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My Life On Mars

By Ashley Dale

Physics World, Oct 2 2012

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.

The main purpose of our expedition was to conduct the sorts of fieldwork that might take place during a Mars mission. Within this, my role was to maintain the Habitat Module systems and the quad bike all-terrain vehicles, while also serving as an extra set of hands for scientific projects and fieldwork. In addition, all of us would be partaking in long-term food, protocol and psychological studies.

Welcome to "Mars"

After several months of feverish preparation and eager e-mail exchanges, I finally met the other members of my team at the airport in Grand Junction, Colorado – a 15-hour trip from my home in the UK, where I was then studying for a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Liverpool. As we drove from the airport, we received a briefing from Jean Hunter, an expert on space life-support at Cornell University who would be carrying out food studies on all six of us in collaboration with NASA. After several hours of driving through the desert, we swung onto a rib-shattering dirt track, bumping through an increasingly Martian-looking landscape towards our destination. By the time we reached our stark outpost, we had left the rest of humanity far behind. We began what promised to be two weeks of the ultimate Mars experience on Earth.

On arrival, we met John Barainca, the station's engineering co-ordinator and a walking knowledge bank of physics, chemistry and biology as well as engineering. Barainca has the far-off gaze of someone whose thoughts are always on a distant planet, but from now on he would be one of our main links to "Earth", advising us on maintenance tasks via Mission Support channels. The rest of Mission Support would observe us via cameras and monitor our daily reports to ensure protocols were followed and unnecessary dangers avoided.

First, however, Barainca gave us a thorough tour of our new home: the Habitat Module, or HAB. Its structure and features are based on the designs and mission architecture for the "Mars Direct" plan for a relatively low-cost manned mission to Mars. This plan was conceived by a group led by Robert Zubrin at the aerospace firm Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) and later developed in collaboration with NASA's Johnson Space Center. The building is split over two floors and is silo-shaped, with a diameter of 10 m – small enough to fit atop the main rocket booster of a heavy-lift launch vehicle. The engineering and electronics work station on the ground floor had more tools than even the A-Team would know what to do with, while the scientists in our group were in geeky fits of excitement over the array of microscopes, scales, rock saws, incubators and other equipment in the biology and geology labs. The HAB's lavatory and shower were both quite modest, but the extra-vehicular activity (EVA) room – which contained six spacesuit analogues and their chargers – got Lotto's and my engineering juices flowing. The upstairs contained our living quarters, which included six compact bedrooms (each a little over 1 m by 3 m), a communal area with plenty of reading and entertainment material, computer workstations and a kitchen. The finishing touches were the airlocks at the front and back of the HAB.

Barainca briefed us on all the procedures we needed to follow and the systems we would have to maintain inside, outside and beneath the HAB. These included an observatory with an 11-inch telescope; communication systems linking team members to each other and to Mission Support; a diesel-powered generator; and the heat tapes under the HAB's flooring that regulated its temperature. The quad bike all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) we would use to travel around the Martian landscape also needed regular checks, and we had to monitor water levels in the tanks (two external, one internal) if we wanted to avoid unnecessarily harsh water rationing. Finally, the algae septic filter in the greenhouse required regular maintenance, since it recycled dirty water into "grey" water for use in the toilets.

Jet-lagged and hallucinating with fatigue, I shadowed Barainca for several hours, noting down his instructions and suggestions in indecipherable scribbles. Later that evening, when he felt we were sufficiently prepared, he stepped out of the HAB into the desert night. The temperature was –12 °C and the Moon behind him was sending pale, cold fingers of silver across the landscape. "You know, guys," he said, reflectively, "we all have one thing in common: we're all nuts." And with that, he sealed the exterior airlock door behind him. Our two-week simulation had begun.

Settling into a routine

During the mission, our days started at 5 a.m., with breakfast – and an accompanying pot of strong coffee – an hour later. After a plan-of-action meeting, Lotto and I would do a round of engineering tasks, and though we were snowed in for a chilly couple of days, we usually managed to get outside for two three-hour EVAs each day, before and after lunch, to conduct various projects. For safety reasons, nobody was left alone in the HAB or on EVAs, and constant communication was maintained between EVA groups and the HAB crew. While the engineers carried out maintenance on the HAB, ATVs and spacesuits, the scientists typically spent time in the lab or wrote reports. Every evening, each team member completed a set of surveys about the food and our psychological states. Among other things, the latter surveys were aimed at determining whether "cabin fever" was setting in. After this we would watch a film (usually a sci-fi horror of some sort), then end the day at 11 p.m. after another round of engineering tasks.

We each had our own projects to accomplish during the mission, but we also participated in each other's studies. For example, Poupon, our mission commander, specializes in designing equipment that can operate in extreme environments. One of the projects Lotto and I worked on with her was a small, custom-built, remote-controlled rover that carried wireless video cameras and a monitor. She was trying to assess its functionality as a "scout" in hard-to-reach places, but her research revealed that the need to keep a line-of-sight between the rover and its controller was a significant issue. I intend to carry out a comparable study, but using a low-flying remote-controlled quad-rotor/airship hybrid specially built to deal with the Martian atmosphere. It would avoid rough terrain and ground obstacles entirely by taking to the air.

