The Real Life on Mars

Los Angeles Times Magazine, Mar 2004

Sometimes simulating life on the red planet can get a little too real.


The time will come when a human sets foot on Mars. Here’s my advice: Don’t take the Isuzu. The only way to get into an Isuzu Trooper wearing a spacesuit is backward, helmet first, and then to wriggle up into position. And if you catch your backpack on the seat belt like I did, you’ll be stuck on your back for ages, flailing like a cockroach.

So no Isuzu, and pack plenty of Coke and cheese because we ran out, which is why we needed the Isuzu in the first place – to drive to the store. In truth, we shouldn’t be driving anyplace because there are no convenience stores on Mars and we’re supposed to be duplicating the Martian life here, at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Wayne County, Utah. We live in a simulated habitation pod and wear spacesuits when we go exploring outside. We ration water, rove about on Mars-style buggies and dig holes with shovels. For two years now, scientists and sundry nerds have been doing this work, in teams of six, for two weeks at a time, near the flyspeck town of Hanksville. Our aim is to inform future Marsonauts about how best to negotiate life in a capsule up to 400 million miles from home.

Until recently, that prospect seemed more fantastic than real. But on Jan. 14, just a week before our shopping trip, President Bush proposed a manned trip to the red planet, so now there is an added frisson to these simulations. So far we have learned this much – to take more Coke and cheese because it goes fast, especially the herb stuff.

Now look at this mess – three spacesuited buffoons moonwalking the aisles of the store, radioing each other: “Tschk. Cheddar located on aisle five. Sliced or block, over?” At the checkout, the cashier is in no mood. Hanksville locals are used to this kind of Martian tomfoolery. She doesn’t crack a smile as we bound up, waving and grinning inside our helmets. Dumping our change on the counter, she turns and peers into the vague distance. “Receipt’s in the bag,” she says.

It’s time we returned to Mars. Earthlings hostile. Retreat! Retreat!

The MDRS is a wonderful tribute to the ingenuity and obsession of Mars nuts. A domed two-story cylinder on landing stilts, nestled among the ferric red mounds of the western Fremont desert, it was built for $300,000 in January 2002 by the Mars Society, a 6,000-strong band of Mars enthusiasts headquartered in Indian Hills, Colorado. These folks aren’t kooks. Many are serious scientists.

Back in the days of the elder Bush’s presidency, the plan to send humans to Mars was so costly ($450 billion) that it jeopardized the very notion of going. So a band of believers, sensing a crisis, swiftly proposed that a leaner six-person mission fly there directly, in seven months, rather than the 18-month trip, with a space station stopover, foreseen by NASA specialists at the time. Once there, the crew would harness Mars’ resources, convert the atmosphere into rocket propellant and spend two years investigating before returning. The plan is called “Mars Direct” and it is best described 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 is pushing to have humans on Mars by 2020, and has already built two “laboratories for living on another planet.” The other is near Resolute Bay in the Canadian Arctic, arguably the most Mars-like for its sheer hostility to human habitation.

The habitat (Hab) in Utah is designed to house six, in a space 27-feet across, dimensions which the society believes could be built and transported by rocket ship. The broad objective of the research is to test-run life on Mars, exploring the practicalities both physical and psychological. What work can actually be done in spacesuits? What are the most effective tools for exploration? And crucially, how do crew members interact in confinement; what makes team spirit fizz or falter?

Naturally, there are limits to the simulation. On Mars, for instance, there is no oxygen, it’s up to -130F at nights and the atmospheric pressure is 1/100th of that on Earth, so if you step outside without a spacesuit, you’ll explode, suffocate and freeze to death all at once. In fact the gaping hole we found by the Hab windows on Day 9 would have killed us all off long ago. Still, the challenge of captivity and exploring a red wilderness in spacesuits has thrown up all kinds of pointers for a real Mars mission. They range from the grand, such as “exploration is physical so we must use artificial gravity” (in the spacecraft so that muscles don’t atrophy), to the relatively mundane, “time is precious–the main human factor issue is not boredom, but overwork,” or “take a breadmaker, the smell is good for morale.”

