Two weeks on ‘Mars’ in a tuna can

Written for the E&T Magazine

With photographer and producer of the Czech language service of the Australian SBS radio Filip Koubek planting the SBS flag (Credit: Filip Koubek)

With photographer and producer of the Czech language service of the Australian SBS radio Filip Koubek planting the SBS flag (Credit: Filip Koubek)

“Sure, I would go to Mars if I had that chance, but not with a one-way ticket,” says 32-year old photographer, health and safety officer and back-up crew engineer Filip when I ask him after two weeks at a simulated Martian station in a desert in the middle of the American state of Utah. “I mean, the Earth is simply such a great place to live,” he adds. Our crew of five (originally six), number 135, is about to head back to “Earth”, contemplating what we have learned from this experience.

Here at the Mars Desert Research Station, run by the Mars Society – a non-profit space advocacy and research organisation founded in 1998 by aerospace engineer and Mars exploration enthusiast Robert Zubrin – we got a brief glimpse of what life, or just a mission, on Mars would be like.

For those two weeks, our living space was reduced to a cramped two-storey 8-metre in diameter cylindrical tuna-can-like habitat with noisy air-conditioning and an even noisier water pump causing vibrations to the whole structure whenever anyone flushed the toilet or washed his or her hands.Each of us was occupying a single bedroom – about the size of a cupboard – with a small wooden bunk inside covered only with a couple of yoga mats.

Our stay here, though wasn’t any sort of extreme adventure vacation for bored and spoiled young adults; it was a part of an ongoing research project that aims to gather as much information as possible to develop and fine-tune strategies and procedures for the possible future manned mission to Mars.

That's about all the space we had (Credit: Filip Koubek)

That’s about all the space we had (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Thus even the annoying water pump noise has its role here. At the International Space Station astronauts also have to deal with the constant hum of the station’s engineering systems and quite likely, if one day humans do set off for the several-month-long cruise to the Red Planet for real, they will have no other choice but to get used to sleeping with ear-plugs.

For those two weeks, we agreed to pretend there is no breathable air in Utah and whenever we wanted to go outside to explore ‘Mars’ we had to don a mock space suit and wear a full-head bubble helmet and an air-supply backpack. On the way out and back in, we had to stay for five minutes in a simulated air-lock to limit pressure changes inside the habitat.

As air is a precious resource on Mars, one can only go out with a good science-related reason. All extravehicular activities (or EVAs, as space people call it) have to be pre-approved by the ‘ground-based’ mission control centre and one can only stay outside for a couple of hours, otherwise he or she would run out of oxygen.

And it’s not only oxygen that is scarce here – so is water, fresh food or Internet connectivity.

Greenhouse on Mars not an extravagance

The hab in a desert (Credit: Filip Koubek)

The hab in a desert (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Between us, we had many roles to fullfil. Our commander, extreme environments architect Ondrej Doule from the Florida Institute of Technology, was mostly interested in how to expand and improve the station’s design to make it more crew-friendly. The hab, as the Mars Society fondly calls it, has been standing here in the middle of the truly Mars-like red bentonite desert in the San Rafael Swell area since the early 2000s and clearly is up for some major maintenance.

I expected the hab to be a bit more self-sustainable,” Ondrej complains. “We have to be checking indoor temperatures constantly, as well as water levels, fuel levels and propane levels. That eats up quite a lot of our time, which we could otherwise spend on research. I want to propose some improvements to reduce the demands placed on the crew when it comes to running and maintaining the station.”

He was working closely with Lucie Poulet, a young aerospace engineer turned space gardener and currently a PhD researcher at the German Aerospace Centre. For those two week at the station Lucie was tending plants in a greenhouse adjacent to the hab. Disappointed by the state of the greenhouse upon our arrival and the plants inside it struggling for life, she was transplanting carrots and lettuces, fertilising them and experimenting with artificial lighting to improve the plants’ growing conditions.

