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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Mars Testing Ground

Air Date: Week of

To simulate a Mars mission, crew members suit up while outside of the station structures. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

Since 2001 the Mars Society has run over 270 simulated missions at a remote site in the high desert of Utah, to study the effect of extra-vehicular activity or EVA on the human body and mimic field research people might run on Mars one day, such as looking for fossilized life. Mars Society President Dr. Robert Zubrin joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to describe the research station, what a day in the life of a participant looks like and says why he believes we should send humans to Mars.


DOERING: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

In 1976 the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars and sent back the first high-resolution images of the red planet. And those pictures set off a frenzy of excitement about when humans might get to go there in person to look closer and maybe even discover signs of extraterrestrial life. Nearly 50 years later we’re still working on it. At an average distance of 140 million miles from Earth, it takes a lot of trial runs before we can safely send humans to Mars. So since 2001, the Mars Society has run over 270 simulated missions at a remote site in the high desert of Utah. There they carry out field research, to mimic studies they might run on Mars one day, such as looking for fossilized life. They also monitor the effect of extra-vehicular activity or EVA on the human body. Anyone from around the world can apply to be part of a crew that typically spends 2-3 weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station. Here to discuss is Dr. Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society and author of several books on Mars and space exploration. Welcome to Living on Earth!

ZUBRIN: Thank you for inviting me.

O'NEILL: Let's set the scene. If I were to visit the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, what would I see there? What's it like?

The Mars Desert Research Station challenges crew members to complete a simulated Mars mission under as many Mars-like conditions as possible. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

ZUBRIN: The area itself is rather spectacular, red desert, sedimentary rocks, and really a vast area that is uninhabited and almost unvegetated and quite geologically interesting. And then set within this is our station. There's the primary station, which is a habitat craft, it's sort of like a very large tuna can, about eight meters in diameter and six meters tall. So it's got two decks, each with three meters of headroom. And it is modeled on the habitat craft that I designed for the Mars Direct mission. It's what astronauts could fly to Mars in, land on and use as their house on Mars. Then there's additional secondary buildings. There is a greenhouse for growing crops. There is a small science dome. And there's also another small module for doing repairs of equipment in, and then there's a large solar array. So initially, the desert station only included the primary module, and it represented a first landing on Mars. This station as it now is, might be by about mission three, when some additional facilities have been added.

The Greenhab houses both conventional and aquaponic growing systems. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: So what is the purpose of these research stations? You know, what kind of questions are the crews trying to answer?

ZUBRIN: What we're researching is the exploration process itself, okay. We are not researching isolation. There are other people doing missions where they just isolate a crew. Johnson Space Center is going to do a mission like that, the Russians have done missions like that. I think that those missions have a modest utility because the Mars mission is not about isolation. It's about exploration. In other words, what you're going to do when you're on the surface of Mars is field exploration. And what we do is we task our crews to try to do an effective program of field exploration. Most of the crews are just there for two weeks, some as long as three months, while operating under as many Mars mission type constraints as we can impose on them. Essentially, what we're doing in engineering lingo, is we are defining the requirements for the mission: How much water do you need? What is the right kind of exploration vehicle to build? Before you go ahead and spend a billion dollars building an actual Mars exploration vehicle, you want to know what's the right one to design? Okay. And the key thing, the most important step in any engineering process is defining the requirements. It's essential to design things, right, but it's even more important to be designing the right thing. And that's what we're attempting to do.

The Science Dome contains the solar system’s control center as well as a microbiological and geological laboratory. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: And so the goal is to sort of make this mission feel as real as possible as a Martian mission would. To what extent are you able to simulate the Martian environment? It's so different from Earth's, and you're out in this stark, uninhabited desert. But to what extent is it similar to what the Mars landscape itself would be like?