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My voyage to Mars began with a phone call last summer. I was browsing the Mars Society Website, when I came upon the arresting image of men in spacesuits tramping about a vast terracotta wasteland. So I called Zubrin to ask whether I might visit the Utah site, because it’s nearer than Canada and not quite so cold. “I’ve got a better idea,” he answered. “Why don’t you become the first journalist to actually join a mission crew? How tall are you?”

Oh about five six, 150lbs.

“Yep, we’ve got a space suit your size,” he said. “Now, are you mechanically minded? Because the most useful people on a Mars crew are people who can fix things.” After I confessed that I could sometimes fix dinner, and only then with a manual, he assigned me the task of keeping a daily journal. “That’s an important job, too,” he said. “All great explorers keep a journal.”

It’s kind of Zubrin to call it “important,” but I’ve seen The Right Stuff and I’m not kidding myself — no one needs a journalist on Mars. If the generator blows up and we lose our satellite signal, the words “quick, get the journalist” are as likely as “is there anyone on this plane who can write a headline with a pun?” Thankfully Crew 22 would more than compensate for my deficits. Chosen specifically by the Mars Society for their skills and experience, these are dedicated Mars fans and no fools.

Georgi Petrov, age 27, is a Bulgarian engineer-architect whose recent masters thesis at MIT is about building a permanent settlement on Mars. The central objective of our mission is to test some of his ideas. Richard Thieltges , 59, is an amateur polymath from Montana, who grew up on a wheat farm fixing tractors all day. He has since graduated in agronomy, finished a masters in transpersonal psychology and made a lifelong study of stromatolites – fossils of single celled organisms roughly 1 billion years old (the most likely fossils to be found on Mars).

Sandy Musclow, 23, is a geologist from Montreal, with a particular interest in brine formation as it might occur on Mars.

James Harris, 35, a soft-spoken computer network engineer from Austin, Tex., is a former electrician and chef, now working toward a master’s in data communications.

Our commander is John Burgener, 52, owner of a company that makes chemical analysis equipment. He’s a breezy, undaunted man who tells us at our first meeting, “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. I’ve travelled and worked all over the world. And that’s what you want in space–someone who has experience in a broad range of disciplines.”

As I fly to Salt Lake City, the prospect of living with five strangers has me rattled. All I know of them is their frankly intimidating online bios. We meet at an airport motel and split into threes for the five-hour drive to the Hab. Since Richard brought his Isuzu, he, Sandy and I take the lead as the rest follow in the Mars Society’s clattering, six-seat pick-up, “Old Blue”. The views are stunning, running south through the snowy mountains and plains until we reach Hanksville and turn down an unmarked track into the red, rocky desert. Then after 10 lurching minutes in low gear, we spy the Hab and gasp. That’s Mars! A cute white thimble of a place, perched improbably upright among all the tumble and scree of an ancient sea bed.

There is no time to let the impact properly register. The incumbent crew swings open the Hab doors and ushers us in for a swift tour. They seem remarkably at ease with each other and this odd little habitat. We’re a subdued huddle in comparison, following them around nodding and noting details. Here are the tools, OK, and there’s the science area. There’s a problem with the drains, I see, and, oh yes, the toilet. James sums up the flushing regime with a rhyme – “If it’s brown, flush it down, if it’s yellow, let it mellow” – then it’s upstairs to the carpeted and somewhat cozier living area. It’s not nearly so cramped as I’d imagined. A little cold, perhaps, but hey, I’ll wear a jumper.

Immediately the work begins–our first crew meeting. Before we enter full simulation mode (or “Sim”) we need to stock up on food, so we painstakingly go through every meal and draw up a list. Two of us are to drive back to Salt Lake City, drop off four members of the existing crew (the others have other transportation) and buy groceries. “So, we need volunteers,” says John. Sandy raises her hand but the rest of us stay silent. We just arrived and nobody’s exactly keen to return to Earth so soon, especially in “Old Blue,” that boneshaker with no radio. We draw straws. Mine is shortest. Oh well, at least it’s a job I can do. What do they call it – taking one for the team?

