A Little Bit of Mars on Earth

The crew of MAU-MDRS 001 in front of the Mars Desert Research Station habitat.

It’s actually been almost two weeks since I came back from my trip to the Mars Desert Research Station in Southern Utah with the Mars Academy USA. This was such an amazing experience that I should have written about it much sooner, but I wanted to make sure that I took the time to do it justice.

We started out in Grand Junction, Colorado, on January 16th (Happy Birthday to me!) It promised to be an interesting social experiment, taking a dozen people from varied backgrounds with virtually no prior association and plunging them into challenging conditions, but it was a wonderful group to work with and we came together quickly. We hailed from various professional, academic, and cultural backgrounds: doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, psychologists—and me, a lowly pilot. And students all! We spent two full days prior to entering the simulation just getting to know each other, and participating in a battery of team building exercises that created powerful bonds of trust and cooperation. I couldn’t have imagined that I would grow so close to complete strangers in such a short period of time.

Team building with “patty cake”.

When we got to the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah, we split into two separate crews working in different locations. This arrangement simulated some of the logistical challenges of coordinating activities between different stations on Mars. Each crew had a specific governance model and quickly developed very distinctive cultures. Each crew also faced unique challenges. Weather conditions during our mission were cold and windy, and the muddy terrain around both stations presented several opportunities for critical thinking and problem solving. Some of my favorite learning opportunities came from the limited availability of power and fuel. For several days, one station had minimal electrical power available and we had to figure out how to strictly ration our power consumption. We conserved power for our most critical systems by turning off lights and manually moving water to avoid the power draw of using pumps. The crew at the other station had to ration fuel that was used for heating, cooking, and electricity. These restrictions were an inconvenience for us in our simulation, but on Mars they would be critical life saving skills. It was really thought-provoking to consider how much we take basic utilities for granted, and to figure out how to make lemonade when life gave us lemons.

We also faced several challenges working together in stressful conditions. We frequently functioned on reduced sleep, and in many of our activities the communications were inhibited by poor radio reception between the different stations and our EVA (extra-vehicular activity) teams. Tensions occasionally ran high, but to our team’s credit we stayed open minded and developed a culture of receptiveness to constructive feedback.

This is something that I regularly experience in my work as an airline pilot. As part of a flight crew, I work in such a demanding environment that I have to be able to efficiently communicate and be open to criticism. When I became a pilot, I learned pretty quickly not to take offense at the opportunity to learn from feedback, but with the Mars Academy USA, I was really impressed that so many of my team mates, coming from disparate backgrounds, also exhibited this rare attribute.

By setting up a communications relay, our team was able to explore further into this ravine.

One of my favorite learning moments came as a result of some of the aforementioned communications problems. We were out on an EVA and we were trying to reach an area that, because of terrain, was out of radio reception with our station. The exercise was a simulation in which we searched for an injured astronaut and we wanted to be able to extend our search as far as possible. By setting up a relay with two of our crew members staying in a location where they could communicate with the station, we successfully sent two other team members ahead to explore further than we otherwise would have been able to. It was an interesting exercise because we hadn’t discussed this possibility before, but we evaluated the situation and quickly came up with a viable solution to a realistic problem. I found it very encouraging to work together with such a great team and overcome the challenges that we faced.

Our team is evaluating simulated injuries to an astronaut. I’m in the foreground, determining our location.

Our group conducted several research projects during the course of our stay at MDRS. Most of them focused on emerging technologies that will enable medical care on Mars and in other remote locations. We also worked on developing search and rescue, and emergency response protocols to be implemented by Mars exploration teams. This was truly fascinating work and something that I was honored to be involved in. We also participated in several psychological and sociological studies evaluating the effects of living in austere environments and crew interaction in those conditions. Something I found especially interesting was that in my role as crew engineer, I was responsible to incorporate a drone, a 3D printer, and a remote controlled rover to accomplish our research goals. Working with these technologies really helped me see how important they will be to human exploration of Mars.

Setting up the 3D printer to manufacture parts for our research projects.

I took away numerous important lessons from this experience—probably more than I can immediately recount. One of the most important that was reiterated repeatedly was to think about what I’m doing and the potential consequences of my actions. It’s not uncommon for people to get into a routine and be driven by force of habit, but some of those habits can be detrimental in hostile environments. In certain circumstances, something as benign as forgetting to turn off a light could have dire repercussions. It may sound a little over the top, but we frequently reminded ourselves that Mars will constantly be trying to kill us and is unforgiving of carelessness. One lesson I’ve been taught repeatedly in my life that was reiterated during this experience was to find joy in the challenges. Several times when I was freezing, sleep deprived, and covered in mud I felt the temptation to complain, but I was cheered by the realization that I’m pursuing my passion and it’s worth whatever discomfort I have to—nay, get to—endure. One of the greatest lessons that I learned during this trip was to trust others and to communicate openly and honestly with love. Those actions don’t always come easily to me, but it was so rewarding to have open lines of communication with so many of the people I was working with. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but with mutual respect and a little patience we were invariably able to find common ground and consensus.

I’m ready to go!

Leaving the MDRS expedition, I feel like I have a renewed sense of direction about what I need to do next. The analog simulation really imbued a sense for the challenges that I will face going to Mars, and I want to conduct more of these simulations to thresh out my own plans for going to Mars. Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I’ll elaborate on specific details of my next big project. I also really feel impressed by the learning opportunities that the simulation provided and want to be able to organize a training program to prepare the next generation of interplanetary explorers. I’ll have to elaborate on that more later as well—it definitely deserves a dedicated post. So much to write! Finally, I feel extremely humbled by the responsibility to represent humanity as an emissary in space exploration. I feel a weighty duty to carry the dream, and inspire others to pursue their dreams and strive for greatness. I’m grateful for this experience that has affirmed my calling and the sense of purpose that it brings. Thank you for your support and encouragement in this amazing journey!

One thought on “A Little Bit of Mars on Earth

  1. Very good write-up and summary. Indeed groundbreaking with two stations working together to solve the mission. Interesting psychological observations, these are key to identify for future missions.


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