I just got back from a two-week stint at Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. It is one of several analogue Mars habitats all over the world, situated in a location that mirrors the terrain of the Red Planet as faithfully as possible. Our simulated “mission” there was meant to be a precursor to PHEnOM’s analog habitat plans in the Atacama Desert in Chile.
Only one of us had done an analog simulation before – our commander, a NASA engineer who also commanded a HERA analog mission at Johnson Space Center. During our time on “Mars”, I continually asked myself whether this incident or that thing would be the case on the real Mars.
There are many things that a simulation cannot accurately reproduce. For instance, an authentic feeling of isolation. There was one person who approached us out of curiosity during one of our ExtraVehicular Activities (EVAs), and ended up taking photos of us in our mock spacesuits. The director of MDRS operations was on-site the whole time and kept mostly out of sight, but kept making her presence felt through daily radio calls. The MDRS campus itself was built and maintained on a shoestring budget, and it showed. But these limitations ended up teaching us a lot about how to properly run a human mission to Mars.
The Exploration Zone
MDRS is located in the San Rafael Swell area in southern Utah, a 7-minute drive on dirt roads from Hanksville. Millions of years ago, this was a shallow sea, as evidenced by mollusk fossils that keep being found there. There is a dinosaur quarry in the northern part of the zone, containing fossils from the Cretaceous period, but we didn’t have time to see much of it.
What we did have plenty of time for was the harsh beauty of the area. The exploration zone is 10 by 4 kilometers wide yet contains more geological diversity within this area than most of Earth. There are dried riverbeds, slot canyons, dunes, rockfalls, and cliffs, making each day an interesting trip.
Driving is only permitted on marked dirt roads, with a few ATV-only stretches. There are some areas that are permanently off-limits to anyone in sim, due to hazards. We were largely free to use our own judgement when traversing the terrain on foot.
- Commander (CO) and Executive Officer (XO) – The first and second in command, respectively. Both of them were expected to have good judgement and leadership skills, as well as previous analog experience. The CO is responsible for the safety and operations of the crew. She must maintain a structured stream of information between the crew and Mission Support, establish the agenda for each day, and hold meetings with all crew members. The XO acts as the CO in the case the latter is incapacitated or unavailable. For that reason, the CO and XO never go on EVA together. Our CO was Anima Patil-Sabale, an engineer at NASA Ames. When our official XO was barred from the United States for a visa issue, Doug Campbell took up that role.
- Crew Engineer (CE) – The crew engineer is responsible for maintaining the habitat, equipment, and vehicles and reporting any issues that have yet to be fixed. He must be capable of repairing things on his own, and updating Mission Support on the hab condition by the daily operations report. Our CE was David Attig, a master’s student in aerospace engineering at University of Alabama. He brought several years of hands-on experience to the role and did a terrific job!
- Science Officer (SO) – This role is somewhat ambiguous, because a crew can include biologists, geologists, and astronomers. In practice, this person is responsible for the daily science report that details the experiments and investigations done by each crew member on that day. Doug took up this role in addition to substituting as the executive officer. He’s a mechanical engineer working in the healthcare field in Saskatchewan.
- Health and Safety Officer (HSO) – The crew doctor spot, filled by Shawna Pandya, a physician in residency in Edmonton, Alberta. She did pre- and post-EVA checkups as part of her crew health and wellness study, and patched up minor injuries that we accumulated over time. Each time a crew member suffered heat exhaustion on EVA, she ordered the EVA cut short and put that person on rest and fluids.
- Crew Geologist & Astronomer (CGA) – The geologist and astronomer roles are separate, but I ended up taking both because of my background in planetary science. However, I am *much* more an astronomer than a geologist. I ended up excelling at solar observation, and my only geology-related research was the GPS route mapping that I did with a off-site PHEnOM member. A true geologist would bring a rock hammer and a field notebook on EVA.
The Mars Society has a document listing all the available crew positions and their required and desirable skillsets here.