The next morning, we set off at the crack, drive to Salt Lake City and back, and return with a bounty of smoked salmon, shrimp, steak, eggs, cold cuts, soft drinks, cereals and fresh fruit. It’s not strictly Mars fare, but John’s happy to cheat and he’s the boss. John even wanted us to buy a keg of beer, since “all those bottles would be a wasteful payload.” But try finding a keg on Sunday in Utah – we may as well have been on Mars.

At dinner, John regales us with stories from his life and times – how he once scared off a bear with a foghorn, and thought nothing of scuba diving under six feet of ice. By the end, he’s showing us video of a rocket launch that he’s somehow involved with, and Sandy, for one, is rapt. “John’s just amazing isn’t he?” she whispers. “I’m going to learn so much from him.”

Come bedtime, a setback – the rooms were allotted while we were out shopping. Commander John gets the roomiest. Mine is the smallest and the only one without an Internet connection. So much for taking one for the team. I want to protest: “I’m a journalist, I need the Internet…” But why make a fuss so early on?

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This is fun, suiting up. It’s a dance, not to be attempted alone. First you climb into the spacesuit and attempt to give yourself a wedgie, then you pirouette as a crew mate wraps your waist with duct tape by way of an ad hoc belt. The Radio Shack earpieces have a habit of falling out, so more duct tape there, and be sure to wipe the inside of your helmet with dish soap, a remedy that real astronauts employ to stave off helmet mist.

Of course, they’re not real spacesuits, all hermetic and pressurized, and we’re spared the authenticity of penis catheters. But they’re close enough – unwieldy, canvas jumpsuits based loosely on the design of the Apollo lunar suit. They have the desired effect of rendering you as limber as an unoiled Tin Man and as dexterous as a bear with mittens. But who am I kidding? It’s a hoot to dress up like a spaceman.

“Shoshajesh?” Georgi says, apparently through a mouthful of leaves. With these throat mikes, it’s crucial to have a proper test. “OK, what about now? Sausages? Right, let’s go.”

It’s the fifth day. Fully suited, Georgi, Sandy and I start up the all-terrain vehicles. Armed only with a topographic map and a full tank, we roar off toward the horizon, diminishing brilliantly into specks. This is as good as Mars gets–flying the coop for a few hours to leave a scribble of tracks across the belly of an ocean now 85 million years dry. The landscape is magnificent. We surge from one breathtaking vista to the next. And since most of it is rust-reddish and barren, it’s just possible to surrender to the illusion that this is in fact Mars and we are its first explorers. We follow a winding gully to an impassable crevice, and Sandy stumbles across a sea of mollusk fossils – imagine such a discovery on Mars!

In true explorer’s style, we plot our route as we go, flagging buttes, canyons and passes with signposts named Copernicus, Kepler and Sagan. It strikes me as odd that the first 21 crews didn’t take this basic step to make their brave new world navigable, but driving back to the Hab past our handiwork, I understand why Mission Support controllers were slow to sanction the project – they wanted to preserve Mars’s virginity for future explorers, so that others might also taste the illusion that they were here first.

But we’re not really explorers. In fact, as time passes, this place feels more like a Mars-themed holiday camp. With free lodging and food, ATV’s and a desert on our doorstep, Club Mars allows us to play make-believe, with the added cachet of actually contributing to the dream of men on Mars. No phones ring, there is no TV. Our Earthly frets about rent and bills recede with every passing day.

In the early days of the sim, we return to the Hab with moods high. Georgi whips up stuffed peppers and a Bulgarian tomato salad, washed down with some lethal grape brandy. And we have one of those great conversations, abuzz with ideas, about the issues of Mars, space and NASA. The subject, appropriately enough, is space tourism, specifically the idea that “before men will ever walk on Mars, private industry will need to turn a profit in space.” We’ve considered mining the asteroid belt, which everyone agrees is a good idea. But tourism is controversial.

