We are in Hanksville in the high desert, in Utah America. Hanksville is not really much more than a petrol station, a motel and a couple of places to get food. On the 30 cent postcards it describes itself as a crossroads and that is it what it feels like. An in between place in the middle of nowhere. After spending a night in the Whispering Sands Motel, we wait to be collected in the Bull Mountain Market (the one and only grocery store for miles around) and it’s not long before someone walks up to us asking if we are Martians. And yes – for the next few days we will be. We’re heading to The Mars Desert Research Station. Hanksville is the nearest place to meet and as the research station sits a couple of miles down an un-signposted dirt track it’s the only way we’d find it.
We’ve been funded to undertake a research trip through Arts Council England’s International Development Fund, and so we’re here to go to the Mars Desert Research Station, a scientific research facility run by the non-profit space advocacy organisation The Mars Society. The research station was built nearly 20 years ago and is visited by researchers from all over the world. They’ve received grants from Elon Musk and NASA, as well as thousands of donations from Mars Society members to keep the facility running and contributing to worldwide space research efforts.
The purpose of the research station (which they call the HAB; short for habitat) is to provide a facility for researchers to simulate living conditions on Mars. Teams of up to seven people visit and normally spend two weeks in simulation but some missions can run up to 80 days. During simulation crews spend their entire time living as close to what it would be like to live on Mars as is possible. They suit up in replica spacesuits every time they leave the HAB, they navigate the Mars like terrain outside on dirt buggies, they cook meals using powdered milk and insect flour, and they have no direct contact with the outside world for the duration of their mission.
We are here as part of a work party, coming into the the HAB to help take stock in between missions and make a few repairs to the equipment. Here’s a picture of the rest of the group.
We’ll also be living in the HAB for 4 days and seeing a bit of what it is like to come here as a researcher. Our time here is going to inform a new project that we are making called The People’s Space Program, where we intend to design and build our own habitat in the UK.
After all supplies are collected we leave the Bull Mountain Market and head in a convoy to the outpost. We have traveled from Salt Lake City with Chris, who is a new member to the Mars Society. His day job is a nurse but, like the rest of the crew we will meet, he also wants to see humans get to Mars within our lifetimes, and so has decided to take some time out to contribute and help out the facility. He drives us along the main road, the view is already vast and dusty. We turn off at the un-signposted Cowdung road, a bumpy dirt track that leads us deeper into the Mars like landscape. After 20 minutes we turn past a collection of red hills to see the white spaceship like building come into view.
We struggle to open the car door. It looks sunny outside but the winds are cold and strong here in the high desert. We are the first to get to the port-holed submarine like door. We pull it open and stand inside the airlock. Crews in simulation must wait here for several minutes before they enter the HAB, waiting for the fictional air pressure to neutralise. We then walk through the second thick door into the facility. The first thing we see are the spacesuits, stacked on shelves in front of us. They are immediately reminiscent of 70’s sci-fi films, made from army style backpacks, each covered in white quilted material and a stitched on red felt number on the back. They are plugged in to charge the battery operated fans inside them, which have been sourced from old computers. One of the members of the crew who is leaving explains how to put on the backpack, attaching drainpipe tubes to the helmet to allow cool air to rush in, simulating the effect that they are actually supplying the oxygen needed to walk on the Martian surface. The spacesuits show a lot of what the Mars Society’s work is about; using what we have here and now on Earth with a sprinkling of fiction and imagination to get ready for interplanetary habitation. Like Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs for seemingly impossible flying machines in 1485, Jules Verne’s vision of man traveling to the moon via a giant space gun in his 1865 book From The Earth To The Moon, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s line drawings for spacesuits sketched in the early 1900s long before any space programme had started; The Mars Society acknowledges that for great advancements to happen we must first imagine our futures before we can live them.
The research station shows us how fiction is needed to drive our practice runs here on Earth, or ‘Mars Earth’. Whilst carrying out specific field research assignments, each crew participates in a suspension of disbelief to really try to experience what it would be like to live and work on another planet.
And the suspension of disbelief really does work. A few days later we put the suits on, and step out through the airlock into the now empty and barren Martian landscape. With the loud sound of the fans whirring in our ears, our voices echoing inside our helmets and our movements weighed down by our cumbersome backpacks, it really does start to feel like we are on another planet.