First Person: What I’m Learning on a Simulated Mars Mission

By Jim Urquhart for National Geographic

Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar examined, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked, and even blasted. Still to come: Mars being stepped on.”—Buzz Aldrin

In a remote stretch of Utah desert, five scientific researchers and one journalist, myself, came together this month at a highway junction in the small town of Hanksville, Utah, to form what is known as Crew 138 at the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station.

The Mars Desert Research Station serves as an analog to the geography and geology of the red planet. Team members traveled from three continents to spend two weeks living and working in a simulation of a manned expedition to Mars.

As humanity seeks to slip the bonds of Earth, research facilities around the globe are exploring how people might live and work on Mars. Much like the missions to the moon and the International Space Station, the research is done well in advance of any mission, in environments on Earth that can somewhat simulate what future explorers may encounter.


Mars Desert Research Station
Members of Crew 138 walk across the desert in their simulated space suits at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah. Credit: Jim Urquhart


Crews of scientists and researchers have been traveling to the southern Utah desert for more than ten years to explore and study how to live and work on Mars. Here they have studied geology, biology, engineering, and navigation, among other subjects. We are (no surprise) the 138th crew serving at the station.

If you are going to slap six people together in tight, confined spaces for long periods of time and cut them off from the world, past expeditions have shown that those six people must be able to work together, no matter their background or life experience.


The Habitat that houses the living quarters for Crew 138 at the Mars Desert Research Station
The Habitat houses Crew 138’s living quarters at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah. Credit: Jim Urquhart


On the mission, the international team is working on in-the-field mapping, collecting and analyzing rock samples, measuring the payoff from exercise, and taking blood samples to monitor crew health. The team is working in mock space suits and testing work protocols indoors and outside.

The first days were largely spent learning to live and work in the Habitat, which is a round two-story structure that measures about 25 feet across.

Members of Crew 138 come together for a nightly meal at the Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah. Photo by Jim Urquhart
Members of Crew 138 come together for a nightly meal at the Mars Desert Research Station. Credit: Jim Urquhart

After the crew enters full simulation, the Habitat contains all the food and water we need, as well as work and sleep quarters.

Unlike many of the crews that have come before them, Crew 138 comprises independent researchers who never met in person before the mission. The others tend to come as teams from universities with a related focus of study and have worked with each other in the academic setting.

All crews have to complete their research in the confines of the Mars Society’s simulation operational guidelines. But as independents, this crew has other challenges, too. We have had to quickly get to know each other, and successfully form a team working in our assigned roles. One common bond has been food. We have so far enjoyed bacon and meatballs with pasta and homemade sauce. Luckily no one is a vegetarian or vegan, which could have thrown a wrench into the food plans. In a dire situation, that member would probably be eaten first.

Another source of common ground: enduring the nightly mission reports that have to be sent to the Mars Society, whose volunteers serve as “mission control” during the field season. These reports allow mission control to monitor the progress of the mission and the general health and safety of the crew.

Crew 138 walks across the desert.
Crew members walk in their simulated space suits at the Mars Desert Research Station. Credit: Jim Urquhart

Some of the best team-building moments came when we played the card game Cards Against Humanity, left by a previous crew. It has also served as an American culture tutorial for crew member Avid Roman-Gonzalez, with other members gladly providing explanations, diagrams, and pantomimes to explain some of the phrases in the game’s cards.

Crew members on this mission, which ends March 30, include:

– Jamie Guined of Houston, Texas, is the crew commander. She is assessing the viability of incorporating exercise countermeasures into small closed environments such as the Mars Desert Research Station.

– Avid Roman-Gonzalez, Ph.D., of Peru, is executive and GreenHab officer (GreenHab is the greenhouse for growing food). He is studying the performance of electrical components to be used in satellites on space missions.

– Bechara Saab, Ph.D., of Zurich, Switzerland, is the crew biologist and health and safety officer. He is testing the logistical requirements to examine potential means to offset muscular and cognitive fatigue following strenuous activities in a Mars-like setting.

– Johanna Hoyt of Bakersfield, California, is the crew geologist. She is evaluating the resolution of remotely sensed geologic mapping based on Google Earth images.

– Jay Berger of Houston, Texas, is the crew engineer. He is studying EVA operations to develop techniques to improve efficiency for Martian exploration.

– I’m from Salt Lake City, Utah, and am a journalist blogging for National Geographic.

This crew has had many days of operating in simulation, conducting research, and living in tight quarters. Eating together every night and discussing the day behind us and the one ahead, as well as our willingness to laugh and to accept the living situation in simulation, seems to keep us together.

And after all, this is just a simulation meant to provide research opportunities. We can have contact with the outside world via satellite Internet, we have fresh food, we have a healthy supply of running water, and at the end of the two weeks we can all return to our homes and loved ones.

But we all know a manned mission to Mars has the potential to be a one-way trip into the unknown, where you would have to say your final goodbyes to your loved ones while your heart still has plenty of beats in it and plenty of love to express.

Orion over the Habitat
The constellation Orion rises over the Habitat. Credit: Jim Urquhart


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