“It’s the only hope, and I mean that quite seriously,” John declares. “We need a space hotel more than an observatory because that’s where the money is.”

Georgi isn’t so thrilled by space becoming a “playground for the rich.”


“It’s not,” John retorts. “At $50,000, everyone can dream. It’s the paperwork at NASA that wastes all the money. Did you know it costs more in fuel to fly to Europe than the moon?”

“Are you sure?” Georgi tips back in his chair? “I’m not so sure about that.” The table goes quiet – Sandy, James, Richard and I are just watching as John accepts Georgi’s challenge.

“Yes it is,” he says. “Think about it. A rocket to the Moon is 99% fuel, and a 747 uses about 120,000 liters of kerosene to cross the Atlantic, so if you take the weight of kerosene as ooh, say 800 grams per liter…” Off John disappears down an alley of arithmetic.

“Hey, I think John’s got a point,” says Richard, “because I’ve got aches and pains every day. I’m 59. And I tell you, older people will pay for the lower gravity experience. You’ll have these colonies in space with restaurants and movies and blackjack. It’ll be like Vegas. But in space.”

Richard hasn’t said too much since he arrived. But he clearly has plenty of ideas. A wheat farmer by trade, he got the space-bug in the Sputnik era, around the same time that he took up psychedelics. He’s now an authority on herbal medicine and an avid collector of suiseki rock art – natural rocks that look like mountain ranges in miniature. Once the beer comes out-a case of Utah-brewed Polygamy Porter (slogan: “why just have one?”)–he announces his plan to build a viable society on Mars.

“Polyamory,” he says. “You know, multiple partners? See, people who want to go into space are high novelty seeking individuals, so they need additional and alternative sexual activity for the long journeys. That’s why they should also have consciousness-altering substances like hashish and peyote. It’s all part of my paper on sex, drugs and rock and roll in space.”

I thought the Sim rules were inviolate. Mars seemed a hard and fast place of the strict and pseudo-military–sir-yes-sir. But no, here we have “bubbles” and “tunnels,” invisibly delineated areas outdoors where you can walk freely sans spacesuit. Each crew’s commander decides where their particular “tunnels” should run. (Mars is an autocracy, not a democracy). The commander also decides what the airlock wait should be, so a lot hinges on whether the boss is a Sim fundamentalist or not. Some previous commanders have demanded a 30 minute wait, which compares to NASA’s recommendation of 40 minutes for space stations. But since there is no physical imperative at the Hab, the airlock wait serves only to test the impact of the delay on a day’s schedule, a function that is often outweighed by the psychological effect on crew members who find themselves hanging around for precisely nothing. Still, we’re fortunate to have a moderate like John, whose decreed interval of five minutes seems to recognize that we’re volunteers here, and that James even took 2 weeks leave.

Today, however, even those five minutes are getting whittled thin.

First, the excuses. We’ve been out digging holes, as per the edicts of some masochist at Mission Support in Colorado. (The objective is to see how quickly the holes fill with dirt again, and to give Mission Support the experience of remotely coordinating a project that will be continued by future crews. Two conclusions – it is indeed possible to swing a pick-ax in a spacesuit, and after a couple of hours you’ll have had enough.) So, we’ve returned to the Hab, tired and hungry, our helmets all steamed up, and with at least one of us needing the bathroom, and John decides to save time by squishing us all into the airlock at once. It is built for three, which would mean a 15 minute wait–five for the first group, five to “depressurize” the chamber, then five for the next group. With all six of us in there like sardines, we stand to gain 10 minutes, and airlock minutes, as every astronaut knows, are the longest in the cosmos.

For a while, it is curiously calm – six fake astronauts all jammed into the Tokyo metro. I can hear air pumping steadily into my ears and I think of those famous lyrics, “Here I am sitting in a tin can, far across the world.”

Then Georgi digs me twice in the ribs with his elbow. He’s giggling–this is a man with two masters degrees. Naturally I threaten to switch off his air pack, since you have to fight fire with fire, but Sandy comes to his defense by booting me in the shins, except she accidentally kicks James, who then steals her geological hammer. And like chaos theory this Little Lock of Calm descends into a scrum of schoolyard shoving, until – “Whoa!” someone leaned into the Hab door and it has popped open.

Barely a minute has passed.

“Uh-oh.” We shoot looks at each other, and then at John.

“Oh well,” he says, with a shrug. “No point closing it now we’ve all got the bends.”

In the “Lessons Learned” box in our reports, we write “small holes are easier to dig than big ones.” Sandy stirs apple crisp while John stitches up a torn spacesuit. It’s like a scene from Norman Rockwell.

When it comes to our nightly ritual of poring through the day’s photographs, the most vividly Mars-like is a shot of me. It looks like I’m heroically scaling a mountain. “I wish I had a picture like that,” says John. “Before we leave, I want one of you to take a picture of me like that, on that slope.” Georgi sniggers. Sandy scribbles me a note. “Is he just in this for the pictures?”

We’re lucky to have James on board – an ex-chef who can mend everything. So far he has fixed our backpacks, the radios, the generator, the computer network and the plumbing in the shower. And this morning, he’s cooking up yet another hearty breakfast hash. We’re going to need it. A day of grunt work awaits.

But it’s our 10th day, and something’s not right with these “research projects” – I just can’t see the Right Stuff doing this stuff. First we’re digging – not for gold or oil, but for Mission Support in Colorado. And now we’re hefting rocks, the work of slaves and trucks, in an effort to build a barrel vault according to Georgi’s master’s thesis. It’s an interesting concept to use the methods of the Pantheon in Rome to build habitats on Mars, but the “tomb,” as we call it, is also a killer for the lower spine. Suddenly suiting up isn’t quite so much fun. We go about the business of mutual wedgies and duct tape in silence. Whatever happened to jetting around on the rovers?

At lunch, I find some mold in our loaf of bread. “Oh dear,” grins John. “On Columbus’ ship, he nearly had a mutiny when the bread went moldy.” And it’s funny he should say that, because the tides have been turning against our commander of late. Like today, for example, when I beat him at chess three times in a row. Once John leaves for the bathroom, both Sandy and Georgi come over to congratulate me. “Good job, man! Why don’t you play him for the leadership of the crew?”

In a way, the growing tension is expected. Jack Stuster, a behavioural scientist who worked for NASA, wrote a study of human factors in space habitats. In it, he describes a mission’s leader as vulnerable. In space, he has no teeth, for example, so how can he maintain order? And the proximity of confinement, Stuster writes, “renders even the most formal hierarchies informal.” Still I suspect that were Amundsen or Shackleton in charge, they’d probably pull their weight in the kitchen – so far John has made just one round of pancakes. The layout of the living area maps out the tension. The five crew members are at their laptops facing the wall, while John remains in his stateroom. Occasionally he pipes in on the end of a conversation, but his remarks frequently fall flat. One day, John insisted that the sun’s lifespan is 5 billion years (any self-respecting space geek knows it’s 10 billion). He has never heard of Austin Powers. And after Kerry’s wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, John said didn’t even know there was a presidential election this year, prompting the question “what planet is he on?”

Then James yells from downstairs. “Hey guys. We’re all dead! Someone left the door wide open.”


I’m feeling the confinement. Last night, I sneaked out for the first time, to look at the spangled skies, and it felt so good to break Sim and feel the wind on my face again.

I’m not alone. Others are buckling too. It the 11th day, and the edifice of Sim is crumbling. When John went out on an EVA with Richard, Georgi went for a stroll. James popped out to get a picture of a sunset. Now John has this idea that we should reach a total of 30 EVA’s, because it’s some sort of record, and there’s only a couple of days left. But why suit up anymore, go through that silly rigmarole with duct tape? And who cares about the record? As for the airlock, now we just pause to pay respects to a lost rite.

