Mock Mars Mission: How to Simulate the Red Planet on Earth

Mars Desert Research Station Crew Members Outdoors
Once crew members at the Mars Desert Research Station enter simulation, they are required to wear spacesuits while outdoors, in most situations. From left, Crew 133 members Matthieu Komorowski, Gordon Gartrelle and Joseph Jessup. (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 how to emulate a Martian environment on Earth.

While working at the Mars Desert Research Station in rural Utah for three weeks in January, Crew 133 needed to observe several rules to make the simulation as realistic as possible.

As participants at the Mars Society facility, we needed to do everything possible to feel as if we were working on the Red Planet while performing our experiments and doing our daily chores. Once we entered simulation, most of us were allowed outside only while wearing a spacesuit. (There are some limited exceptions to that rule, such as for the crew engineer's daily rounds as he takes measurements on the usage of water and other consumables.)

As water at the Mars Desert Research Station is limited, it requires continual monitoring from crew members. Pictured is Crew 133 engineer Joseph Jessup. (Image credit: Elizabeth Howell)

We also had a three-minute period in the "airlock" (the door to the outside) where we simulate the oxygen pre-breathing procedures astronauts go through to purge nitrogen from their bloodstream. In space, there's a chance that crippling bubbles in the bloodstream could form if the astronaut ventures outside without doing this, which can lead to a painful problem called "the bends." [See photos of the mock Mars mission]

Water in the habitat was monitored and limited. Crewmembers could only take a shower every second day for about two minutes, at most. We also were urged to flush the toilet only occasionally and to turn off the water while brushing our teeth. The only time we were encouraged to use lots of water was for drinking, because the desert makes for a very dry environment inside the MDRS habitat.

The Internet was limited for most of the day, and uploads and downloads took a while. We stopped all automatic updates on our computers. This meant that we couldn't use Skype. As soon as we entered the habitat, we also were told to turn off our cell phones or to put them into airplane mode to make sure that we were not unnecessarily using bandwidth. Exclusive T-shirt. Available to Populate Mars. Buy Now (Image credit: Store)

We weren't allowed to make cell-phone calls because that would not be an accurate simulation of Mars to Earth communications, where there would be a 20-minute time delay on average. Every night, crew members spent two hours communicating with a volunteer "Mission Control" by e-mail, but no time delay was introduced in these e-mails because of the time it would take.

While we were allowed to bring food on site, nothing perishable was allowed — so no salads, fruits, vegetables or the like unless they are dehydrated. The Mars Society gave us two large bins — so large that each is best carried by two people — of granola bars, pasta, powered liquids, chocolate, spices and lots of other types of food of this sort. Our crew did a junk-food run just before coming on site, so we had a stash of candy, cookies and chips ready when we needed something different.

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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: