One Time, At Mars Camp

GQ, Aug 2004

Mars, Utah: Red planet exploration in the big country.

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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. Mars smells like the last day of Glastonbury.

I know this because today is my last day of a fortnight’s 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 4 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 a further 10 lurching minutes through the dunes and you’ll find us in a cute white thimble of a place, perched improbably upright among the tumble and scree. For almost three years now, a stream of scientists and sundry nerds (NASA alumni among them) have travelled here from all over the world, to live under Mars conditions, in teams of 6 for 2 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, and 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 nip out 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 won’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 “Tschk. 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 like “bring a breadmaker, the smell is good for morale.” To the last point, however, I would add that we baked a fresh loaf every day and it isn’t nearly enough to combat the kind of festering space pong I’m talking about. You can’t just open the window – the windows don’t open on Mars – and last night we ate 3 bean chilli, 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 a bin 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 and an unflushed khazi.

That said, the Hab (the ‘habitation capsule’) is a tribute to the ingenuity and dedication of Mars nuts. A domed two-storey cylinder on landing stilts, built to house six – in a space 27-feet across – it was built 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 men-on-Mars proposal in recent years – a scheme called Mars Direct which resuscitated the Mars programme back when Bush Sr was president. In those days, the plan for humans 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 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 suggested I join an MDRS crew in stead. This was all his idea. He said, “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 confessed that I can barely fix dinner without a manual, so he assigned me the task of keeping a daily journal. “All great explorers keep a journal,” he said. “That’s an important job too.”

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

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

Not Richard, though. This 60 year old agronomist might 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 told me, the other day 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 airpacks, radios, the generator, the plumbing, the heating and he kept our internet connection alive through the dust storms. For a man who lives with 8 cats and chain smokes Marlboro 100’s, he’s as close to astronaut material as you’ll find in crew 22. By rights, he should have been commander, but instead we were saddled with John, 52, the least popular man on the planet. But more about him later.

First, the spacesuits – every day we had 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 crew mate wraps your waist with duct tape by way of 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 your helmet will fill with gunk and bubbles.

The buggies are the best part of living on Mars, ask anyone. My fondest memories are of 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 would roar toward a magnificent Martian horizon, diminishing brilliantly into specks. After a few miles we lost radio contact with the Hab, so it was 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 plotted our route as we went, flagging buttes, canyons and passes with home-made signposts named Copernicus, Kepler and Sagan. It seemed 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 were here first.

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 spacemen, while actually contributing, in a small way, to the dream of men on Mars. No phones ring, here; there is no TV. Our Earthly frets about rent and bills recede with every passing day. And in the evenings, we have these spirited debates with fellow Mars fans about things like space tourism and the X Prize. Usually John and Georgi go head to head over dinner, particularly once the beer came out – the Utah-brewed Polygamy Porter (slogan: “why just have one?”). But it wasn’t all science talk. Last night for example, we discussed Richard’s collection of Japanese rock sculpture over a piping bowl of chilli. Talk about artsy fartsy.

With this settling in, however, our freshman zeal for the rules of Sim has waned somewhat. It fell to John, as commander, to set our Sim parameters – most importantly how long we’d take in the airlock – and luckily he wasn’t much of a stickler. He opted for five minutes each way. Previous commanders have insisted that crews spend a punishing 40 minutes in the airlock between leaving or entering the Hab since that’s how long it would take on Mars, so we got off lightly, no question. But since we’re only on “Mars”, and all this “depressurising” in the “airlock” is just a just a test of patience in the end, even that paltry five minutes seemed to last forever. Until Day Six, at any rate, when the edifice of Sim first began to crumble.

It was a blazing hot day and Mission Control instructed us to start building Georgi’s project, so we spent most of the day tramping around in the sun, lifting rocks from A to B and mixing cement. I can’t see NASA sending its finest recruits 400 million miles to do this kind of grunt work, to be honest, but still, orders are orders.  By the time John called it a day, we were knackered and keen to put the kettle on.

So rather than “depressurise” in two groups of 3, we opted to all squeeze in at once. It was a squash, but we made it – six pretend astronauts, all jammed, immobile like the Tokyo metro. All I could hear was my airpack pumping a cool breeze into my ears. Those lyrics came to mind: “Here I am, sitting in a tin can. Far across the world.” Then Georgi broke the calm. He dug me in the ribs with his elbow, giggling – this is a man with two masters degrees. So I threatened to switch off his airpack, but Sandy came to his defense by booting me in the shins, except she accidentally kicked James, who then stole her geological hammer. And like chaos theory this Little Lock of Calm descended into a scrum until – “Whoa!” The Hab door swung open. Barely a minute had passed. “Uh-oh.” We shot looks at each other, and then at John who looked noticeably annoyed. “Oh well,” he huffed. “No point closing the door now we’ve all got the bends.”

Come report time, that evening, there was much that I couldn’t include. It would be treacherous to inform Mission Control how Sim was falling apart, and yet clearly the writing was on the wall. Before long, we were all sneaking out without spacesuits. James and I would hit the whisky at nights, and go out to smoke cigarettes. Georgi went on morning walks. Richard would wander off alone to search for fossils. And through it all, John’s authority seemed only to decline. Were this a game of Martian Survivor, everyone bar Richard would have voted John off the planet first.

With hindsight, John’s approach was all wrong. He introduced 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 said. “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 wasn’t long before his know-it-all front started showing cracks. It transpired that he wasn’t aware that America was having an election this year and he has never heard of Austin Powers. Then one day, he let rip a mighty fart, and carried on as though nothing happened. Not even Amundsen could have recovered from that one.

As I look back, I’m glad this is the last day. Two weeks is quite long enough in these cramped quarters, without privacy, showers or silence for that matter. I could write a laundry list of suggestions for the Hab designers – some nooks or alcoves would be nice, and better lit bedrooms, an extra floor and so on. But the real challenge for a future manned mission to Mars is not in the architecture, nor 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 was so unpopular he was a cohesive force, if anything – and for the rest of us, thrown together like a reality show, we got along remarkably well considering. But confinement, like marriage, has a terrible way of telescoping your relationships and amplifying what began 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 over 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…