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Thursday, April 21, 2005 04:53 pm

One time, at Mars camp

The Mars nuts of the Mars Society cobbled together $300,000 to build the habitation capsule as a means of reproducing likely conditions on the red planet.

Here’s a little-known fact about life on Mars: It smells. And not of jasmine and lavender, either. It smells of socks and urine and onions and armpits.

I know this because today is my last day of a two-week stay on the closest approximation to a Martian habitat that exists on Earth — the Mars Desert Research Station, in the vast red and rocky wilderness of southern Utah. About four hours south of Salt Lake City, near the flyspeck town of Hanksville, an unmarked track leads into an extraordinary desert, an ocean bed roughly 85 million years dry. Drive another 10 lurching minutes through the dunes and you’ll find us in a cute white thimble of a place, perched improbably upright in the barren landscape.

For three years now, a stream of scientists and sundry nerds (NASA alumni among them) has traveled here from all over the world to live under Mars conditions in teams of six for two weeks at a time. The idea is to test-run the practicalities of the Martian lifestyle, both physical and psychological. We want to discover what work can actually be done in spacesuits. What tools do you need? How do crew members cope with confinement? That sort of thing. So to that end, I and five others have been playing a dedicated game of astronauts — we wear spacesuits when we go outside, we ration water (one shower per week), we rove about on Mars-style buggies and take our orders each morning from Mission Control in Colorado.

We also break for cigarettes now and again, without our spacesuits, which would be unthinkable on Mars — you’d explode, suffocate, and freeze to death all at once. Besides, your cigarette wouldn’t light. And on Mars you couldn’t just pop to the shops if you ran out of cheese. But we did, once. In our spacesuits and everything. You should have seen the face of the cashier when we strolled in, saying, “Check. Cheddar located on aisle five. Sliced or block, over?” She wasn’t amused. Every two weeks a fresh batch of giggling nerds come bounding through her shop, waving and grinning inside their helmets, and this morning she was in no mood. She just dumped our change on the counter.

“Receipt’s in the bag,” she said.

There is a serious side to all this, though. Since the MDRS was built in February 2002, the challenge of captivity and exploring a red wilderness in spacesuits has already yielded all kinds of pointers for future Mars missions. They range from the grand, such as “Exploration is physical, so we must use artificial gravity in the spaceship on the way over” (zero gravity tends to waste the muscles), to the relatively mundane, such as “Bring a breadmaker — the smell is good for morale.” To the last point, however, I would add that we’ve baked a fresh loaf every day and it hasn’t been nearly enough to combat the kind of festering space funk I’m talking about. You can’t just open the window — the windows don’t open on Mars — and last night we ate three-bean chili, so you do the math. Even by recycling our kitchen and sink water to flush with, the rationing is strict — “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” And soiled wipings go in the trash because they tend to clog up the U-bend. Multiply this effect by six people over two weeks, and you’re getting the picture. Future Marsonauts, take heed — no matter how cosmic your voyage or how giant your leaps, they will be accompanied by the whiff of stale flatulence.

That said, the hab (habitation capsule) is a tribute to the ingenuity and dedication of Mars nuts. The domed two-story cylinder on landing stilts, built to house six — in a space 27 feet across — was constructed by the Mars Society over one bitterly cold Christmas holiday for the bargain sum of $300,000, cobbled from sponsors and membership dues. Its design is such that it might feasibly be a component of the most realistic humans-on-Mars proposal in recent years — a scheme called Mars Direct, which resuscitated the Mars program back when George H.W. Bush was president. In those days, the plan for human beings on Mars involved a lengthy stopover at a giant space station and cost so much ($450 billion) that it threatened to sink the very notion. So a band of believers, sensing a crisis, swiftly proposed that a leaner, cheaper, six-man mission fly there directly in seven months.

Once there, the crew would harness 19th-century chemistry to convert Mars’ atmosphere into rocket propellant — which would both refuel the rocket for the return leg and provide energy for the generators. The crew would then spend two whole years investigating the red planet before coming home.

