The Real World, Mars

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EVA mission to fix radio repeater on cliff above the Hab
EVA mission to fix radio repeater on cliff above the Hab

Mars Desert Research Station, Utah; April 12, 2004—The other five members of Crew 28 were already at the Hab when I arrived. I climbed the ladder to the upper level and joined them. We sat on metal chairs around a plastic table, chatting with members of the outgoing crew. It was easy to tell who belonged to which crew. Where we were apprehensive and self-conscious, they were relaxed and confident. We were clean; they looked like refugees. In short, they were a real crew. For now, we were still strangers.

Our commander, Gus Frederick, was a big, affable guy from Oregon. Recently laid off, he’d built an automated hydroponic “Salad Machine,” as he called it, from old Brita water pitchers fitted with aquarium pumps. His main objective was to install the Salad Machine in the GreenHab, a barrel-shaped greenhouse next to the Hab, and have sprouts ready for the next crew to harvest. Kathleen Johnson, an artist from Los Angeles, had an interest in what she described as “speculative architecture,” of which the Hab was an example. A soft-spoken Englishman and planetary scientist, Greg Michael cataloged Mars impact craters for the European Space Agency. He was here to get a feel for Mars that he couldn’t get from analyzing two-dimensional photographs. Gregorio Drayer held fund-raisers to pay for his trip to Utah from Venezuela. He was working on a master’s degree in electrical engineering, but he had every intention of becoming the first Venezuelan in space. The youngest member of our crew was Alyssa Rzeszutko, a cheerful aerospace engineering student from Chicago who has dreamed of becoming an astronaut since she was in sixth grade. She was in the middle of final exams when she accepted a last-minute crew slot.

The outgoing crew prepared dinner: chopped hot dogs and canned beans ladled over a bed of instant rice. I’d missed the handover training earlier that day, but I picked up the basics of Hab maintenance as we ate. Refuel the diesel generator every eight hours. Switch on the main water pump when levels in the tank dipped below nine gallons. And whatever you do, don’t put toilet paper in the toilet. Used toilet paper was to be thrown out, a delicate process that, I later learned, required a ballet dancer’s poise and dexterity.

After dinner, the commander of the outgoing crew announced that one of the six staterooms was empty for the night. Did any of us want it? All of us wanted it, of course. The alternative was sleeping on the common area’s filthy carpeted floor, which smelled of unwashed feet and sent little plumes of pink dust into the air when we walked across it. We glanced furtively at each other, none of us wanting to stake such a selfish claim so early in our two-week rotation. It seemed logical to me that Gus should get the room. Before I could make the suggestion, however, Kathleen volunteered to take it. Then she hesitated, as if surprised by her own words.

“I mean, if no one minds,” she demurred.

No one said anything as Kathleen dragged her gear into the empty stateroom and shut the door. The rest of us rolled out our air mattresses and sleeping bags in the common area, a half-moon-shaped section of the upper level that served as the crew’s office, kitchen, and living room. There was barely enough floor space for five of us to lay down side-by-side without knocking elbows.

The outgoing crew departed the next morning. They seemed glad to be leaving, and we were glad to see them go. We wanted the Hab to ourselves, and we spent most of the day cleaning it. After three field seasons, the Hab was beginning to show obvious signs of wear. Two heavy steel doors, the sort that belonged on a meat locker, drooped on their hinges. To enter and leave the Hab you had to wrestle them over the thresholds. Immediately inside each door was an airlock, a circular vestibule the size of an elevator car. The airlocks opened into the Hab’s lower level, which was partitioned into small rooms: toilet; shower; EVA prep room, where the space suits hung on wooden pegs; and the lab, an open area with corrugated steel floor plates. The cabinets in the lab were crammed with tools and glass beakers that contained nothing but dust. Old lab equipment and rock specimens of unknown origin crowded the countertop.

The atmosphere on Mars is too thin to block ultraviolet radiation. It’s doubtful that astronauts would live above ground; and if they did, they probably wouldn’t have windows. Thankfully, we did. Bright desert light streamed into the Hab through portholes made of double-layered Plexiglas. The commander had the only stateroom with a window, but his room was no bigger than the rest. All of them were narrow, airless closets that smelled of soiled laundry. The names of previous occupants, going all the way back to the first crew, were taped to the doors.

On the wall of my room someone had tacked up fanciful illustrations torn from the pages of a sci-fi magazine. They depicted astronauts stabbing pennants into the purple soil of a distant planet. Hanging from a nail on the back wall was a bent coat hanger wrapped in eight ounces of wadded duct tape. A curled yellow Post-It note stuck next to it was labeled “mouse swatter.” Dried mouse turds ticked inside the plastic vacuum hose as I cleaned underneath my wooden cot while holding my breath for fear of inhaling Hanta virus spores.

We planned to go into full Mars simulation mode in two day’s time, so I went outside as often as I could to get some fresh air. I leaned against my car and smoked cigarettes. On one occasion, I heard a strange buzzing noise. I knelt on the powdery red soil and squinted into the shadow beneath my car. When my pupils adjusted, a small rattlesnake appeared less than a foot from my exposed wrist. It was coiled upon itself, head raised in alarm, its tail vibrating. Slowly, I stood up and backed away toward the Hab. I wasn’t on Mars yet, but I was still a two-hour Mercy Flight from a capsule of antivenin.