While the space related discussion is only starting to heat up over the latest proposed NASA direction and budget for 2011, scientific work doesn't cease, and so last Thursday I went to see a piece of it with my own eyes. I took my just-turned-nine twin boys on a little adventure - we drove seven hours to Hanksville UT. The purpose of this somewhat long trip over the continental divide was to visit the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) and meet its 89th crew - Brian, Carla, Darrel, Kiri, Luis and Mike. I've been in contact with Brian for the last several months ever since I stumbled on his blog, and this was an opportunity to meet him in person as well as get an insiders look at what it means to simulate suggested life on an early mission to Mars.
Hanksville is a small place. How small? According to Wikipedia, about 203 people small. From the little I've seen, it is a quiet place in the midst of amazing views and parks, and the closest neighbor of MDRS. My boys and I slept at the only AAA-listed motel in town, which was surprisingly accommodating and enjoyable. In the morning, after having a good old American breakfast of eggs, hash browns, sausage and bacon and finding a yard full of scrap metal statues, I met Brian and Mike next to a local store, from which they took me and the twins to MDRS inside the "pressurized rover", or as some would call it here on Earth, an SUV. The only way to MDRS is on several miles of off-road trail, that as green as my Toyota Prius may be, if I took it there I might have had to rename it to "Spirit" and turn it into a stationary research facility... As the trail twists and turns disconnecting from civilization becomes complete and after one last bend, MDRS is revealed. If it weren't for the snow, the terrain and lack of any other artificial buildings makes for a very compelling extra terrestrial view, even more so like Mars due to the red rock formations.
Unlike NASA mission crews, who train together for about two years and know each-other extremely well before actually embarking on a mission, MDRS crews only have superficial communication before going on their mission. It was obvious and surprising right from the moment we arrived how well these people sharing a very small space for two weeks were collaborating and helping each-other any way they could, actively going beyond their self proclaimed mission duties to improve the entire crew life. Darrel, for example, not only fixed the station shower and hot water, but also collaborated with Luis to invent a system to recycle shower water, which will potentially enable daily showers, a huge improvement in this environment. Carla, as the rest of the crew attested to, was able to cook amazing dishes and cakes from scarce ingredients, and commented that it was only fair for the ones not going on an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) to make the Hab more hospitable upon the return of those coming back. Even us three outsiders felt at home in the cylindrical habitat with small round portholes thanks to the cozy feeling its temporary residents induced.
My boys and I tried to be as little disruptive as possible, observing what was going on but at the same time enjoying the amazing hospitality and pride the crew had in what they were doing. Right when we came, Kiri, Darrel and Mike were preparing for an EVA. The MDRS has front and back "airlocks" to simulate how preparation and return from an EVA would be like. After suiting up in simulation suites that are not air-pressurized but are just as cumbersome as the real astronaut suits, the crew needs to spend five minutes in the airlock for it to be "depressurized". This is but one example how protocol is diligently followed to make the experience as authentic as possible and advance preparation to real Mars as much as possible. During EVAs, the outside and inside crew maintain radio connection and the EVA gets logged on GPS. Evidently, GPS or any other location pinpointing technology will not be available on early missions to Mars, but since missions on MDRS are short it's important to maintain research and work continuity. GPS logs and geotagged images allow future crews to build on what was already done by prior crews.
MDRS-89 accomplished a lot in their short two-week mission. Following the MDRS blog, Brian's blog and Mike's blog and throughout our visit it was clear none of the crew members came to rest. They completed twenty EVAs (see the amazingly detailed logs and imagery for EVAs 1-10 and 11-20), numerous experiments and upgrades to the Hab. I was curious to know what was unique about MDRS-89 in comparison to the previous 88 missions. Brian told me about the unique seismic experiment that was never done on MDRS. Also unique was the recycling shower upgrade to MDRS, geotagging software Kiri created to help correlating pictures of past and future MDRS missions, the computerized EVA logging and even the first ever Jazzercise session at MDRS, documented on this very funny video. You can see all four MDRS-89 videos here (the other three showing a glimpse of some of the EVAs of MDRS-89).
The bios of the MDRS-89 crew are available online and I won't repeat them. Suffice to say they are all obviously very capable and driven individuals. Five of the six crew members applied to NASA or the ESA in order to become astronauts, and four went very far in the process. All of them were very committed to this specific mission and to human space exploration in general. I wouldn't be surprised to see them selected to be astronauts in the future. When asked what they got personally from the experience, Kiri told me she now has a first-hand understanding on how hard it is to conduct a human exploration mission. Darrel also noted how much work there is in maintaining such a facility. For Mike, it was the realization of how to live in small quarters with several people, and the first experience with a radio telescope. Since we visited them on their final full day in MDRS, it was evident that they all got great satisfaction to have done this - when I asked them whether they would do this again I got a resounding YES. The same response came when I asked whether they will stay in touch.
As we were brought "back to Earth" and got into our own vessel that would carry us home for the following seven hours, we were happy to have gone through the adventure and at least I was imagining how wonderful it would be if during my lifetime an actual mission to Mars would take place. Some major advancements will first need to be made to get there, but places like MDRS and motivated crews like MDRS-89 definitely help to make it happen.