The details of Mars Direct are best laid out in the 1996 book The Case for Mars by Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, a sometime rocket scientist turned full-time author and lobbyist. He reckons that we could have humans on Mars by 2020, and MDRS is one of two research laboratories he has built in anticipation. The other is near Resolute Bay, in the Canadian Arctic, which is exactly as cold as it sounds, so Zubrin suggests that I join an MDRS crew instead. This is all his idea. He says, “We’ve never had a journalist actually join a crew before. Just one question: Are you mechanically minded at all? Because in space you need people who can fix things.” I confess that I can barely fix dinner without a manual, so he assigns me the task of keeping a daily journal. “All great explorers keep a journal,” he says. “That’s an important job, too.”

It’s nice that he says “important” but I’m not kidding myself here. When the generator blows up and we lose our satellite signal, no one yells, “Quick, get the journalist!”, just as you’ll never hear the line “Can anyone on this plane write a headline with a pun?” (How about “Boeing, Going, Gone”?)

Luckily, my fellow crew members are no slouches. These are dedicated Mars fans and no fools. Take Georgi, for instance, a precociously bright Bulgarian architect from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose thesis A Permanent Settlement on Mars became the central project of our mission. At 27, Georgi has amassed two master’s degrees. He’s also a big fan of Daft Punk and brandy. His best friend on the trip is Sandy, 23, a Canadian with a master’s in geology who is both the only woman and the fastest buggy driver. By the end, Georgi and Sandy are giving each other backrubs, which makes a few of the older crew members a little nervous.

Not Richard, though. This 60-year-old agronomist may be the most senior, but ever since his flower-power days in San Francisco he has made a lifelong study of psychoactive plants. “I’m a connoisseur of highs,” he tells me before presenting me with a fossil. “You want cosmic? This is a billion years old!”

The most indispensable member of the team, however, is James, 35, a soft-spoken computer scientist from Texas. Quietly and without fuss he has mended our air packs, radios, the generator, the plumbing, and the heating, and he has kept our Internet connection alive through the dust storms. For a man who lives with eight cats and chain-smokes Marlboro 100s, he’s as close to astronaut material as you’ll find in crew 22. By rights, he should have been commander, but instead we are saddled with John, 52, the least popular man on the planet — but more about him later.

First, the spacesuits. Every day we have to clean and climb into these heavy canvas jumpsuits based loosely on the design of the Apollo lunar outfit. They’re not quite the real thing, all hermetic, pressurized, and fitted with penis catheters, but they’re close enough. They have the desired effect of rendering you as limber as the Tin Man and as dexterous as a bear with mittens. Getting dressed is a proper rigmarole, not to be attempted alone. First you climb in, give yourself a wedgie, and pirouette as a crewmate wraps your waist with duct tape as an ad hoc belt. The earpieces have a habit of falling out, so more duct tape there, and remember to wipe the inside of your helmet with dish soap to prevent misting. Real astronauts use dish soap, too, but not too much — otherwise the helmet fills with gunk and bubbles.

The buggies are the best part of living on Mars — ask anyone. My fondest memories will involve tearing through the desert with Georgi and Sandy, armed only with a topographic map, a digital camera, and a full tank of gas. For hours we roar toward a magnificent Martian horizon, diminishing brilliantly into specks. After a few miles we lose radio contact with the hab, so it’s just us and the landscape, getting lost, getting stuck in crevices, tipping over now and again. Having a blast, in other words.

Like proper explorers, we plot our route as we go, flagging buttes, canyons, and passes with homemade signposts marked “Copernicus,” “Kepler,” and “Sagan.” It seems odd that the first 21 crews didn’t take this basic step to make their brave new world navigable, but having driven back to the hab past our handiwork, I understand why Mission Support was slow to sanction the project — they wanted to preserve the virginity of fake Mars so that future crews might also taste the illusion that they are the first here.

The longer we’ve stayed, the more MDRS has felt like a Mars-themed holiday camp. With free lodging and food, all-terrain buggies, and a desert on our doorstep, Club Mars allows enthusiasts to play at being space explorers while actually contributing, in a small way, to the dream of human beings on Mars. No phones ring here; there is no TV. Our earthly frettings about rent and bills recede with every passing day. And in the evenings, we have these spirited debates with fellow Mars fans about things such as space tourism and the X Prize. Usually John and Georgi go head to head over dinner, particularly once the beer comes out — the Utah-brewed Polygamy Porter (slogan: “Why just have one?”). But it isn’t all science talk. Last night, for example, we discussed Richard’s collection of Japanese rock sculpture over piping-hot bowls of chili. Talk about artsy-fartsy.

