By Tereza Pultarova
It must have been some time in August when I received an email from a friend of mine, a Florida- Institute-of-Technology-based extreme environments architect Ondrej Doule. He was putting together a research crew to apply for a two-week rotation at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, the USA. He needed a journalist aboard to manage the communications. I didn’t have to think twice. I knew immediately that this is going to be a pretty extraordinary experience.
Mars Desert Research Station, run by the Mars Society, is a Mars analog habitat in the middle of a high altitude desert. Built in the early 2000s according to a Nasa concept, the station provides a platform to study how a possible future crew on a mission to Mars would operate. In practice that means that the six-strong crews staying in the ten-metre-in-diameter metallic cylinder have to wear space suits in the outside environment. Before venturing outside and before returning to the station, they have to wait for five minutes in an airlock to depressurise. All their activities need to be approved by a mission control centre. They eat mostly freeze-dried space-approved food and worst of all, have to manage with some 60 gallons of water per day.
In early autumn 2013, our crew’s participation was approved and so, on 31 January 2014, we found ourselves in Grand Junction – a little town in Colorado, the USA, from where we drove some 200 miles towards the station.
It was after the first snow storm of the year had hit the region, decorating the usually red sandstone Mars-like hills and rocks along the route in white.
We stopped in Hanksville, the nearest village to the station to pick up our food supplies provided by the station’s operators. In the last years, they have relaxed the rules and so, in the two giant plastic bins, we were able to find (apart from tons of freeze-dried fruits, vegetables and whatever else you can possible freeze dry) also some space-suitable junk food.
Around Hanksville, most of the snow from the recent storm had already melted, which was good as the landscape truly looked Mars-liked. On the other hand, the dirt road leading towards the hab was muddy and filled with puddles. It was quite a relief when, after some ten kilometres of this bumpy, muddy ride, the white structure of the station emerged from behind a sandstone rock. “Wow, that looks really cool,” I thought at the sight of the station and the adjacent little observatory.
The previous crew, already nervously awaiting our arrival, welcomed us inside. The first impression from the interior was not that amazing. Being jet-legged and pretty tired after all the travelling (most of us came from Europe, some from as far as Australia) we might have been a bit sensitive. Red mud was everywhere; the first floor laboratory area was freezing cold and the upper floor living quarters over-crowded. No surprise they dub this station a tuna can.
The biggest claustrophobic panic attack came, at least to me, after seeing the bedrooms. Six tiny chambers about 9 cubic metres in size were each equipped with a narrow wooden bunk covered only with a yoga mat. Except for the commander’s room none of those rooms had a window.
However, after at least a few hours of sleep, the whole thing started looking much more manageable and we even started getting used to the disappointingly mundane not space-like furniture.
As the previous crew was only leaving on Sunday, we decided to spend our first day exploring the surroundings and checking all our technical equipment before entering the full simulation mode – that means before starting playing the game we are on Mars.
We were a bit disappointed to find that only three of the available space suits were operational, meaning only three of us would be able to go out at the same time. On the other hand, at least for some of the guys, the all-terrain quads used for transportation during exploration made up for that.
Living on Mars comes with restrictions and so does being a part of a simulation mission. Electricity doesn’t seem to be a problem, though some of us were a bit disappointed that the station takes all its power from a diesel generator and only has one tiny solar panel in front of the greenhouse (Well, it was built nearly 15 years ago according to a 1990s Nasa concept)
The worst thing proved to be water consumption – we are expected to manage with 60 gallons of water between the six of us. Now, the toilet is not extra water-saving, take into the account drinking, washing dishes, cooking and some personal hygiene and you find yourself in trouble. Besides, the water tank is above the bedrooms under the roof and uses some extremely noise water pump that leaves the whole interior vibrating every time water is running anywhere around the hab. Whenever anyone of your friends uses the bathroom, you will surely know about it, especially in the middle of the night.
Internet capacity is another precious resource. Our download data is strictly limited – to 500MB per day and that should be in the first place dedicated to the communication session with our mission control centre that takes place every day between 7 and 9pm. Getting over the limit is easy – leave your smartphone connected and enable automatic updates of such data-hungry applications as facebook and you are done within a couple of hours and left with extremely slow connection for the next day.
Upload is not restricted (good for us who are here to write about it), but is very slow.