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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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