- Hab – The oldest building. Where we live, eat, and sleep. Also where we suit up for EVAs, and store most of our work stuff. Of all the buildings, the Hab showed the most damage from weather and (ab)use by previous crews. The upper floor is only accessible via a hideous steel stepladder with sharp steps that forced us to wear Crocs and sandals inside. The official word is that the old staircase was even more unsafe, but a few of us still suffered minor injuries by falling down it. The furniture was good enough for two weeks, but definitely not for two years (that’s how long a real mission would last). The mattresses were worn down to the point of causing back pain in a few crewmates. My mattress was fine, but that’s probably because my sleeping bag served as additional cushioning.
- GreenHab – A small greenhouse where cherry tomatoes, swiss chard, kale, red lettuce, and other leafy greens are grown to supplement our rations.
- Repair and Assembly Module (RAM) – Most repairs and construction work is carried out there. It is not connected to the hab, so participants must travel there in suits while on sim.
- Science Dome – Where biological and geological research is carried out. It also houses the battery system for the whole campus.
- Musk Observatory – Houses the solar-viewing telescope. A real fancy solar telescope on a real fancy computerized mount.
- Robotic Observatory – A telescope that can be controlled online to photograph stars. Unfortunately, it was defunct during our mission.
Life in the hab was scheduled, but not too tightly. For the morning EVA, we had to get up before 0700 – all of us – because even those not going out still has to support those who are. Breakfast was hurried for those on EVA – perhaps just an energy bar. Those not going out in the morning could afford to have breakfast at a more relaxed pace. Our selection included instant coffee, Tang, fresh fruit, energy bars, and cereals with reconstituted milk.
The commander sets daily housekeeping duties based on input from the crew. Some duties were rotated among the crew, such as dishwashing. Cooking could be rotated as well, but the crew loved our commander’s cooking too much for that, and it came easily to her, being a mother of two kids.
While half of the crew were on EVA, the in-hab crew did their permanent duties and experiments, as well as tending the plants in the GreenHab. In the afternoon, the other group would go out on EVA, with the morning group staying home.
Lunch and dinner were also used for team meetings to work out issues over a hot meal.
As with all camping, life at MDRS comes with fairly severe rationing. We started out with 950 gallons of water in three tanks. This was down to 786 gallons on Sol 3. From there, we could use a maximum of 78.6 gallons per day for the last 10 days. Staying under that maximum meant we had to take showers every two days, for four minutes each. These “navy showers” will be markers of austerity on Mars.
Our internet came on a satellite connection, so it was pretty limited. There were periods when webpages loaded quickly, and some when they could not load at all. That was a perennial source of frustration during the two-hour window when we had to upload our daily reports to Mission Support.
When you bottle up several highly educated and capable people in a tuna can for two weeks, the results are likely to be nonlinear.
Seriously, though, we did pretty well considering that a Soviet cosmonaut once commented that locking people up in a small space for a while is a recipe for murder. I credit our extremely advanced social skills for that accomplishment.
This is not to say we didn’t have tensions. Some of us are take-command, Type-A personalities and sometimes stepped on each other’s toes, but we talked through them civilly at meals. We bonded over astronaut movies, sharing our stories meeting real astronauts, and card games. Cards Against Humanity was popular (if in horrific taste) among the crew, and I taught them how to play Shanghai. We also made time for 5 minutes a day of my lessons in American Sign Language. That helped with our in-hab and EVA communications.
Every EVA is planned. There are exploratory, engineering, contingency, and emergency EVAs, but there are no unplanned EVAs. In space or on Mars, the outgoing astronauts will have limited oxygen supplies, making every minute count. Our EVAs rarely exceeded four hours in length. On extremely hot days, we cut our EVAs short to avoid heat exhaustion. Even though Mars is much colder than Utah, similar precautions will be taken there.
We had one-piece and two-piece suitpacks consisting of a helmet with a wide faceplate, and a “life support” backpack that’s really just a set of fans forcing air into the helmet.
