Skip to main content

Mock Mars Mission: Sending Secret Messages On the Red Planet

Mural at Mars Desert Research Station
A flaming astronaut is drawn on one of the staterooms of Utah's Mars Desert Research Station. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Editor's Note: In the Utah desert, scientists attempt to recreate what a real-life mission to Mars might be like. In January, contributor Elizabeth Howell hitched along with Crew 133 for the ride. She sends this look back at hidden messages crew changes on a simulated Red Planet.

A fire ladder remains in a fixed spot on a desk, below a window of Utah's Mars Desert Research Station, just in case it's needed. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

The Mars Desert Research Station is a 1,200-square-foot facility in the middle of the Utah desert and is the property of the Mars Society. Crews staying out here, however, are responsible for keeping it clean and safe for simulated missions to the Red Planet.

My crewmembers went over every square inch of this space in our time there. We pulled out the shelves of equipment in the "EVA room" (extra-vehicular activity room) and vacuumed near the walls. We swept out our rooms and wiped down the shelves.

Along the way, we discovered some interesting messages. Most are functional, but there are a few fun surprises for crews to discover.

A shelf at Utah's Mars Desert Research Station shows where science and non-science is performed. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

The first crew for MDRS came here in 2002. The facility has been through a few renovations since that time. For example, some painting a summer or two ago eliminated the tradition of putting crew patches on the doors. ("It looks cleaner," MDRS director Shannon Rupert told in December.)

Certain spots at Utah's Mars Desert Research Station are not suitable for storage, as this message on a high shelf warns. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

Certain messages do remain scattered around the MDRS habitat. A large reason for that is institutional memory. Crew handovers are brief, lasting a few hours, and it's possible that somebody could forget that it's not a good idea to store items near the circuit breaker panel, for example.

Other messages are more humorous. On a shelf in the great room downstairs, the word "Science" and an arrow points to the items on the shelf. "Non-Science" points to the wall, where presumably it would be more difficult to do that kind of work.

The crew "staterooms" or bedrooms also have murals from people presumably looking for something to do during the two weeks here. The best among them is a flaming astronaut.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: