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Flight director's family gets back down to Earth after life on Mars time

Since its historic landing on Mars, the Curiosity rover's mission has been followed by the whole world. One of the mission's team members took a creative approach to balancing work and family by living on "Mars time."

A California family's journey on Mars time had its ups and downs, but NASA flight director David Oh says he's glad he took his wife and kids on the ride.

"My kids loved it, I loved it, and I think it served to bring the family together," Oh told NBC News on Friday.

Oh is one of the flight directors for NASA's $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory mission, which sent the Curiosity rover on a two-year quest to determine whether the Red Planet ever had the chemical ingredients required for life as we know it. Each Martian day, or sol, is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than an Earth day. So, to stay in sync with the mission's initial phase, the team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was put on a Martian schedule for the first 90 sols.

That meant that Oh's workday quickly fell out of sync with Earth time. To make it easier on himself, and on his wife and three children, the Oh family decided to spend 30 sols on Mars time.

"The kids weren't going to get to see Daddy for long periods of time," Oh's wife, Bryn, said. "It just seemed like the right thing to do," 

The time warp meant that the family dinner could take place at 4 p.m. PT, or 4 a.m., depending on how the Martian day meshed with their earthly schedule. But it also meant the Oh children — 13-year-old Braden, 10-year-old Ashlyn and 8-year-old Devyn — had lots of quality time to learn about what Dad is doing.

"Curiosity's mission is to go try and find life on another planet, which is totally cool," Ashlyn Oh said.

David Oh said the rest of the family switched back to Earth time in September, a month after Curiosity's landing, to get into sync with the school schedule. "It really felt like we all had gone off on a journey, and we came back," he recalled. But the tough part of Oh's journey was just beginning: He had to stay on Mars time for an additional 60 sols, and during that period he struggled to juggle his work duties and family time. He remembered some days when he got just four hours of sleep at a time.

"I was in a state of continual jet lag for the last couple of months," he said.

Finally, in November, Curiosity's mission team shifted back en masse to an Earth-day schedule. It took Oh a couple of days to adjust, but now he's firmly back on an earthly schedule. The kids are clamoring to live on Mars time again — but that's one trip Oh doesn't plan to repeat anytime soon.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.