mini-split A/C condenser – DONE
– Install furring strips at bridge-end – DONE
– Fill voids with 1/2″ insulation panels, spray foam edges – DONE
– Install FRP at bridge-end – DONE
– Mount workshop electric power panel – DONE
– Mount electric power mounting rails – DONE

Crew Quarters (40′ container)
– Complete fabrication of the 40′ pressure door – DONE
– Clean, prime in/outside of 40′ pressure door interface – DONE
– Remove former name and logo from both sides of 40′ – DONE
– Prime bare metal areas of exterior – DONE
– 2x coats white enamel on exterior top/bottom trim, faces – DONE
– Seal floor edge at south end of 40′ – DONE
– Install insulation at door-end – DONE
– Install furring strips at door-end – DONE
– Fill voids with 3/4″ insulation panels, spray foam edges – DONE
– Install RFP at door-end – DONE
– Install FRP in the bathroom – DONE
– Mount RV wastewater holding tank – DONE
– Install toilet and drain – DONE
– Continue to pressure test, patch and seal …

We now move into the second half of January focused on electricity, plumbing, food prep, shower and toilet, and sleeping pods. Almost there!

By |2023-03-14T05:52:42+00:00January 15th, 2023|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Wrapping up construction of SAM in 2022

Luna, Sean, Ezio, Kai at the final day of construction of SAM in 2022.

Sean scraping and sanding the tunnel between the Test Module and lung at SAM, Biosphere 2 As one who has managed teams for more than thirty years, in computer software development, business, and construction, I have come to recognize a number of things about myself in that leadership role: I work best with a dozen or fewer individuals; I am often the most difficult person on my team while setting an example for how to work through difficult times; I am thrilled when my team members arrive to solutions that surpass my own, when someone learns a new skill or accomplishes something for which we are proud.

John Z. laying the second row of cork flooring at SAM, Biosphere 2 It doesn’t really matter to me what we are doing together—landscaping, metal work, electrical wiring or plumbing, computer software, robotics, or combining them all to build a Mars habitat—as long as we are engaged in a manner that celebrates who we are as individuals and how we perform as a team. It’s about finding a rhythm, a dynamic, flexible flow even when the music is always changing.

Luna snapping a chalk line at SAM, Biosphere 2 In the fall of 2020 Trent and I estimated that SAM could be operational in six months with a half dozen volunteers, then grow over time. With the close of January 2023 we will complete our second year of construction with some thirty volunteers and contracted team members. SAM has grown, the physical habitat itself now part of the experiment. The end result will be a higher fidelity facility than we had originally envisioned, with substantial opportunity to grow.

Nathan Schmit replacing more than 170 rivets in the future crew quarters of SAM at Biosphere 2 SAM is a work of passion and a labor of love. It is the kind of project that people will look back to and say, “I was a part of SAM, I was there at the beginning.” We’re doing something wonderfully unique while echoing the work of the original Biospherians, our hands directly involved in metal, glass, and paint. I would not build SAM any other way for no amount of funding can replace the experience we have gained, and the sense of accomplishment each team member carries with them.

When visiting research teams engage SAM we hope they will carry findings, ideas, and personal experience to help shape a better world here, today, as we prepare to become interplanetary. —Kai Staats, Director of Research of SAM at Biosphere 2

By |2022-12-24T17:20:37+00:00December 21st, 2022|Categories: Construction|0 Comments

Working in serial

Sean Gellenbeck sanding the tunnel from the Test Module to the lung.

We often speak of multitasking as a measure of performance or value in a fast paced society, yet the quality of work of any one individual is readily correlated to focus on a single, given task. In our work at SAM we do move through a half dozen projects in a single day. However, with an unwritten agreement to keep cell phone interruptions to a minimum, regular check-ins to revise the chalk board task list and tools in hand, we are a dynamic team, each of us able to transition from landscaping to metal fabrication, from concrete mixing to painting without hesitation. And in each task, that is our core focus from start to completion.

This past few weeks has seen our team struggle to get the 40 foot shipping container air tight, with far more leaks than anticipated. A few shipments and contracted component builds have seen delays too. We have taken advantage of the delays in one arena to make significant strides in others, tasks that might have otherwise been put off until March or April.

Sanding, priming, and painting much of the exterior of the two shipping containers and airlock, Test Module to workshop interior bridge, workshop to crew quarters bridge, and workshop floor are now complete. The upper lung pan and lower lung wall are primed. Luna has planted a “soup mix” in the experimental soil grow beds while John Z., Luna, and Bindhu were successful in pouring a concrete footing for the workshop mini-split condenser. Sean tackled the arduous paint scraping in the lung tunnel and Ezio came out from his programming lair to assist with landscaping and painting, his tenacity for detail welcomed. Kai, as usual, shuffled between all projects in order to keep the team focused and moving forward, providing sharp tools, ample supplies, and (mostly) appreciated guidance while trying to get back to the one thing he promised himself he’d get done that day.

By |2022-12-23T04:31:05+00:00December 16th, 2022|Categories: Construction|0 Comments