Lucie in a Martian greeenhouse with lettuces (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Lucie in a Martian greeenhouse with lettuces (Credit: Filip Koubek)

“There are many problems with this greenhouse,” explains Lucie. “First of all the temperature at night drops really low, which hinders the plants growth. Also, as we are in a desert, the humidity is extremely low here and there are no systems in the greenhouse to make up for that. Third, due to external environmental conditions, the greenhouse needs to be really sturdy – you can get sandstorms here and you want to make sure it survives. However, the thick material used to build the greenhouse, though transparent, is quite opaque, and filters out quite a lot of light.”

A greenhouse on Mars is not an extravagance. For every future Martian crew, having a fully functional greenhouse would be a matter of life and death.

“If people go to Mars one day, it wouldn’t be really feasible to carry all their food with them – it would be too costly to launch and take up too much space,” says Lucie. “The idea is to have a greenhouse on Mars and grow vegetables and rely on a totally vegetarian diet to sustain the crew. It probably wouldn’t be possible to do it immediately, so you would have to start small – supplementing 10, 20 or 30 per cent of astronauts’ diet.”

Scientists have already picked the most suitable plants to grow on Mars – lettuce, carrot, strawberries, wheat, beetroot, tomatoes, potatoes or soy bean.

“A realistic Martian greenhouse would have to be much bigger than this – you need between 30 to 50 square metres to sustain one astronaut on a 100 per cent veggie diet,” Lucie explains.

The greenhouse should not only be larger but also fully automated, with a computer-based programme guiding watering, turning lights on and off and even distributing fertilisers, so the future Martian Lucies don’t need to spend their whole days with their hands dirty from soil.

Propane tank was fine, the diesel generator was a trouble though (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Propane tank was fine, the diesel generator was a trouble though (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Our crew scientist, Strathclyde University engineering PhD researcher Elif Oguz, was analysing the station’s various engineering subsystems. In a future Martian mission, the crew’s lives would be at the mercy of flawless functioning technology.

“Certainly, the most critical system here at the Mars Desert Research Station is the electricity generator, as we need electricity to power all the other subsystems of the habitat,” says Elif.

Our crew learned about the fragile technical equilibrium one morning after an overnight breakdown of the diesel-powered electricity generator. We woke up into a darkened, unexpectedly cold morning. All lights were down and only weak sun rays creeping in through small unopenable windows were illuminating the interior. The heating was off and so were the water pump and our Internet connection.

We were caught in a sort of Catch 22 situation – not allowed to start the back-up generator without a permission of the mission control but unable to reach them as our communication channels were not working. We were cold, hungry, not able to brush our teeth. Eventually, we decided to break the rules and powered up the back-up source by ourselves (and were strongly told off afterwards for it by the Mars Desert Research Station Director Shannon Ruppert).

Freeze-dried supplies (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Freeze-dried supplies (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Elif, not burdened by fears of gender stereotyping, also took up the role of the crew’s main chef. With the generosity and attention to detail typical for Mediterranean women (Elif is Turkish by origin), she managed to make our survival on freeze-dried space-like food much more bearable and we were at times truly stunned with what can one create from those tasteless looking, rubber-hard cubes and flakes that were stocked up inside a kitchen larder.

Unlike on the International Space Station, crews on Mars would be able to cook thanks to gravity, which, although only a third of that on Earth, is still sufficient to keep water, pots and other ingredients in place.

Unpredictable crew chemistry

Zubrin's proposal for a low budget mission to Mars serve as a basis for the Mars Desert Research Station

Zubrin’s proposal for a low budget mission to Mars serve as a basis for the Mars Desert Research Station

Mars Desert Research Station is a brainchild of American aerospace engineer and Mars exploration preacher Robert Zubrin. In the 1990s, he and his Nasa colleague David Baker have put together a cost-effective plan for a human mission to Mars, known as the Mars Direct.

