Crew 219, a team composed solely of Florida Tech Astrobiological Research and Education Society (ARES) students, spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah, in January.
The MDRS facility houses crews from around the globe for two-week periods to simulate what it would be like to live and work on the surface of Mars. Simulated astronauts cannot leave the confines of the station without donning spacesuits and may only use the tools on hand. Crews test various scientific, engineering and human-factors projects.
“The exploration of Mars has a myriad of challenges that will demand the greatest ingenuity by human explorers,” says Nathan Hadland, Crew 219 executive officer and Florida Tech’s ARES president. “To meet these challenges, STEM professionals use Mars analogs, like MDRS, to evaluate their procedures in a setting where challenges occur in real time.”
ARES is dedicated to providing students with scientific research opportunities regarding life beyond Earth’s boundaries and to conveying their research to the public.
“We aim to be an interdisciplinary collective of scholars excited about scientific research with majors ranging from aerospace engineering to marine biology,” Nathan says. He says the organization’s ultimate goal is “being the premier hub for astrobiology and space-exploration research for undergraduate students and to educate the public about the space sciences.”
ARES is responsible for a number of projects and outreach programs. It provides a place for young scholars to begin research and to connect with other passionate individuals, and the quality of work the members produce is unmatched.
This was not Nathan’s first mission to the MDRS. Last year, he and two other Crew 219 members, Hannah Blackburn and David Masaitis, were on Crew 205, which was part of the Mars Society’s International Emerging Space Leaders program.
The crew was composed of eight outstanding young professionals from five countries. During the mission, members rotated commanding roles to learn more about how different leadership styles operate in the harsh environment.
“Hannah, Dave and I went on this mission and returned with Crew 219 as the first all-Florida Tech crew,” Nathan says. “We have the intention of returning with an ARES crew every year, with a mission already planned and accepted for January of 2021.”
Crew 219 headed to the MDRS with a variety of scientific and engineering-related experiments to expand on current on-campus ARES research, including studying the biometrics data collected after extravehicular activities (EVAs), mitigating dust on optical mirrors for astronomical observations, performing astrophotography, observing the effects of cyanobacteria on regolith samples and studying the mineralogical composition of the MDRS area. The analysis of all their results are ongoing.
“We collected a significant amount of data, and I am proud of what we accomplished.” Nathan says.
Planning a mission to Mars requires significant logistical organization, fundraising and preparation. Navigating the MDRS environment is also physically arduous, so extensive physical preparation was required. The team spent more than six months planning and training for the mission. Members had to coordinate equipment and lab material shipment, lay out the timeline and objectives for the mission, acquire the necessary field gear and get the team to Utah.
“The relentless effort in preparation is a key factor to what resulted in a fantastically successful mission.”
One of the main, sometimes overlooked, challenges at the MDRS is the isolation and unavoidable contact with crewmates, which can have an adverse effect on morale. Although they’re, technically, still on earth, when crews are stationed at the MDRS, they feel detached from society.
Crew 219 overcame these challenges by using “the opportunity to disconnect and focus solely on science and the task at hand.”
“We had a few interpersonal issues, as some of our crew members had trouble adjusting to the harsh work environment, the altitude and the dryness.” Nathan says. However, due to the crew’s tight bond, conflicts were minimal.
During the mission, crew members awoke to radio news that their generator had failed during the night, and they lost nearly all power. They were forced to unplug everything and enact “safety mode” until the power returned to stable levels. The crew continually had to deal with pipes freezing in the night throughout the first week but developed a troubleshooting procedure to help future crews solve the problem.
“We also added additional insulation and heat tape we found to mitigate the freezing.”
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. As part of the preplanned timeline, crew members had a “day of no scheduled activities” (DONSA) at the midpoint of the mission. This time is a must for a successful mission completion, as it boosts team chemistry and morale and provides a well-deserved rest. For its DONSA, Crew 219 members wore Hawaiian shirts, made good food and played games.
Once the simulation was over, the crew had an opportunity to go outside in the dead of night to gaze up at the stars and the Milky Way.
“Some of my crewmates had never seen the Milky Way before, so it was a special moment—one which I will never forget.” Nathan says.
Nathan and his fellow Crew 219 researchers are inspired by the Apollo-era scientists, engineers and astronauts who paved the way for modern space exploration. They are passionate about exploring unknown and extreme environments and excited to be on the frontier of science.
They believe Mars is the next frontier—the next stop in our exploration of the cosmos—and that space travel has the ability to bring people together over a shared goal and to develop incredible technologies that can be used on Earth. Without this exploration, Crew 219 believes, “we will stagnate as a species and continue to become more divisive on Earth.”