By Ashley Dale, Physics World, 10.02.12
In December 2011 Ashley Dale spent two weeks in the Utah desert as part of a simulated Mars mission. This is his account of the experience.
With the lights from the Habitat Module glowing faintly behind me, I turned off my head torch, comms device and air-circulation system. Holding my breath, I stopped for a moment on the edge of a vast darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I could begin to see hills in the distance, their edges smudged into unfocused murkiness like a Monet landscape. But there were no artificial lights over this alien horizon, and I knew that I could walk for days without seeing any traces of human life. "Welcome to Mars," I thought.
Of course, I had not really travelled millions of miles through space to reach this empty, other-worldly landscape. The Habitat Module behind me was actually part of the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a facility dedicated to developing and testing field tactics and protocols for a human expedition to Mars. Located in a remote area of the Utah desert, the station's paprika-coloured surroundings mimic the landscape of the red planet, lending an air of realism to research on such topics as design features of habitat modules, psychological studies of crew members, assessment of crew-selection procedures and even tests to determine the best kinds of food for Mars explorers.
My journey to this earthly version of Mars began in August 2011, when I applied for an engineering position at MDRS and was selected as part of a crew of six people. My fellow crew members came from several different disciplines and countries. They included a Spanish-born artist and journalist, Alicia Framis; Michael LeClair, a Canadian geologist, programmer and psychologist; Usha Lingappa, an American astrobiologist; another American, Mike Lotto, who like me is an aerospace engineer by training; and our commander Charlotte Poupon, an industrial designer for extreme environments and naval officer from France. Each year, around 10 of these six-person crews stay at the MDRS, typically for two weeks at a time, while a similar number carry out studies at a sister station in the Arctic for several months at a time. Three additional stations are currently under construction in Hawaii, Iceland and Australia, and all five are run by the Mars Society – a group that mainly consists of professional scientists, engineers and academics with an interest in Mars exploration. The stations also receive significant collaboration and funding from NASA's Ames Research Center and the entrepreneur and former physicist Elon Musk.
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[Image: Ashley Dale]