ZUBRIN: Well, first of all, in order to have an effective simulation, you really have to have the crew committed to it, okay, because we've had a couple of crews that did not take it seriously, and just went outside and went walking around, and they came back and said, this was all ***, we just went outside and went walking around. And I said, well, whose fault was that? So you do have to have the crew adopt the mindset, just like in a military field exercise, it's very different from normal war in that no one is actually trying to kill you. But you can get dedicated crews who, you know, act as if the environment was as dangerous as Mars. So for instance, they have to do their field work wearing these simulated spacesuits and communicating to each other by radio and with these thick, heavy gloves that impair your dexterity. And then they have to operate in a telescience collaboration with our mission support group, which is far away. You know, people have heard of telemedicine where the general practitioner Alaska has to do a heart transplant and he's being walked through it by the specialists in Mount Sinai in Manhattan. Well, Mars science is going to have to be done that way. You'll have a few generalists on Mars and they'll be backed up by large science teams on earth and we have to work out this art of telescience. Now, there are some things though, that you can't simulate: Mars gravity.

The vast, remote Utah landscape simulates the surface of Mars. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And this bears on a number of things because a real spacesuit might weigh 150 pounds. Okay, now that's perfectly tenable on Mars because Mars has got 1/3 gravity, so you only feel it weighing 50 pounds. And since your 150 pounds only weighs 50 pounds. Walking around in a marsh spacesuit on Mars. The 300 pounds feels like 100 pounds and there's actually less load on your feet than if you were walking on Earth. But if we stuck the crew in the desert with 150 pound suit, very few of them could even stand up or walk. So We use 40 pound spacesuits to create a load on them that's comparable to what it would feel like on Mars. So there's a assortment of compromises you have to make. And of course, one things that you can't duplicate is the actual danger that you're in. You know, in a in a Mars mission, if your spacesuit was to fail, you would die, okay? Whereas in our mission, if our spacesuit air supply system was to fail, you could just take off the helmet. So there are some differences, but we deal with it as best we can, just as the military rehearses war under non lethal conditions.

O'NEILL: So what is day to day living like for the crews out there that is going to emulate what their lives would be like on this Mars mission?

The MDRS Habitat, or “Hab” is where crew members eat, sleep, and suit up for their daily explorations. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society) https://mdrs.marssociety.org)

ZUBRIN: So everybody wakes up maybe around seven o'clock in the morning. And the plan might be to send three members of the crew out on EVA, while three stay behind in the ham. So after breakfast, the crew goes downstairs and the people who are not going on EVA help the crew into, the EVA team into their spacesuits. And then they get in the airlock, they wait there for 10 minutes to simulate depressurization. And then they go out and they explore. One of the crew members who remains behind is on the radio and is checking in with the EVA team, perhaps every half hour. And then the others, well, they may be doing lab work. In other words, the previous day, they may have brought samples back from the field. And they may be testing them in the lab to try to verify that these are in fact fossils and not minerals, or too if they have found extremely file organisms and micro organisms to image them under the microscope or something. Or they may be engaged in repair of equipment, or someone may go and work a little bit in the greenhouse, something like that. Now the crew out there in the field, they're out roaming around on their all terrain vehicles. And then at a certain point, they get off and they go on foot. And they do direct field exploration, perhaps looking for fossils, or just simply characterizing the geology.

The crew works in the greenhouse. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And then they come back at four o'clock in the afternoon, perhaps, and they're helped out of their suits. And then we always take dinner together. This is extremely useful for bonding the crew, and also talking over what happened that day. And then after dinner, people sit down and write reports and they send reports to mission support. There's a crew commanders report, which is usually very brief, and just outlines what happened that day. We get a science report where people go into more detail on any of the science that was found, engineering report, what systems are working, what are not. And then to me, the most interesting report is what we call the journalist report. And the journalist in this case, is not a person who, like a current newspaper reporter. He is a person more like an 18th century journalist. This is experiential in quality. And they also usually send you know, six or so photographs along with it. And then they send in these reports, and then the crew might sit down and watch a movie together or play a board game or, you know, charades. And then lights out at 11.

Crews generally have dinner together each night in the “Hab” upper deck. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: If I understand correctly, there have been nearly 300 of these simulated missions. And you've commended a number of them yourself. What are your sort of biggest lessons that you've learned over the course of these missions?

