Mission to Mars: A Scientist’s Tale

by Professor John Deaton, College of Aeronautics, Director and Chair of Human Factors Program
via Florida Tech Today

Yes, it’s true and I will admit it. I have always dreamed of being an astronaut, and I got close some years ago when I applied to the astronaut training program while an officer in the U.S. Navy. Got to the semi-finals, but someone else was selected. So when the opportunity came about to spend two weeks on Mars (simulation, of course), I grabbed the opportunity not really knowing what I was getting into. I told Tony Gannon at Space Florida (a friend with connections to the Mars Society, the sponsor of this experience) to put in a good word for me (to Dr. Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society), and within a few weeks, I was told I was selected to be part of Crew 102. I was to report to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah on March 26. I had mixed feelings, but in general, was very enthusiastic about being a part of an international crew of five others getting a taste of what it would be like living on the planet.

The MDRS is a small two-story building in a remote area of Utah, about four hours from Denver. It is run, as I mentioned earlier, by the nonprofit Mars Society. The habitat (or hab as we called it) was created to simulate the red planet and to serve as a test bed for scientists from all disciplines.

So starting on March 26, the 26-foot diameter building was my home until April 9. I shared it with five others, basically strangers, from around the world (Italy, Greece, Canada and, of course, the U.S.). My goal, as was that of the others, was to study what it would be like living on the planet Mars. My specific objective, being a psychologist, was to collect data focusing on human factors issues and group dynamics, including how well people perform in stressful environments like this. Specifically, I was interested in the experience’s effect on participants, including how they handle being in such close quarters with strangers for two weeks. My other goal, not to be understated, was to see if I could do it! Do I have the “right stuff” to be able to go two weeks in close quarters with strangers, getting little sleep, eating what is loosely defined as food (freeze dried), and living in relative isolation without much outside contact? How would I survive without the use of my iPhone? Actually, the idea of not getting email or not receiving phone calls all day was not all together a negative from my perspective.

So what was it like on Mars, you ask? Let me just say this … months ago I would have jumped at the chance to travel to Mars. But that was BEFORE I spent the two weeks at the MDRS. Obviously, I changed my tune. It was a lot harder than I expected, and I think it’s going to be an extremely difficult mission going to Mars.

For the first couple of days, I questioned why I was doing this. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was either too hot or too cold. I didn’t eat well (I lost 8 pounds; someone told me I should write a book and call it The Mars Diet) mainly because the food was freeze-dried and not very appetizing. I eventually lost my appetite (a bit scary). We certainly had no fresh food for the two weeks (I couldn’t wait to have a real salad once we completed the rotation). All of this produced a certain amount of anxiety (for me at least), and you have to adapt to it (all of us did to a certain extent). Sleeping quarters were smaller than a prison cell. A problem I had to deal with was a medical issue. I developed bacterial conjunctivitis (“pink eye” or eye infection). This necessitated breaking sim for a few hours to go to a clinic about two hours away to get the antibacterial drops. But this episode drove home an important point: The crew that goes to Mars will have medical issues. They’re not going to be able to get in the car and drive to Walgreens. Thus, a mini-pharmacy is going to have to be brought aboard the spacecraft to serve the crew for the trip as well as the sojourn on the planet. Not only that, but one of the crew will need to be experienced in surgery. What if a crew member has an appendicitis attack? A relatively simple operation, IF you know what you’re doing, and IF you have a sterile environment, and IF you have the proper equipment.

Leaving the hab to go on specific EVAs required that we wear a spacesuit. The bulky attire, complete with helmet, boots and gloves would take considerable time to put on, and it became quite hot inside the spacesuit after a few minutes of an EVA outside.

Conservation was important, as it would be on Mars. Water left over from washing dishes was used to flush the toilet (toilet rules: If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down). Showers were only permitted every four days and consisted of about a 1.5-minute “Navy shower” (water on, water off, soap on, water on, soap off, etc.).

My biggest surprise was how well everyone got along. We had a good leader, and he knew when to make the difficult decisions and when to go along with the crew consensus. We got to know each other quite well, and even keep in close contact today. I’ve had one crew member visit me in Orlando already, and most of the others planned to visit for the last shuttle launch. They stayed with me at my house; certainly more room than what we had at the hab!

So what did I learn, you say? Would I go to Mars? No, I don’t think I’m the right guy to go to Mars. However, I would go back to the hab again next year, if I could go with the same crew members. We bonded—there’s no doubt about that. I appreciate things more today than I did before. I also realize the first mission to Mars will be difficult, and selecting crew members will be a challenge. I suspect they will be young, perhaps single, no children, and highly educated (some with medical backgrounds and certainly engineering expertise).

The challenge in going to Mars will not be in getting there (we have the technology to do that today), but in how crew members interact, deal with medical issues and cope with the isolation. I’ll admit I’m too comfortable with life on Earth … now where did I put that salad dressing?

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