The one-piece suit packs are not that heavy, but they do shift your center of mass up and back, limit your visibility, and restrict your torso flexibility. I never used the two-piece suits, but several crewmates reported a danger of neck injuries due to the helmet pressing down on the wearer’s shoulders. The one-piece suits didn’t have that problem because their weight is distributed across the wearer’s back and hips.
Besides our flightsuits, our EVA outfits consisted of work gloves and hiking boots. My gloves were touchscreen-capable so I could take photos with my iPhone and text with the Beartooths. We all carried walkie-talkies for verbal communication.
As the only deaf person on the crew, I had to adhere to a few extra precautions determined by the MDRS director. My EVA group always consisted of three people. When driving, I was always in the middle of the convoy, so the rear person could radio ahead to the lead if a car ever came up behind. That happened only once. If I were to ever be injured or separated from the group, I could make a long beeping sound with my walkie-talkie.
We had several vehicles of two types available to us on sim. The ATVs were one red Honda and four blue Yamaha Grizzlies. I had not ridden one before, but I got the hang of it easily. It was a bit tricky to cold-start the engine since I couldn’t hear it. A crewmate helped me understand by holding my knees to the gas tank and feeling the vibrations.
The electric rovers were Polaris Rangers with 4×4 drives. They had better suspension than the ATVs, making for a smoother ride over slightly rougher terrain. Acceleration was not as good as the ATVs even in high gear, but high gear cuts through soft sand easily! Most of the time when driving the rovers, we stayed in low or medium gear to maximize range, using high gear only for rough patches.
They being electric vehicles, startups and gear changes can be done with a flick of the switch. But we ended up using the ATVs more often because they can be easily mounted in spacesuits. This was not the case for the Rangers, because they come with frames that impede the bulk of your spacesuit when getting in/out.
On both vehicles, driving on rough terrain with only 150~ degrees of vision and what feels like a monkey on your back was… interesting to say the least.
To summarize: ATVs for speed and convenience, EVs for rough terrain and extra cargo.
Communications between crewmates on EVA and between EVAs and the hab were by walkie-talkies with connected earpieces. One common complaint by my crewmates was that their earpieces kept falling out, and their microphones often didn’t attach securely enough despite our best efforts. We could have used snoopy caps like the ones that NASA uses.
Inside the hab, I was able to keep up with everyone else with my writable LCD tablet. It’s noteworthy that it never failed despite constant use and occasional exposure to the elements.
Unfortunately, one of the Beartooth devices that enabled us to text each other without cell service failed after only one day of EVA. I am still working with tech support to diagnose the problem, but this incident is a stark reminder of what could have happened had we really been on Mars. Even when they worked, the Beartooths were hard to use with our touchscreen-enabled work gloves. We compensated for this breakdown by keeping each other in line of sight, rudimentary ASL, and using the note app on our phones.
- Need GPS on EVAs. The unit I carried was crucial for resolving difficulties with map-reading.
- Dust control will be crucial on Mars. Even in the (relatively) wetter environment of Utah, we managed to get a fine film of dust on most things inside the hab. The dust on Mars is even finer and more abrasive, since it doesn’t have liquid water to erode it into smoother shapes.
- Group selection is probably even more important than individual selection, even though this is necessary too. Group selection would involve better balancing of take-charge personalities against more compliant personalities to minimize conflicts.
- Stuff will break or fail to work in the desert. Spares and field repair skills are an absolute must.
- Need a better communication system than the Beartooths, one that doesn’t require the use of gloved hands to type. One possibility would be a subvocalization system, like the AlterEgo.
- For a real Mars mission lasting two to three years, crew comfort will be an absolute must. An uncomfortable crew will eventually become an unhealthy one. The Mars Society did not prioritize comfort when planning MDRS.
- Wrist mirrors would be helpful when driving on EVA, for checking blind spots and sun-signaling.
- Sign language is potentially beneficial for use on EVAs, assuming the spacesuits are flexible enough. It is better for spatial descriptions than spoken languages.
Despite the challenges we faced, these two weeks I spent with four other people in a tuna can were some of the most life-affirming I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. All of us would gladly do another analog mission, but that will most likely take place at our planned site in the Atacama Desert after 2020.