Life on Mars Simulated by Crew in Utah Desert

By Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
June 26, 2002
A six-person crew recently emerged from a fortnight stint in a two-story tin can—the Mars Desert Research Station—in the Utah desert, which, with its red, rocky, barren landscape, may be the next best thing to Mars itself.

Although it sounds like a cheesy episode of reality TV, it is in fact a bona fide effort to simulate research and exploration under the same constraints as a crew would face on Mars. It is also a chance to test exploration strategies, tools, and technologies, and most importantly crew selection strategies—what personalities and skills will serve a mission best.

"We are trying to figure out 'The Right Stuff' required for the first Mars crew," said Ephimia Morphew, a psychologist at Johnson Space Flight Center who joined the Mars Desert Experiment. "But the right stuff that was known for pilots is now the wrong stuff for long-duration space crews."

The Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project, of which the Utah "Hab" is part, was launched by the Mars Society. The society's goal is to encourage manned space flights to Mars and, through quirky, visually sensational experiments like this, to inspire and rally public support. The Society plans to establish Martian bases around the world in bleak, isolated regions that in some way—geologically or weather-wise—bear a similarity to Mars. Four of these bases will be in the American southwest, Iceland, the Australian outback, and the Canadian Arctic.

Although the habitat is fairly low tech—a two-level cylinder 24 feet in diameter mounted on a pair of landing struts—it attracts a pretty high-level crowd. Most of the participants during the six two-week missions were biologists, geologists, and aerospace engineers—many from NASA—and just about all are astronaut wannabees.

Filmmaker Sam Burbank was part of the sixth and final crew for the Utah "Hab," along with Morphew, architect and "mission commander" Frank Schubert, planetary scientist Kelly Snook, University of New Mexico biologist Penelope Boston, and microbiologist/NASA patent attorney Steve McDaniels.

"What I had to offer were my abilities as a documentarian—it's valuable for NASA to have someone writing, taking photographs and filming," Burbank said. "But the reason I was chosen was that I'm a pretty good engineer," said Burbank, who developed his mechanical expertise by owning and running his own motorcycle racing team in his early 20s. "I was also happy to take out the garbage, do the dishes, and sweep the floor."

In fact it was these more mundane issues that exhausted most of the crew's efforts.

To kick off their mission, the composting toilet—with waste from five previous crews—broke, filling the habitat with foul fumes. As the crew engineers, Burbank and McDaniels were saddled with the task.

"You know, it is almost a standing joke in the space program," said Penny Boston, who spends her time searching for life in extreme environments. "Malfunctioning of zero-gravity toilets is the sort of a tale of legend and lore."

During the two weeks the crew discovered some hard facts of space flight and exploration: it's primarily hardware maintenance and hygiene and very little science.

The first extra vehicular activity, for example, was fixing a water pump that took two people clad in the bulky canvas and plastic space suits a couple of hours rather than a few minutes.

An unexpected time sucker was meal preparation, which occupied 16.5 man-hours per day to cook macrobiotic foods. These are primarily organically grown green leaf vegetables and grains, which are thought might be easier to grow on Mars. "We ate so much kale and this rice product called moshi that our meals were more like science experiments than a stress release," Morphew said.

According to several crewmembers, this is the highest fidelity Mars simulation ever completed. The crew had no media exposure, a 45-minute time delay was imposed on all Internet communication, there were no phones, and the crew spent 20 minutes in the air lock before entering the "Martian" landscape in full spacesuits.

The two-week schedule that the crew adopted was taken from the Mars Reference Mission—a NASA operations manual that details activities that might occur during a 500-day mission to Mars. Snook chose a two-week period in the middle of this manual as a basic outline for the activities and studied how their actual schedule differed.

Aside from the hygiene and food preparation, the primary scientific goals of this mission were real. The team used all terrain vehicles (ATVs) that resemble moon buggies to investigate "desert varnish"—thin coatings of metals and clays formed by colonies of microbes living on the inhospitable desert rocks. This project was Boston's primary scientific goal until she crashed the ATV on the first day and was confined to microscope work inside the hab with a couple of severely bruised or broken ribs.

Similar geological studies on Mars might reveal signs of life. The team also embarked on exploratory missions to a 2,000-foot (610-meter) high monolith northwest of Hanksville, called Factory Butte, navigating the treacherous canyons and valleys and travelling more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) to reach the site—further than any other ATV mission.

One of the most creative projects was ICoMP—the Interplanetary Collaboratory Music Project. The goal was to test communication by composing songs by collaborating with musicians outside the Habitat "on Earth."

"We chose music because you know immediately whether the collaboration is working," Snook said. While only three were originally slated for the experiment, all of the crew participated using it as a major stress release.

The team did consider the experience a fairly solid simulation. Issues that plague inhabitants of the international space station also affected the crew, Morphew said. "We didn't have all the tools we needed and we have to be very creative with what we had—we couldn't just take off to Radio Shack and pick up a few things," Snook said.

NASA's approach to Mars missions is "people on Earth and robots out there," said Jim Garvin, lead scientist for Mars Exploration at NASA headquarters. In the next few decades NASA intends to launch a slew of robot missions and eventually bring a little piece of Mars back to Earth. But a manned mission to Mars is probably decades away, Garvin said.

Burbank admitted that while he is keen for humans to visit Mars, "I'm not in quite as big a rush to get there myself. After two weeks in the desert station I was left with a profound urge to visit the Earth—a whole planet to be explored. And you don't even need a space suit."

Sam Burbank's Mars series airs this week on National Geographic Today.

National Geographic Today, at 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it. Go>>

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