Mock Mars Mission: How to Stay Clean on the Red Planet

Commander Crock Examines Shells
Crew 133 commander Paula Crock bends down to examine some fossilized shells near Utah's Mars Desert Research Station. Staying clean is one of the big challenges after activities outside. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

HANKSVILLE, UTAH – During an orientation walk around the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah on Jan. 5, our crew confronted a steep hill.

Those with hiking experience bounded up the hill like mountain cats. Those less adept (such as me) faced a painful, slippery slide up and down in the mud. It was one of our last activities before going into the full Red Planet "simulation," which includes wearing spacesuits for daily activities.

Crew 133 commander Paula Crock during a "Marswalk" near the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

By the time I got back, my two layers of pants were soaked through and my boots were completely surrounded by mud. Inside our 1,200-square-foot habitat, other crewmembers and I left gobs of sticky clay on the floor as we pried our sweaty feet out of our boots. [See photos of the mock Mars mission]

As with Mars, dust is one of the chief enemies for our University of North Dakota-led crew that is simulating Red Planet exploration. And staying clean in general for Crew 133 is a challenge because, again like crews in space, our water is restricted. A combination of house rules about shoes, and creative showering, helps us keep the mud to a minimum.

There are no laundry facilities at MDRS, so one crewmember suggested taking my muddy pair of pants outside and washing it in the snow. (Thankfully, we weren't into the full simulation yet.) This saved on water and got the worst of the brown off the pants, although they still don't look very clean. In fact, most of the clothes I wear get some sort of dust or dirt on them very quickly.

Outdoor shoes are prohibited on the top floor of our habitat for obvious reasons. Down below, crewmembers try where they can to keep muddy footwear near the entrances. If we're coming from outside wearing spacesuits, however — something we do for most outdoor activities — it's difficult to bend down to untie our shoes. In those cases, a crewmember waits until the mud dries, and cleans up the mess immediately.

Hot water (and water in general) at our facility is limited, and there's no heat in the downstairs bathroom. After a couple of frigid showers, a crewmember bumped up the water heater temperature and found an extra floor heater for the bathroom. That went a long way to making us feel more comfortable.

Over the years, crews have also handed down small ideas for feeling as clean as possible: lotions for dry skin, no-rinse body soap for days when you're not using the shower, and ways of airing out clothes in between wearings so that we can reuse them for a day or two.

Elizabeth Howell will do a two-week simulation at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station from Jan. 4 to 19. Have a burning question about the mission or a picture you really would like to see from the site? E-mail for the chance to get your question answered in a future story.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: