Space research in a Utah desert: How volunteers blaze path toward Mars

They learn to take short showers, put on spacesuits, and do experiments in the desert. Around the world, more than 1,000 space-passionate volunteers have been participating in simulated missions to the red planet over the past two decades. These citizen scientists isolate themselves in a Mars-like environment for weeks – learning lessons that could help humans prepare for the demands of a real-life mission.

In Utah, for example, teams of six to seven rely on solar-powered energy, eat prepackaged frozen food, grow crops and vegetables, suit up to study rocks, and track water usage.

Why We Wrote This

For the space-minded, travel to Mars is the ultimate fantasy. These citizen scientists are harnessing their own dreams of space travel to help solve some of the logistical hurdles for all of humanity.

Collaboration is essential yet challenging. “We had communication issues,” says Christiane Heinicke, who leads the Moon and Mars Base Analog project at University of Bremen in Germany. “We said, ‘OK we need to sort this out. We need to find a solution.’ And that was what helped us carry on to the third quarter.”

“We aren’t leaving Earth to leave Earth problems behind,” says Shannon Rupert, who directs missions in the United States backed by The Mars Society. “Going to Mars … makes us look toward the future, not only on Mars, but here – what do we want Earth to look like when we’re on Mars?”

The morning calm broke as an urgent cry for help rang from Clément Plagne’s space-suited crewmates. It was Day 3 on this simulated excursion to the red planet, and things were getting dicey.

“I’m getting no air from the suit,” one crewmate radioed. “If this weren’t Earth I’d be dead right now.”

“We need to head back to the Hab immediately,” another instructed.

Why We Wrote This

For the space-minded, travel to Mars is the ultimate fantasy. These citizen scientists are harnessing their own dreams of space travel to help solve some of the logistical hurdles for all of humanity.

Inside the “Hab,” a hermetically sealed habitat, Mr. Plagne and two other crew members anxiously waited for the rest of the crew to return from walking on the “Martian” surface. The situation was solved eventually, but they lost time exploring the surrounding terrain.

As an appointed journalist for Crew 223, part of Mr. Plagne’s job during this two-week simulation was to document these roller coaster interludes. The problems encountered at The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MRDS) in the southern Utah desert are valuable data points for disaster prevention and response plans for real-life astronauts.

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