ZUBRIN: Okay, number of things. Number one: mission needs to be led from the front by the crew commander with a consultative command style and bringing the rest of the crew into it. Number two, in terms of crew composition, you can have almost any mixture, almost anything will work with the right people and almost anything will fail with the wrong people. And really the crew has to be tested as a team. We've had individuals who were absolute top level crew members in one crew and real problems in others because the chemistry was wrong. And based on studies of US Navy crews in Antarctica, the human factors literature is full of articles concluding that the primary problem is boredom. And that we have to come up with ways to keep the crew busy. In fact, if you take a highly motivated crew, and you send them to Mars, and they're given a chance to do world historic exploration, or even a simulated version of it, like we have in our stations, what you find is that they work themselves hard and the primary human factors problem we get is overwork. Okay, I commanded a number of missions and I had to repeatedly command my crews to stop work at 9pm in order to stop them from burning themselves out.

A crew member works in the lab. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O'NEILL: Wow, yeah.

ZUBRIN: There's various technical conclusions. Before we started this, I thought the best field mobility systems would be pressurized rovers about the size of SUVs. Now I'm convinced based on experience that it would be small, all terrain vehicles, single person vehicles that Mars will be explored in the saddle, you don't want to bring anything to Mars that you're going to take into to the field that you can't lift because it's going to get stuck. We were very interested in looking into how much water the crew would use.

Some crew members take a break to play chess while others work on troubleshooting a 3D printer. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

And this is actually a very important number to get because you're going to recycle your water. But how much water do you need to recycle depends on how much water the crew uses. Now what we have found is that you can get by with a sponge bath every other day and a navy shower once a week. If you do this, then your average water consumption, which is not what you drink, that's only a tiny fraction of your water, is about three gallons a day per person, and you can still have an effective crew. Now that's a really important number for designing a Mars mission.

Crew members spend their days in a variety of ways from repairing equipment to writing reports. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

O’NEILL: I'm sure you've heard naysayers say, why are we thinking about this? We should focus on Earth. We've got problems here at home. From your perspective, why is it so crucial that we go to Mars?

ZUBRIN: All right, well there's three reasons to go to Mars. And they're for the science, for the challenge, and for the future. Mars was a twin of the early Earth, the early Mars was a twin of the early Earth. They were both warm and wet planets with CO2 dominated atmospheres and rocky surfaces. And we know life appeared on Earth almost soon as it cooled down enough for there to be liquid water. Did it also appear on Mars? If it did, if it happened in two out of two places, then it means it's a high probability event. And it means the universe is filled with life. Because we know from the Kepler space telescope that 20% of all stars in the Milky Way galaxy have an Earth sized planet in their habitable zone, which is the distance where you have the right temperatures for liquid water. So if life occurs naturally wherever you have appropriate physical conditions, life's everywhere, we're not alone in the universe. And these are questions that thinking men and women have wondered about for 1000s of years, and we can solve it by going to Mars.

Part of the crew ventures out into the Utah landscape for field exploration. (Photo: Courtesy of the Mars Society)

Then there's the challenge. A humans to Mars initiative would be a tremendous positive challenge to society, especially the youth, we would get millions of young scientists out of it as we did out of Apollo. During the Apollo program, the United States doubled the number of science graduates, in every level, high school, college, PhD, and in some fields tripled it. And we would benefit from that for decades, okay, because those are the people that create new health cures, new industries, new defense technologies, you name it. The humans to Mars program would once again make science the great adventure.

Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society and author of “The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet.” (Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Robert Zubrin)

And then finally, there's the future. And there's two parts to the future. There's the far future and then there's the near future. Now, if we go to Mars, I am convinced that for instance, 500 years from now, there will be many new branches of human civilization on Mars, but not only on Mars, but further out because Mars is not the final destination, it's the direction. But also you see, there's a near term aspect to this, because it's our vision of the far future that affects what happens in the near future. What's the main threat to humanity today? I think it's pretty clear right now that the threat is war. If we can show that it's not true that there's only so much to go around, okay, because the earth comes with an infinite sky. And by working together, you know, we can create new worlds, so there's no point killing each other fighting over provinces, and by working together, we can open planets. It's not foolproof, humanity can always engage in folly, but at least we can undermine the fundamental argument that supports these catastrophic developments.

O'NEILL: Dr. Robert Zubrin is the president of the Mars Society and author of "The New World on Mars: What We Can Create on the Red Planet." Dr. Zubrin, thank you so much for taking the time with me today. You're most welcome.



Read more about the Mars Desert Research Station


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