UCL student experiences life on Mars... in Utah

28 October 2011

As part of her MSc in Systems Engineering Management, Angeliki Kapoglou (UCL Space and Climate Physics) spent last spring as a member of an international crew on the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS).

Angeliki Kapoglou outside the MDRS in the Utah desert

The aim of the MDRS is to develop the key knowledge needed to prepare for the human exploration of Mars by simulating the Martian environment. It does this through the Hab station, a cylindrical habitat pod that sits in the Brushy Basin member of the Morrison Formation in the Utah desert.

The project is the brainchild of the Mars Society, a charitable organisation that aims to explore and settle the planet Mars.

Analogue environments, like the MDRS, serve a critical need in the space community by providing a place where protocols, procedures, tools and equipment can be developed and tested in conditions not unlike those expected to be encountered by the first human explorers on Mars.

Angeliki said: “All crews, as soon as they arrive at MDRS, have to live under ‘full-simulation’. This means that we had to adhere to strict mission rules. For example, we couldn’t go outside unless we were wearing our simulated spacesuits. To exit the station, we had to go through the extravehicular activity (EVA) airlock, which had a five-minute depressurisation time before the hatch can be opened.

“We also had to eat dehydrated food and severely limit our water usage. These are some of the mission rules that the Mars Society would like us to adhere to. In turn, we really wanted to follow them and make this as close an approximation as we could to the real thing within our terrestrial constraints.”

For Angeliki, these constraints proved quite challenging during the two-week mission. She commented: “Possibly the biggest challenge to living within a cylindrical habitat with five other people was adjusting to the fact that outside was considered hostile. There were no leisurely walks, no strolls through the park and no lying in grass watching clouds drift by.

“Aside from EVAs, which were more work-oriented than anything else, and engineering rounds, there wasn’t any opportunity to get out of the Hab for any extended period of time.

“Another crazy thing when you live in the desert is the dead silence: no noise, no birds chirping, no leaf that quivers on the trees, no cicada sound. I think it was the first time that I heard the sound of silence… and it was a bit frightening.

“I was also surprised by the fact that boredom was the last of our worries. As I learned at MDRS, overwork and information management are the main concerns in such missions. By dusk, when we were all back inside, it was a mad rush to get all of the reports written by 8pm when Mission Support was online. We never had time to finish everything on our to-do lists, so we had to prioritise what was most important and leave other things for later.”

The MDRS environment, and the mindset it engenders in the crew, provide scientists with a unique opportunity to see technical, psychological and programmatic challenges that they may otherwise be unaware of; develop new solutions; and then test those solutions first-hand.

Only through such first-hand experience can we develop the knowledge that will prove critical for human safety and productivity on the surface of Mars.

Image: Angeliki Kapoglou outside the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert



Links:
Angeliki’s Mars photo set on Flickr
The MDRS homepage