The astrobiologist on our team, Lingappa, has a background in Mars-analogue geomicrobiology. She is particularly interested in studying a bacterium that is thought to produce a substance called "rock varnish", which appears in many places on Earth (figure 1). There is photographic evidence that rock varnish exists on Mars, and if its presence there is confirmed – and if rock varnish turns out to be indisputably biological, not geochemical, in origin – then that would be a massive discovery. Finding microbial life on Mars would answer questions about the prevalence of life in the universe. It might also indicate whether the life-forms produced on Earth follow the pattern for all life (for example, using RNA and DNA to pass on genetic information) or whether we are merely one thread in a vast tapestry of what could be considered "alive".

During the mission, however, Lingappa's main task was to study how spacesuits impose limitations on a person's ability to collect samples and isolate organisms – something that is clearly very relevant when planning an actual Mars mission. Similarly, the crew's geologist, LeClair, carried out geology missions both with and without the spacesuit in order to analyse what delays and problems it caused. He also mapped and developed our understanding of the local terrain as a basis for future geological fieldwork at the station.

Complications and mishaps

As with any human space mission, before we so much as touched a tool, we needed to put forward a proposal to Mission Support detailing exactly what we intended to do, how we would do it and which instrument we would use. To simulate the effects of signals travelling between Earth and Mars, a delay of around 40 minutes was added on to each communication between us and Mission Support. Typically, there would be an extensive discussion between the support engineers on the "Earth" side before they gave us the "go" signal – or, more likely, asked a question.

Another interesting aspect of life during the mission was the fact that Mission Support was observing all of our activities via six streaming cameras in the HAB. These cameras captured a frame every 30 seconds and fed it to the world at large through the MDRS website, so naturally we tried to avoid doing anything ridiculous. However, this did not stop LeClair, who held love letters up to the camera each morning for his girlfriend to read back home in Canada.

One day while the scientists were writing reports and preparing food, Lotto and I (appropriately suited and booted) were outside on an engineering round. Looking across the desert, I recall thinking that I would not be surprised if pre-historic creatures materialized from the mountains that surrounded us, such was the bizarreness of the landscape. Suddenly, our respective comms devices began to resonate with screams in French and Spanish from Poupon and Framis. Through our helmet visors, Lotto and I exchanged a knowing glance indicating near-certainty that our crewmates back in the HAB were going to die in the next few seconds. We dropped what we were doing and sprinted inside for re-pressurization.

Still hearing screams through our comms, we were convinced that one of our crewmates had lost it and was now in the process of murdering the others, possibly with one of the many scalpels in the biology lab. Still suited up, we were making our way up the stairs of the HAB as stealthily as we could when Framis suddenly appeared and tearfully shoved down a bucket containing a desert mouse, which was itself squeaking with terror. We had encountered our first "Martian"!

Later, I was reliably informed that as LeClair set about capturing the mouse, the rest of the crew had heroically continued their food-preparation task even while standing on chairs and screaming. In an effort worthy of the UN, "Marty" the Martian mouse was taken out on the next EVA and released into a more suitable environment. It took several minutes for him to say his goodbyes to each of us before scampering off.

Another mishap – this one potentially more serious – came during the 10-mile return leg of a fossil-hunting field expedition. I was motoring down a hill on an ATV between LeClair and Lotto when the setting Sun momentarily blinded me. When I could see again, I realized I was heading into a bend far too quickly. I overshot the bend, the ATV flung me into the air over a dune and sent me barrelling towards a ditch. I managed a series of graceful pirouettes before landing theatrically on both feet – quite an achievement while wearing a spacesuit!

Through the scratchy comms, a rather agitated Lotto announced that the nearest hospital was some three hours away. Fortunately, I was unhurt, but the incident did highlight the risks of driving instead of walking over rough terrain. The advantages ATVs bring in mobility and expedition range are great, but they also introduce an element of human error that should be taken seriously. Even a minor puncture to a spacesuit would kill an astronaut in minutes as their blood boiled in the low-pressure Martian atmosphere. Isolated on Mars, with the Earth just a "pale blue dot" in the night sky, there would be no room for error.

Some of the problems we faced were more subtle. Although all of us wore watches, and thus had a sense of the immediate time of day, one by one we lost track of how many days we had been in the simulation. Without looking at the logs, our minds' dependency on our (clearly fallible) internal clocks was exposed. Gradually, events merged and became confused in our memories. On several occasions, members of our team mixed up events that had taken place that day with those from the day before; sometimes as a group we completely forgot what we had shared for lunch several hours earlier. LeClair, the team's geologist and psychologist, put it best when he commented that "our experience of time is just an illusion".

