Journal Entry | Mars Simulation in Utah Desert

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live on Mars? Well there is some serious research investigating it and I was lucky enough to become involved in a Mars simulation mission. The mission took place in the Utah high desert in January at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) through the Mars Society. The following is the first entry of a daily journal that I wrote as Crew Journalist (and artist) for CAPCOMM aka ‘mission control’. HeadStuff is publishing these journal entries over the next few weeks, but before we delve in, here’s some abbreviations we used at MDRS, an overview of our experiments, and some Mars facts worth remembering.

Crew 173 (that’s my crew) spent 14 Sols at the MDRS facility, located in the Utah high desert from Jan 14th-29th 2017. Our mission had 3 main objectives to complete:

  1. To 3D print a modular brick and investigate proof of concept using these bricks for building future homes on Mars;
  2. Conduct a number of astrological experiments using soil and crops. Michaela brought a spinach experiment for Slovakia, and Rick planted a number of seeds in the GreenHab which he monitored daily.
  3. Our last mission objective was to complete a number of outreach activities during our time at MDRS, this was my main mission goal and I spent my days with GoPros, a 360 camera, and my DSLR and voice recorder capturing content to share on social media to our followers.

Experiments took place in either the Science Dome or the GreenHab, which were exterior to the main Hab. The Hab or Habitat, is the main building at MDRS which houses the crew, containing a toilet, communal area, kitchen and state rooms. Each day, we communicated for a short window of 2 hours a day to CAPCOMM our mission support using very limited internet capabilities. We would report our daily activities, checks and would request permission to go on EVA’s the following day. CAPCOMM was our only link to the outside world while at MDRS just as it might be if humans move to Mars. We had to monitor our water usage, power and heat consumption, as well as check ATV vehicles and any other equipment necessary to our survival. We reported all this information to CAPCOMM each evening. We provided a number of reports daily: Journal report (published here), Sol summary, GreenHAB report, Operations Report, Health and Safety report, Science report and Commander report, plus at least 6 photos of our activities that day.

Some jargon:

EVA- extra vehicular activity- these are activities outside the HAB (habitat), used to collect samples, or perform operational checks etc. To complete an EVA you needed to leave the HAB, which meant that you were exposing yourself to the harsh Martian environment. An so we had to ‘suit-up’ in full space suit attire, including helmet, oxygen tank, heavy gloves, departing the HAB via the airlock. At least 2 crew members needed to stay in the HAB during an EVA, and they communicated with the EVA crew using 2 way radios. It would take at least 30 minutes to ‘suit-up’ and the suits were very heavy, cumbersome, and limited your movements considerably. EVA’s would typically last 2-3hrs. If you had to travel further than 300m from the HAB, you would use an ATV to get to your EVA destination. ATV refers to all terrain vehicle, and are similar to the Rovers used on the Moon.

A day on Earth is 24hours, and since it takes less than 24hrs for Mars to spin on its own axis, we use Sol to denote a day on Mars.

So it all starts on Sol 0 with this opening summary of the day. Hope you enjoy the Journals.

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 Greetings from Crew 173! We are a crew of five (for now, our 6th crewmate, Arnau Pons Lorente, a Spanish Aeronautical Engineer will be with us soon, but not for now)- our Commander Michaela Musilova from Slovakia, Executive Officer Idriss Sisaid from France, HSO Roy Naor from Israel, GreenHab Officer Rick Blake from Australia, and then my good self, Niamh Shaw your Irish Crew journalist.

We arrived yesterday afternoon to a lovely warm welcome from Crew 172 and their commander Ilaria. After our group photo outside the Hab, Ilaria and her crew gave us an extensive training session (Crew Engineer, Troy was especially awesome with his 3hrs of ‘Hab Top Tips’, thank you Troy!). Patrick cooked up a lovely meal of curried rice and vegetables and we shared with them a toast of sparkling apple juice in their ceremonial bowls in honour of the completion of their mission. We all bedded down for the night and while it was pretty snug, we had a reasonably good nights sleep on the communal area floor (well, for those of us on the inflatable beds that didn’t deflate anyway!).

Crew 172 Mars Desert Research Station
Sending Crew 172 off in style

At 7.30am on Sol 0, we waved goodbye to Crew 172 and we began our time on Mars in earnest. The last thing Ilaria said to us was that our toilet had become blocked overnight. Little did we know in that moment the impact those words would have on our first day here.

It rained quite heavily overnight, so the terrain outside is very muddy and we were confined to indoor duties for the day. After unpacking food supplies and selecting our state room, we had our first breakfast of oatmeal, Cheerios, and dried apple, washed down with an assortment of tea, coffee and for some, nutritious servings of Tang which is a drink with a long history with Space. We worked on our cooking and cleaning schedule for the mission, which includes Pancake breakfast duties (for special days including my Dad’s birthday tomorrow, Roys mothers birthday on the 24th and Australia Day on the 26th) and preparing special meals of our countries on alternate evenings (we’re calling these Culture dinners).

And we began to tackle our first major objective of the mission- getting the toilet unblocked. Henceforth referred to as ‘Poopgate’.

I made a somewhat successful lunch (a hearty serving of gumbo and brown rice) and then we talked a lot about ‘Poopgate’ and the various permutations and combinations of flushing and plunging and alternative pooping methodologies…

Roy and Idriss ventured outside and pumped the remaining water in to the main water reservoir, emptying both tanks on the trailer. As I write this, they are recounting enthusiastically their adventures in learning how to use the pump (without electrocuting themselves) and acclimatising to the cold and wet muddy weather. It was a big moment for them, for they claim that their relationship was found in that moment working together on this new daily task.

‘Poopgate’ continued throughout the day and Roy (who has worked as a plumber in his native Israel) assessed the septic tank and concluded that the issue with the toilet is attributable to a full septic tank rather than an ‘at source’ problem. And so we ceased our incessant flushing and plunging. We agreed for the foreseeable future, to poop in plastic bags and disposing of the biohazards material in a dedicated refuse sack (to be burnt at a later date when the rain stops and ‘Poopgate’ has been resolved). We discussed and shared our own methods of ‘pooping in a bag’. It was an extensive discussion but believe that we have found the optimum solution, given the circumstances.

Crew 173 Mars Desert Research Station
Left: Michaela prepares spinach experiment ; Right: Roy & Idriss set up 3D printer

Idriss and Roy worked on setting up the 3d printer, but discovered that the filament spools didn’t work. They then tried to heat up the extruder to force the filament to go out, but just like ‘Poopgate’ the filament remains clogged in the printer. They are currently working on solution.

We are still figuring out how to optimise our limited pooping options. Trial and error is the general consensus.

Rick monitored hourly temperatures of the GreenHab, outside, the lower floor of the Hab and the grow tent in the GreenHab. He also took an inventory of our spices. He’s also on dinner duty, he’s baking bread. Its looking very promising and may inherit the title ‘The Breadmaker’ if successful. Michaela re-planted her spinach seeds in the bespoke apparatus she has brought, designed by her students in Slovakia.

Our first CAPCOM is imminent and we are looking forward to an evening of settling in to our new home for the next 2 weeks on Mars as ‘Poopgate’ continues.

Crew 173 signing off.

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