It’s been three weeks since I’ve returned to “Earth” from my adventures at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) I’ve spoken to many people about my mission there, and I’ve had some time to internalize my own thoughts and feelings. It’s be the digestion of those feelings that have taken up a lot of my head space recently and I wanted to share those thoughts with you. Writing things down have a way of clarifying my internal monologue.
Being on a mission at The MDRS has been a goal of mine for years. I’ve read articles about the missions and read the biographies of those who have gone. I idolized those individuals who had the opportunity to participate in a Martian Analogue mission. I’m still processing what it means to counted among the people who I’ve sought to be with for so long. This introspective change has been difficult, especially when viewed through the lens of my experience. In essence I am now the expert I wanted to become, and I have to define what that means to me.
The crew was by far the best part of my experience. It is always a joy to spend time with those who share your passion and make an effort to enable you in your own endeavors. I constantly suffer from impostor syndrome and it was amplified by this exemplary crew. Not only was the crew extremely capable, but they were a joy to work with. Listening to their stories and learning from their experiences was the most valuable part of the mission for me.
I had never met any of them before the mission, so I was a bit anxious as to how our interactions would pan out. My flight was delayed, and I arrived at the hotel at around 2am. We had two rooms, a boys room and a girls room. Ryan, our commander, had texted me the room number and had gone to sleep.
Passing out. I’ll get up to open the door when you knock. You can crash in the 1st bed with me I don’t care.
Right away, I knew I had found my people. They were all about the mission and doing what needs to be done. Those who are squeamish or shy won’t last long in a Mars simulation, let alone an actual mission. Knowing that put me at ease.
The crew quickly grew into a small family. In our small space, we had to interact directly with one another and rapidly became accustomed to each other. Over a dinner of freeze dried meats and veg with rice we would discus space policy, international cooperation, our local Mars advocacy efforts, and who just farted. We became like siblings and that provided the opportunity to communicate openly and vulnerably with each other. This allowed us to really understand each other and operate more efficiently.
Touch became an important communication tool as a necessity; a tool that is absent from a normal working space. You had to put a hand on someone back to let them know you were behind reaching for a dish, or helping someone buckle their EVA suit up. This way of operating reminded my of time in the military, where you trusted those around you, and relied on them for your survival. It’s a good feeling.
Going out in the field was a surreal experience. In the simulation, you can’t go outside unless you are wearing an EVA suit. These are backpacks with helmets that are used to simulate a space suit when you are outside. They provide a small amount of airflow to remove C02 and condensation in the helmet. They also have the distinct effect of removing you from the environment.
When you are in an EVA suit, you can’t feel the wind, you can’t hear very well, and you have limited vision. The bulky back back restricts your movement and changes your center of gravity. Your sense are telling you that you are in an alien environment. You can begin to change your cognitive frame of reference, and you begin to believe you are on Mars. This is important, because then you start to internalize your own feelings about being on Mars.
You know it’s fake, but what if it wasn’t? That’s the question you start to answer by imagining yourself there, and analyzing your feelings.
I felt fantastic.
I was on Mars. I was there with an amazing crew. I was waking up every day with the singular purpose of exploring, and maintaining the infrastructure to continue to explore. It was an invigorating feeling, and I can’t wait to feel that way again.
The facility is of course, not on Mars. We didn’t have real suits, the air wasn’t actually toxic, and the Hab couldn’t actually fly though space and land on Mars. The preparation to go outside was actually less than working on an Oil Sands site in the winter time. While I knew the infrastructure would be far from mission ready, it was disheartening to see there was no actual flight hardware or system monitoring that would add to the realism of the simulation. Reading past reports, it was clear that the functionality of the MDRS has declined in the past decade. It felt like I was meeting my heroes, and they had flaws I didn’t even consider.
Getting people to Mars requires our test sites to increase in operability, not decrease. Here are a few of the issues I found while doing an engineering survey:
- Radio communication in the field has a very short range due to the terrain. The repeater broke, and has not been replaced.
- Water consumption is monitored by eyeballing the tank level, and could easily be automated. The same with energy consumption.
- The greenhouse could be optimized to provide salads and herbs to the crew.
- The EVA suits already have a large 12V battery in them, and the suits could be outfitted with location and crew health sensors.
The MDRS it’s self has a huge potential to gather data that could be used for research purposes and provide a more in depth simulation. As an engineer, that’s what I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, the control systems in the Hab were:
- Solar Power: Control not setup, Generator to be turned on manually when dusk approaches.
- Water Tank: Visually check tank, manually turn switch to fill.
- Furnace: Household thermostat, do not touch.
- Hot Water Heater: Propane on demand, do not touch.
No automation, and very little opperunity to do data collection. No way to build infrastructure knowledge in order to increase the depth of the simulation for future missions.
As I’ve generally found in my life, really ugly problems come from systemic issues. I only had limited exposure to the management of the MDRS, but I believe the lack of technical expertise dealing with the MDRS on a day to day and mission to mission basis is accelerating the deterioration of the facility. Myself and the crew got into several disagreements with Mission Support during the mission around technical issues. The crews that usually occupies MDRS are around the Undergrad level, and my fear is that they just do what they are told. This would create many of the unsafe conditions that I found, and there could be many more. When Crew 188 began investigating the infrastructure of MDRS, we got push back from Mission Support.
- The 1000 gal propane tank gauge is a percent gauge, but Mission Support is reading it in PSI. This creates confusion and a misunderstanding of how much fuel is left.
- I found several damaged extension cords, including one that had their grounding plug cut.
- I suggested moving the electric ATV’s to a location that would not require backing up when leaving the Hab, but this was overruled.
These minor issues display a misunderstanding of technical safety that could result in a serious incident at the MDRS, and that is extremely worrisome. During the MDRS 188 mission there was a propane leak in the Hab, causing a direct risk to our crew. The leak was never fully investigated during our stay, and Mission Support’s concern over this issue varied wildly depending who we were talking to. The responses from Mission Support swung from “evacuate immediately” to “you are imagining things”. It became clear there were no established procedures or technical manuals to follow in a situation like this. If there had been proper monitors and automatic systems in place, this issue would have been caught long before it became a risk to the crew. Unfortunately, adding on that capability to the MDRS does not seem to be a priority.
Analog missions are dangerous. The crew is isolated and stressed. They are in an unfamiliar environment and require proper technical support to be effective and safe. This will be a critical part of Martian analog missions as the complexity grows. Crew safety will become more and more important as the analog missions become more complex. Not long after our mission, there was an incident at the HI-SEAS where an accident halted the mission. Safety concerns aren’t limited to the MDRS. This is an issue that all analogue sites need to deal with.
I am very happy that I was able to be a part of MDRS 188. I was able to meet outstanding people who share my passion for Mars and space exploration. The relationships that were forged have strengthened my resolve and widened my Mars community. I’m looking at the negative parts of my experience as an opportunity to grow. Getting to Mars is going to take a lot of people and a lot of effort, and we need to start working together if we are ever going to achieve our goals.