With this settling in, however, our freshman zeal for the rules of sim has waned somewhat. It has fallen to John, as commander, to set our sim parameters — most important, how long we’ll take in the airlock — and luckily he isn’t much of a stickler. He’s opted for five minutes each way. Previous commanders have insisted that crews spend a punishing 40 minutes in the airlock before leaving or entering the hab because that’s how long it would take on Mars, so we’ve gotten off lightly, no question. But because we’re only on “Mars” and all this “depressurizing” in the “airlock” is just a just a test of patience in the end, even that paltry five minutes seems to last forever. Until day six, at any rate, when the edifice of sim first begins to crumble.

It is a blazing-hot day, and Mission Control has instructed us to start building Georgi’s project, so we spend most of the day tramping around in the sun, lifting rocks from point A to point B and mixing cement. I can’t see NASA sending its finest recruits 400 million miles to do this kind of gruntwork, to be honest, but, still, orders are orders. By the time John calls it a day, we are beat and eager to put the kettle on.

So rather than “depressurize” in two groups of three, we opt to squeeze in all at once. It’s a squash, but we make it — six pretend astronauts, all jammed, immobile, as if we’re on the Tokyo metro. All I can hear is my airpack, pumping a cool breeze into my ears. Those lyrics come to mind: “Here I am, sitting in a tin can. Far across the world.” Then Georgi breaks the calm. He digs me in the ribs with his elbow, giggling — this is a man with two master’s degrees. So I threaten to switch off his air pack, but Sandy comes to his defense by booting me in the shins, except that she accidentally kicks James, who then steals her geological hammer. Like chaos theory this Little Lock of Calm descends into a scrum until — “Whoa!” The hab door has swung open. Barely a minute has passed. “Uh-oh.”

We shoot looks at each other and then at John, who looks noticeably annoyed. “Oh well,” he huffs. “No point closing the door now that we’ve all got the bends.”

Come report time, there is much that I can’t include. It would be treacherous to inform Mission Control how sim is falling apart, and yet clearly the writing is on the wall. Before long, we are all sneaking out without spacesuits. James and I hit the whisky at night and go out to smoke cigarettes. Georgi goes on morning walks. Richard wanders off alone to search for fossils. And through it all, John’s authority seems only to decline. Were this a game of Martian Survivor, everyone but Richard would vote John off the planet first.

In hindsight, John’s approach is all wrong. He introduces himself on day one with his trumpet fixed firmly to his lips. “I’ve been a biologist, a geologist, a physicist, a geophysicist, a geochemist — ooh, let’s see — and I’ve worked closely with rocket scientists,” he says. “And that’s what you want in space — someone who has experience in a broad range of disciplines.” You also want a commander without esteem issues. It isn’t long before his know-it-all front starts showing cracks. It transpires that he wasn’t aware that America had an election last year and that he has never heard of Austin Powers. Then one day he lets rip a mighty fart and carries on as though nothing has happened. Not even Roald Amundsen could have recovered from that one.

I’m glad this is the last day. Two weeks is quite long enough in these cramped quarters, without privacy, showers, or, for that matter, silence. I could write a laundry list of suggestions for the hab designers — some nooks or alcoves would be nice, and better-lit bedrooms, and an extra floor, and so on. But the real challenge for a future manned mission to Mars is not in the architecture or in the design of an appropriate rocket but in the “manned” part. Ultimately Mars is other people, and therein lies the trouble.

I don’t mean John particularly — he is so unpopular that he has been a cohesive force, if anything — and for the rest of us, thrown together like a reality show, we’ve gotten along remarkably well, considering. But confinement, like marriage, has a terrible way of telescoping your relationships and amplifying what begins as a harmless quirk into an excruciatingly annoying character flaw. You’d need the patience of Job to endure Georgi’s singing for the long haul, not to mention Richard’s lectures about how pouring flaxseed oil on your cereal can improve your brainpower. And I say this after two weeks in Utah. A real Mars mission would last more than three years.

I have to go. There’s a stink wafting up from downstairs, where I can hear John stamping about calling for a mop. Something about a clog in the U-bend . . .

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