They proposed a double-launch mission delivering to the surface of the Red Planet first an Earth Return Vehicle and second a tuna-can-shaped habitat, fitting into a giant rocket’s payload shroud. This proposal later served as a basis for the Mars Desert Research Station concept.

“The design of the hab is very convenient,” Zubrin told me in a Skype interview. “It has the correct diameter to be launched into space and it can accommodate six people reasonably well. It is rigid and can be landed on Mars ready to use.”

To help the crew with recovery upon landing, the proposal expected artificial gravity being used during the interplanetary cruise so that they are not immobilised after months in weightlessness, with feeble bones and muscles.

Based on Zubrin’s proposal, Nasa later created its Design Reference Mission concept 3.0. However, the whole thing never moved beyond paper and Zubrin eventually lost his patience with Nasa and embarked on his own journey to bring humanity closer to Mars.

Myself during a Google Glass experiment (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Myself during a Google Glass experiment (Credit: Filip Koubek)

“People have been talking about building simulated Martian stations literally since the 1960s but no one had ever done it. In the 1980s, I was a part of a team in a company which designed an Arctic Mars station for Nasa but it was never funded and it never happened,” Zurbin recollects.

In 1998, he founded the Mars Society, which three years later deployed the tuna-can hab in Utah, in the area of the San Rafael Swell, known for its Mars-like red bentonite mounds and dunes and barely any vegetation.

“First we built one station on the Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic and we ran several missions there. But it proved to be too expensive to operate and basically impossible to use outside summer months. That’s when we decided to build a second station in Utah,” Zubrin says.

Already in its 12th research season, the Mars Desert Research Station project has seen more than 130 crews coming. Nearly 800 people from all over the world have had a chance to experience what living and working on Mars would be like, approximately. Robert Zubrin has been carefully observing each mission, collecting bits and pieces of data to refine his ideas.

“We have done some pretty revealing studies – for example about water utilisation,” Zubrin recounts. “We had crews that were trying to use the smallest possible amount of water and got to as little as two gallons of water a day per a crewmember. That’s a very important thing because Nasa estimates were about nine gallons a day and even if you have a very effective water recycling system, let’s say 90 per cent effective, which would cut the total amount of water you need to take by a factor of ten, you would still need to bring to Mars for a 1000-day mission at least 20 tonnes of water. That would weigh more than the structure of the hab,” he says.

Crew compatibility is key for a successful mission, notice our commander Santa in the middle (Credit: Filip Koubek)

Crew compatibility is key for a successful mission, notice our commander Santa in the middle (Credit: Filip Koubek)

The most important thing, Zubrin believes, is the in-depth insight into the psychological aspects of being a Martian crew member. When it comes to the future Mars mission, the risk is rather high the crew members, confined in a tiny capsule, without a possibility to go for a walk to clear their heads, could easily start getting on each other’s nerves.
“When it comes to selecting astronauts, experts usually try to pick the best individuals and make their guesses about how they would function in a crew,” says Zubrin. “But we have learned that group chemistry is not just a function of individual characters. We had people serving on several crews and in some they were excellent crew members, while in others there were problems. You won’t be able to see this unless you put the people together in a simulated environment.”

During the two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, our crew also experienced first-hand the unpredictable effects of confinement and extreme environment on human psychology.

Halfway through the mission and without showing many warning signs, our sixth crew member decided to leave the simulation and depart back to civilisation. Even one week on ‘Mars’ could be too long for some.

What would you miss the most

When our mission was over, I asked my crewmates what they would miss the most on Mars. They gave me various answers. Most of those things could sound rather plain. Filip would miss the fresh air in the lungs and wind in his face. Lucie felt that with no exercise equipment in the hab and barely five steps needed to get from her bed to her working desk in the morning, her physique was quickly deteriorating. For Elif, showering every three days to comply with the water rules was the biggest hassle. Myself, had we stayed longer, I would probably have been able to kill for a piece of fresh fruit. I probably only can go to Mars, when Lucie’s greenhouse is up and running.

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