Around the dinner table

Food at MDRS consisted of strictly rationed, non-perishable, vacuum-sealed and dehydrated meals – and yes, that's about as exciting as it sounds. Chewing on food is something I did not realize I would miss, but for astronauts, any time taken away from their duties in order to prepare meals is significant. During an actual Mars mission, the crew would have to spend around 30 months on this dietary regime. Hence, one of the major studies being carried out at MDRS aims to minimize meal preparation and consumption time without harming the psychological well-being of the crew.

Though the food was far from inspiring, our conversations around the dinner table were always a rich and colourful distraction. Everyone in the crew had real enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge about Mars inside and outside their own fields of expertise, and talking with them was one of my favourite parts of the mission. Naturally, many of these discussions focused on the red planet itself.

Lingappa, our astrobiologist, had strong convictions about its potential habitability. As she pointed out, a day on Mars lasts a very Earth-like 24 hours and 37 minutes, and it was once a warm and wet planet. If we could somehow melt its frozen oceans of water, a "second genesis" of life might be introduced if one is not awoken in the process. I suggested that, with the use of super greenhouse gases, raising the planet's atmospheric temperature in the southern polar region by a few degrees would begin a self-sustained gasification process of the carbon dioxide in the soil. This would catalyse a runaway process of Martian global warming that would, eventually, return it to its former, more habitable state.

With today's technology, I reasoned, a relatively small push could help Mars go through a transformation. After 100 years or so, this transformation might produce a planet with an average surface temperature of about 7 °C, oceans of water covering approximately a third of its surface, and an atmospheric pressure and density equivalent to that found in Nepal. Making the Martian air breathable by humans would be more difficult, since it would take thousands of years for plant life to extract sufficient oxygen from the planet's carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere. However, as Poupon observed, it is always possible that our capabilities – both in altering a planet's atmosphere and in developing adaptations for humans – will in the next few decades develop beyond our current limited comprehension of what is possible.

LeClair – ever the geologist – added that Mars contains an abundance of many elements needed to sustain a technological civilization, including oxygen, carbon and hydrogen as well as useful metals such as iron, aluminium, copper, chromium and magnesium. He compared it to North America in the previous age of human exploration – "the next logical step towards the furthering of humanity".

Other discussions took a more political turn. Lotto and I, for example, often discussed the future of manned space exploration. His outlook on the US space programme was fairly gloomy, and he was particularly concerned about the possible knock-on effects on science education. During the Apollo era, he pointed out, the number of students getting scientific qualifications at every level – from high school through to PhD – doubled. What do we have to inspire the next generation?

My own impression is that, after several decades without a clear direction, the US space agency is now entering a period of stagnation or even retreat. A few months after our mission ended, NASA announced its decision to pull out of its collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ExoMars project, which was designed to search for Martian bio-signatures. Though I am optimistic that human space exploration will continue, we cannot assume that the first astronauts on Mars will be carried there by NASA or ESA rockets. If western countries continue to be held back by political inertia – if we cannot conjure the courage of a new Columbus or Livingstone – then humanity's next step will simply be taken by someone else.

As the mission wore on, it became customary for the crew to go out late in the evening and look up at the Milky Way, the backbone of the night sky. The 4500 ft altitude of the Utah desert just about guarantees cold, clear skies at night and we were lucky enough to witness a meteor shower, the Geminids, during our mission. We also saw the International Space Station (ISS) pass over, which sparked another discussion on space funding. One of the main scientific purposes of the ISS was to study the long-term effects of zero-gravity on human biology, but as Lotto commented, "I don't remember Columbus spending years off the coast of Spain observing the health effects of life at sea before making his voyage over to America". Simply spinning the spacecraft on a tether in transit to and from Mars would generate an artificial gravity through inertia. When you compare the $196bn spent on the Space Shuttle programme to the $55bn cost of setting up the architecture around and getting the first crew of humans to Mars via NASA's Design Reference Mission (the equivalent of two weeks' worth of US defence spending in 2011), you really do have to wonder whether it has been worth it.

Saying goodbye

My "Monet landscape" experience came during our last night together, while the crew was taking in another "Mars" light show. I moved away, turned off all the devices I was wearing and looked up at the sky. As a child growing up in Namibia and South Africa, I would often gaze up at the stars above the Kalahari Desert, wondering who had stuck diamonds into the black sky. For me, that was where my interest in space began, and since then it has taken me from the San Bushman country to the ivory tower of academia. And for two weeks last December, it had even – sort of – taken me to Mars. As our mission came to a close, I realized that I would be bringing a little bit of each of my crewmates back to England with me. The two-week simulation had been a unique experience, and each of us learned valuable lessons not only about our chosen subjects, but about ourselves.

Walking back to my team, I turned on my air-circulation system, head torch and comms device. Soon Lingappa's voice crackled over the radio. "We were getting a little worried about you!" I could hear the smile in her voice, and for almost the last time, I stepped back to join my colleagues in the artificial world of the HAB.

About the author

Ashley Dale is a PhD student at the University of Bristol, where he is working on the next generation of wing design in composite and morphing technologies. He is also a visiting researcher at the University of Liverpool, and a researcher for Applied Computing and Engineering Ltd