Liz Mitchell helped Jeniffer Johnson and James Veselka into their spacesuits. She helped them hoist on their “oxygen” tanks, then she helped them screw on their space helmets and gloves.
After Johnson and Veselka were dressed, they stepped into a simulated airlock, and from there stepped outside. The shelter from which they’ve emerged is bordered on the west by short, redrock cliffs. Dry, barren sandstone hills dominate the views to the east and south. Few plants grow on the wind-swept, sunbaked ground beneath their moon boots. It only takes a little effort to imagine that they’re astronauts on Mars.
Mitchell, Johnson and Veselka are three of six students from McLennan Texas Community College in Texas, spending two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station in Southern Utah.
The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is located about 20 miles northwest of Hanksville in Wayne County. The site was chosen specifically for its rocky, Mars-like barrenness. The MDRS is operated by the Mars Society, a nonprofit organization that wants to explore Mars and establish human settlements there.
The MDRS is open to research scientists, educators, university students, engineers and other professionals. It has served more than 700 individuals from 25 countries. Even NASA has sent teams to train there.
The station exists for two reasons, according to Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin: One mission is to get people excited about going to Mars, and the second is to help develop key knowledge needed to prepare for human Mars exploration.
The MDRS serves as a central element in support of studies of the technologies, strategies, architectural design and human factors involved in human missions to Mars, Zubrin said.
During the time that teams spend at the MDRS, they live in conditions matching life on a real Martian colony. A great deal of the research takes place outside, which means crews have to wear spacesuits any time they go outside. That includes donning space helmets, space boots and space gloves. They even wear a backpack that doesn’t contain anything, but its weight simulates the oxygen tanks that would be needed if they were on Mars.
“They try to do all their work and research in simulation,” said Charles Killian, CapCom coordinator for the Mars Society. “This increases the difficulty of what they’re trying to accomplish by an order of magnitude because they have heavy gloves on and so forth, but again, since one of their objectives is to develop tools and techniques that might help them on Mars, this is a valuable part of the experience.”
The Mars Society takes the Mars simulations at the MDRS very seriously. The whole purpose of it is to practice for life on Mars and the challenges it will present. They want the people they invite to their facility to take their roles seriously.
“This isn’t space camp,” Killian said. “This is a beta test for Mars habitation.”
The students and professionals who have the opportunity to spend a week at the MDRS appreciate that level of seriousness. They like knowing that what they’re doing and discovering may someday be used for future problem-solving on Mars.
“My time at the MDRS was a valuable experience not only on a professional level, but also a personal level,” said Johnson, a medical lab technician and student at McLennan Community College.
The experiences of the teams is equally important to the Mars Society, which gathers the data and other information from the teams.
“Every night between 7 and 9, we submit a report about the day’s events to the Mars Society,” Mitchell said, who served as the team leader for her group of six. “They want to know what worked, what didn’t work and why. They don’t mess around. We did something kind of wrong in one of our reports and they made us redo it.”
In addition to filing daily reports, the teams at the MDRS also file a summary report of their activities while on station at the conclusion of their rotation, Zubrin said. The Mars Society archives the reports and presentations it receives.
“By the time we go to Mars, a lot of the problems and challenges we may face there will have already been figured out here on Earth, thanks in a large part to the MDRS and the reports filed by its crews,” Zubrin said in an email.
The majority of the teams that visit the station include engineers, geologists, biologists and field researchers who do enquiry-based, hands-on learning. But the teams also often include medical researchers who study the health of people living under restricted conditions, and psychologists who observe and study people forced to live together in a close environment for a long period, which, Zubrin said, will be a key factor if humans are sent to Mars.
The MDRS consists of three buildings: The main building, simply called the “habitat,” is a 30-foot-tall cylindrical building with a conical top. It looks rather similar to the top 30 feet of a rocket. The site also contains an observatory, and a greenhouse where crews tend flats of vegetables they can use to supplement their diet of dried and canned food.
The main habitat consists of two levels. The bottom level has labs and tools with room to work. The upper level contains the kitchen, and three bedrooms, with two beds each. The habitat has a few small, windows that look out on southern Utah’s faux-Martian landscape.
The MDRS accommodates teams of six, which do a two-week rotation. Ten to 12 teams visit the MDRS each season. The season runs from late November to early May. The summer months are too hot. The Mars Society uses the off-season to make repairs and improvements to the habitat.
So why go to Mars? Don’t we have enough problems here on Earth, and wouldn’t our money, time and resources be better spent addressing them?
“Civilizations are like individuals,” Zubrin said. ”We grow when we’re challenged. We stagnate when we’re not. And a humans-to-Mars program would (be about) embracing challenge for our society, particularly for our youth. It would say to every young person: Learn your science and you can be an explorer or pioneer of new worlds.”
“And out of that challenge, we get millions of scientists, engineers, inventors, doctors, medical researchers, technological entrepreneurs. These are the kind of people that drive society forward. It’s a tremendously powerful investment in intellectual capital.”
The Mars Desert Research Station isn’t a fantasy camp for wannabe space explorers, but a serious endeavor for serious researchers.
The MDRS usually books teams of six or seven, but individuals with something to contribute will also be considered; they’ll be added to an existing team.