You know what I can’t stand? The lack of privacy – just one room for everyone at all times to do everything. No nooks, no alcoves. Nowhere to have a private conversation. Only our pokey unventilated staterooms, miserably noise-proofed, badly lit and impossibly cramped. It’s hard to read a book here without banging your head. I just need some personal space. Just a patch of the desk that is mine, that I don’t have to share with the rice cooker, Georgi’s elbows and a tangle of wires. I want some silence every day, just a few minutes. Doesn’t everyone? Am I crazy? Is it asking too much, just for everyone to be quiet and leave me be.

Suddenly the Hab radio sprackles into life. “Hab Comm. Permission to enter airlock?” It’s John. He has just returned.

I look over at Sandy and she’s grinning at the thought of denying him entry. “Shall we make him SIM-mer?”


It’s Day 13. The Hab walls feel closer than ever, as I lie awake contemplating the ceiling of my state-room. I hear John outside calculating how many EVA’s we need today to break the record. He wants Sandy to take a picture of him out on that slope but Sandy is pleading with him, “Can’t we just go out on the rovers?”

I’ve had enough. It’s time to go home. Sim be damned.

It is hard to say to what extent this simulation has been a success. After all, most of the important conclusions were compiled by earlier crews as they scaled the steep edge of the learning curve, and are explained in Zubrin’s latest book “Mars on Earth.” Admittedly, thanks to Crew 22, we know that astronauts can use shovels but would rather robots did the job. But what use is that? Has the research station’s usefulness expired?

In an interview afterward, Zubrin will say that the station “is like any university. It’s partly there for research and partly for education. In terms of research, there is always more to do. There are so many technologies out there that we need to test for future Mars use.” He mentions aerial drones and flying robots to help humans map out their routes over the Martian surface. Scientists and engineers thinking about manned missions often solve the wrong problems, he says. “One research team was working on a robotic llama, which accompanied the astronaut on exploration and carried all the tools. It seems to make sense, but only for pedestrian exploration.”

As for my own recommendations, all that comes to mind right now is gloves. I can still smell the gloves on my hands from yesterday. These disinfectant lotions we use to save water are no match for the pong of old crew sweat, and of all the smells of Mars, it is the stench of the gloves that is most lingering – the gloves and the dust that we drag in from outside.

But the smells we adjust to. In time, we desensitize.

It’s the people that I find hardest to stomach now. Confinement has a way of telescoping relationships. On Mars, the scales fall quickly from your eyes. And the thought of being trapped with this lot for two years is the stuff of nightmares. The Hab would become a barking asylum, although it’s not the crew’s fault, far from it. We gelled pretty well, considering. No real mission would have dared risk such random chemistry – “nitro meet glycerine, you guys are going to have a blast.”

But some in our crew are best taken in small doses. Others, the quieter and less demanding ones, seem better suited to the long haul. John, perhaps predictably given his assigned role, has proven to be a force for cohesion in the crew. All of us, but for Richard, would have voted him off the island first.

Now John is yelling from downstairs. “Stop! Stop it! Turn it off!” There’s some thundering up the stairs and frantic pacing about. At the table sits Sandy, looking sheepish and guilty. Georgi’s standing behind her, consoling her. James is up and Richard, we’re all here, opposite John who’s holding in his hands a broken water pump. It turns out John told Sandy to keep the water pump on even though no water was pumping, so now the water pump is burned out. Which, on Mars, is a disaster.

“It’s fine,” says John. “It just means, we use paper plates and not dishes, to save on washing up, and we just use the water for drinking. No showers, but that’s all right.”

Everyone looks at their shoes. No showers?

“When I was in the Canadian Arctic, I went for four months without a shower,” John adds, breezily.

The silence is deafening. Then Sandy offers a tentative suggestion. “Guys, if you all want a shower, we could all chip in for a motel room in town? It’ll be about $10 each tops, I reckon.”

We shoot looks at each other. Then at John.

“Oh well,” he shrugs. “We may as well have dinner in town too. What do you think?”