Jet-Lagged: NASA Engineer And His Family Are Living On Mars Time

Aug 21, 2012
Originally published on August 21, 2012 6:36 pm

Even the tiniest change — from daylight saving time to standard time — can throw your body off.

Imagine jumping into the time zone of an entirely different planet. That's what the family of David Oh, a NASA engineer, has been doing for weeks.

Oh, who is the flight director of the Mars Curiosity rover, and his family have shifted their life to fit the schedule of the rover on the Red Planet. That's a lot more complicated than it sounds, because the Martian day is close to 3 percent longer than Earth's. So every day, Oh's family has to add about 40 minutes to the day, meaning the time of lunch or dinner or sleep can vary.

Oh and his wife, Bryn, spoke to All Things Considered's Melissa Block today. They spoke at about 10 a.m. Pacific time, at a point where the Martian day is Earth's night. In other words, they spoke to Melissa at the point where their schedule is completely upside down. Right after the morning interview, they said, they were headed to bed.

What's amazing is that the parents of three — ages 8, 10 and 13 — were in great spirits.

"It's amazing how easy it is," Bryn said.

Oh said they wanted to do this because they wanted the whole family to share in the adventure of landing a rover on Mars.

"It gives them the feeling that they're part of the great adventure that we have in driving a rover across Mars," said Oh.

The family's oldest kid, Braden, has been keeping a blog about the experiment. And it feels truly magical: He documents a trip to Santa Monica Beach at 11 p.m. Earth time. He posts a picture of the family bowling at 4 a.m. And one of a golden sunrise just behind the Southern California mountains.

To Bryn there are two highlights of this experiment: Because of the time change, the kids saw their first shooting star; and Devyn, the 8-year-old, learned to ride a two-wheel bike in an empty parking lot in the middle of the night.

As school starts and Mars time aligns with Earth time, again, the experiment will end for the kids. Oh has to stay on Mars time for his job.

"We'll lose the adventure of exploring Los Angeles at night," Bryn said about the experiment's end. "But we'll have great memories."

Much more of Melissa's conversation with the Ohs is on this evening's All Things Considered. Click here to find your NPR member station. We'll post the as-broadcast version of this interview on this post a little later on tonight.

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As the Mars rover Curiosity does its work on the red planet, a family in California has shifted its clock over to Mars time. The Mars day is nearly 40 minutes longer than a day here on Earth. And the entire family of Curiosity's flight director, David Oh, has time-shifted to sync with the day on Mars, including his wife Bryn and their three children, ages 13, 10 and eight.

David and Bryn Oh join me from Pasadena. Welcome to the program.

DAVID OH: Thank you, Melissa.

BRYN OH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Now, we are taping this conversation at 10 AM Pacific Time. But on your clock, on Mars time, what time is it right now?

B. OH: So, our bodies feel like it is about 10 PM at night.

D. OH: We'll be going to bed pretty much as soon as this interview is done.

BLOCK: And if I figure this out right, for about the last three weeks you've added nearly 40 minutes to your clock every day. So you're now just about half a day off, right? You're at the peak of your upside-downness(ph) in relation to Earth time.

D. OH: That's right. We passed it just yesterday. We were having lunch at midnight yesterday.


D. OH: We had lunch at one AM this morning.

BLOCK: Well, your oldest, your 13-year-old son, Braden, has been keeping a blog with some really great photographs. There's one of you guys going bowling at four in the morning; you're pointing to the clock, it's four in the morning, and one on the beach where it's just before midnight. So this has to be just an amazing adventure for them, I'd think.

D. OH: It is an amazing adventure for them. I mean, I think the biggest reason that we wanted to bring the whole family together on this is because they're joining in the adventure of exploring Mars. It gives them the feeling that they're part of the great adventure that we have, as we drive a rover around on Mars.

BLOCK: Bryn, what's the high point been for you?

B. OH: My children have experienced several firsts while we have been on Mars time. Included in that is my little one did not know how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle when we started. And he has learned in the middle of the night in empty parking lots. And that's been a highlight for him, in particular. He's had a great time biking around at 3:00 in the morning. My children saw their first shooting star. We were able to stay up and watch the Perseid meteor shower. We've just had a lot, a lot of fun.

BLOCK: I also learned from your son Braden's blog that you guys have come up with a whole new language around these new days that you have.

B. OH: Yes, we have found that there are words that don't exist in the English language that we have needed to use. So, for example, we're going to go to sleep this afternoon. When we wake up tonight, it will be a new sol; that's the word that they use to describe a Martian day. So it will be a new sol for us tonight. When we refer to having this interview this morning it will be yester-sol for us. We talk about having a play date sol-morrow night, which for you will be tomorrow morning.

BLOCK: Sol, S-O-L, meaning sun.

D. OH: That's actually a technical term. It's the term that the team, the Mars rover team, uses to refer to one Martian day.

BLOCK: A-ha. OK, so this is working great, it sounds like, so far. But what happens when the kids go back to school?


B. OH: The kids will go back to school next week. They will still be on Mars time, though their schedule will have moved enough that they can easily go back to school. They will be just going to bed several hours earlier than the other children. They will probably be doing their homework in the morning.

BLOCK: You're going to keep them on Mars time?

D. OH: Once the kids line up with the regular Earth day, they will stay there. So when...

BLOCK: They're going to stay back on Earth time.

D. OH: Right, when they're going to school they'll be on Earth time.

BLOCK: Well, David and Bryn, thanks so much for talking to us about it.

B. OH: Thank you, it was good speaking with you.

D. OH: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's David and Bryn Oh in Pasadena. David is the flight director for the Mars rover Curiosity. And their entire family has shifted over to Mars time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.