Crew explores ‘Mars’ during simulated mission in Utah desert

Posted at 10:00 PM, Feb 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-09 00:00:20-05

SOUTHEASTERN UTAH -- Three individuals are simulating a mission to Mars for the next two weeks in a desolate area in southeastern Utah.

The crew explores the area as they would the Red Planet, located 48 million miles away from Earth.

"We are go to proceed with our hike," one of the red space-suited figures says, over a radio.

They're hiking on "Mars," collecting soil samples. The trio will then test the powdery, clay-like specimens for small meteorite particles called micrometeorites.

Those particles, "Will give us answers to what the solar system was like prior to the formation of the planets," says another crew member.

Across their radio communication, they discuss where to collect samples next.

"We are going up this hill," one person says.

The group scales the foreign landscape as part of the day's Extra Vehicular Activity.

After digging and dropping dirt into a pail at a number of spots, the group takes the samples and jets off on ATVs, back to the place they call home for the two-week mission: The Mars Desert Research Station.

Meet Crew 162: Commander, Astronomer and Green Habitat (GreenHab) Officer Renee Garifi. Carmen Felix serves as the Health and Safety Officer and Crew Journalist. Rounding out the three is Executive Officer and Engineer Anderson Wilder.

Each has a specific role to keep the Mars mission running.

As part of her commander duties, Garifi said she is in charge of, "overseeing the day-to-day operation flow, team activities, making sure that the objectives we set forth in the morning get done by the evening."

As an astronomer, she's also in charge of the modest, yet state-of-the art observatory-- one of the three structures at MDRS.

And as the GreenHab Officer, she helps run greenhouse operations and plant studies.

While for Felix, "I have international certification for First Aid. So I am prepared, helping others in case of need."

Felix takes responsibility for the well-being of her team, keeping track of proper nutrition with their dried food diet.

Felix also catalogues their journey, through writing and filming.

As Engineer, Wilder says he, "Will go out and check on… all the supplies that the Hab needs to run. So the fuel, propane, the water, and our EVA vehicles, ATVs we drive. I have to go out and check on each of these aspects every day to make sure that they’re still up and running so we can survive here."

All three are alumni of the International Space University in France.

Their love of what's beyond the sky brought them to MDRS, situated deep in the heart of the Utah desert.

It’s run by the Mars Society, an organization whose main purpose is to work toward exploration and settlement of Mars.

"It doesn't feel like any place on Earth that I've ever been, so it really helps me get into the mindset of a future Mars astronaut," Garifi explains.

The landscape and conditions here, they say, is as close to the Red Planet as you can get.

"Stepping outside the airlock on my first EVA, I really felt like I was in a different world," Anderson commented.

That feeling helps them get into what's called their simulation, or analog.

Essentially, they are acting as if they truly do live on Mars.

The crew gears up in pseudo-space suits any time they step outside.

After all, the air on Mars is toxic.

Before they step outside in the sturdy boots, red jumpsuit, bubble-like helmet, space pack and gloves, they depressurize in an airlock.

The depressurization cycle to get them ready to enter the Mars atmosphere takes three minutes.

Same goes when they re-enter the MDRS Hab. They must wait three minutes after exiting the Mars environment before they can come back inside and disrobe from their suits.

The only time they don't have to wear the suits-- when they walk the wire tunnels outside between the Hab, newly-built GreenHab greenhouse and the Musk Observatory.

Donning the space suit certainly makes getting around a challenge.

"It's pretty clunky. The gloves are kind of hard to write with because I have to take down all my notes," Wilder said. "The dirt isn't too stable out here so you can kind of fall over sometimes."

Another challenge of staying in sim: isolation from the outside world.

No cell phones allowed here, and internet is extremely limited.

"It has an impact not being able to grab a phone and call your family," Felix admitted.

But, Wilder stresses, to break sim-- "Would defeat the purpose of the real science that's trying to be done here."

And the crew is running real experiments.

For one, they are testing out NASA plant-watering systems.

Garifi says they're exploring how to grow fruits and vegetables in space without soil.

“One thing that we’re studying with our two prototype sets of hardware, are [sic] Chinese cabbage," she says, showing off the experiment.

She said those two prototype systems could provide the key to next-generation space food.

Wilder is running a socio-mapping study.

He explained that he partnered with a company in the Czech Republic to study how the three interact with and relate to each other.

Understanding crew psychology amid the isolating environment is an important part of space missions, he said.

Another study focuses on astrophotography, Wilder said. They took photos from the telescope in the Musk Observatory during a rare celestial event: a five-planet alignment.

He said they are studying the photos to see how the solar system has changed overtime.

Then there's the soil collection for meteorite research, one of the purposes for the daily EVAs.

Garifi says they sift through the soil, and look at specimens under a tiny microscope to see if they can find micrometeorites that fell to earth.

The Utah desert, she said, is a prime place to look for those tiny treasures.

These studies, they say, will help further life in space, and will prove valuable for a real mission to Mars.

"For me, it's an opportunity to play a tiny part in the future of human space exploration," Wilder said.

So, as they carry out their sim life on a planet far, far away, dreams of stars, space and the future swirl in the desert rocks and sands, right here in Utah.

"Fifty years ago, we'd never even left the planet," Garifi pointed out. "Imagine what we could do in another 50."