Some of you may know (from my previous post) that a few months ago I was selected to take part in a two-week expedition as an analogue astronaut to the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Utah desert. Late December, our crew completed this expedition and arrived back on Earth and it was truly an out-of-this-world experience!
The purpose of the MDRS is to conduct Earth-based research pursuing the technology, operations, and science required for developing human space exploration and the eventual colonisation of Mars.
Despite only having been there for two weeks, I partook in multiple projects including: a fatigue study on the effects on human performance of a Martian shifted day; a geological study to better understand whether satellite and drone data can effectively predict surface geomorphology and geochemistry; development of techniques for CPR and anaesthesia for long duration space missions; effective exercise using equipment that minimises mass; and developing communication methodologies for dealing with up to 20 minute time delays each way on Martian voyages. Alongside the projects unique to our mission, there were also the routine tasks like the maintenance of the Hab (the building where we lived) and the engineering checks of the facility’s numerous systems.
Extra Vehicular Activity
As Science and EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) Officer, my main responsibility was to oversee the Matryoshka geological research project. The initial tasks were to train the other members of the crew who would be accompanying me during these EVAs to conduct basic geological field observations and carry out correct sample collection processes. Mapping refinements also had to be made once we were on-site and had a clearer idea of the features in the local environment, the capabilities of the vehicles, and the restrictions that applied to venturing into the unknown. With the training, maps, tools, and our spacesuits donned, we were ready to go out onto the “Martian” terrain and carry out our research.
During our series of EVAs, we visited eight separate sites showing interesting geomorphological and geochemical features. These sites were predetermined by the PI of the project beforehand by using topographical maps and satellite data. Samples were collected amounting to around 10 kg and were safely stored, wrapped, and shipped back to the University of Oxford for analysis. Whilst there, brief and detailed field observations were also taken to record what was seen on site.
Numerous tasks were also completed in the Hab itself; not all the research was focussed on EVAs. One project that pervaded our two-week stay was the fatigue study. We worked to a Martian day which is 40 minutes longer than the Terran day. Although the gradual time shifting didn’t affect performance too noticeably, in order to maximise on daylight hours during our stay at MDRS, our first day started at 4 am. The two images below capture the feeling on the first day quite appropriately!
Crew Medic, Dr Sczepaniak, had several other projects that he was working on too that we participated in. He gave us all training on how to perform emergency anaesthesia of the sciatic nerve. This involved using a simple ballistics gel block trainer to practice horizontal needle insertion using the ultrasound scanner as a guide, and then the final test was performed on a complex gel block trainer which a sciatic nerve analogue highlighting the bifurcation of the nerve that was to be targeted with the needle for the successful anaesthesia of the patient.
Another task was to devise techniques to perform CPR in microgravity. Since there is no Earth-like gravity, regular chest compressions in microgravity would mean that you’d get pushed away from the patient with each compression (thanks Newton, and your Third Law!) So we had to devise our own modifications to the usual CPR technique to adapt it to low gravity situations.
For mass and space saving, a flat packed bike and deflated basketball were initially taken to the Hab to form our exercise apparatus. Once there the bike was assembled by crew to form the cardiovascular portion of the exercise regime. For the resistance portion, the basketball was filled in-situ with dried Martian dirt. This actually created a very good medicine ball weighing around 9 kg to be used for weights based exercise alongside bodyweight exercises too to form a holistic daily exercise regime.
Another regular activity that was performed by those with the completed Mars Society Astronomy training prerequisite was the use of the Musk Solar Observatory. Equipped with a telescope capable of viewing the sun, it was possible on occasion to make out interesting features like prominences and sunspots.
The Mars Society also provides the crew with set tasks that must be completed during their stay. Engineering maintenance is one of the crucial ones. Without effective life support systems, life on Mars won’t be life for long. The same applied to life in the Utah desert. Checking the hybrid diesel-solar power station daily was a priority. This was a near-daily struggle for our crew due to preexisting faults in the system, it failed regularly during our stay. So much so that one of the days we were asked to leave the Hab overnight for a hotel in Hanksville as it was deemed too risky by the Mars Society to let us stay in a Hab with no power (read: very cold!) overnight. Thankfully, we were able to diagnose the issue and temporarily solve it such that we could stay in the Hab for the duration of our mission.
Another extremely important life support system is the water system. Daily checks on the pump and the water levels were made to ensure we had sufficient water to maintain ourselves during dry and physically exhausting days in the desert. Due to the power issue aforementioned, the water pipes actually froze overnight. This meant that we had no access to water for a day. Thankfully, due to Commander Tom’s resourcefulness, we were prepared and had bottles for an emergency water supply. Once the power was back on, we were able to connect the electrical pipe heater to ensure it didn’t freeze again.
Other routine tasks included maintaining the GreenHab which is the facility where all the plants are grown, and the spacesuits in the EVA preparation room to ensure they are all functional and venting air effectively for long duration EVAs. Our EVAs typically lasted up to 4 hours, and a broken air vent is a cause to abort and with only two weeks to complete our scientific mission, this could not be afforded, so proper maintenance was crucial.
Life in the Hab
The external surroundings were amazingly beautiful and the work we were doing as analogue astronauts was similar to that which could be done by future astronauts journeying to Mars. However, this doesn’t mean everything was shiny and glamorous! Life in the Hab included daily exercise, cooking with freeze dried ingredients, and ensuring cleanliness and hygiene in a low-water environment.
The Sky at Night
One of my personal highlights during my stay at the MDRS was seeing the Milky Way band for the very first time! Never have I seen a sky so dark that it was bright with so many stars. Constellations that I’d seen and read about in books growing up were as clearly visible in the night sky as they were on the pages in my books. We spent as many hours during the night staring up at the night sky, as we did during the day staring down at the geology of the desert. This is definitely one of things that will always stay with me from the mission and something I will miss being back in the cities of England.
I had an absolutely amazing time during my stay at the MDRS, and I owe most of it to the amazing crew I was with. With long 16 hour days and living in such close proximity, I was wary about who the people with me would be and how our interactions might be. Luckily, they were all needless worries and my fellow crewmembers made the stay exponentially more enjoyable, especially with the wide variety of boardgames played!
This wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination, an easy mission with no challenges. We faced multiple adversities including: power failures, water pipes freezing, getting kicked out of the Hab, and many others that would be too long to write about here and take away from the wonderful experience that I had. This is another reason I am proud of the crew I was with, as we all managed to pull together in the worst of times to overcome these obstacles and that too, with humour.
The reason we accomplished as much as we did during our stay was manyfold: the fact that we were standing on the shoulders of the previous 183 crews before us; the financial and moral support of the various individuals and organisations involved in our mission; the academic contributions of the researchers who contributed to the mission proposal; and last but not least, Shannon Rupert and the Mars Society who brought us all together and supported us incessantly during our two-week stay at MDRS.
Ad astra, per ardua
Read our official End of Mission Summary Report: Crew 184 Mission Summary