Mars in the desert
Outside Hanksville, Utah
By Jim Urquhart
I may be a Red Shirt but I made it to Mars.
According to Urban Dictionary (the finest source of American literature), a Red Shirt is defined as; A character in a science fiction or adventure story whose sole dramatic purpose is to get killed by the story’s villain and/or itinerant monster. Taken from the propensity of security officers on the original Star Trek series (who typically wore red uniform tops) to be killed in the episodes’ pre-opening-credits teasers.
When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut but I never had the discipline to follow through. At one point I wanted to be a scientist but I barely made it out of high school and later dropped out of college but not until after I learned a little chemistry for recreational use in my younger days.
Even with my Red Shirts I have always been wanted to be around people that put their minds and bodies to the test. I even married a woman that has three Master’s degrees and is working on her Ph. D. I have always prided myself in consuming as much science news as possible. To me, the mind and the search for tangible knowledge is the fuel for dreams and will lead you to adventures in life.
So with that said, when I heard about the Mars Desert Research Station in the desert of southern Utah I knew I had to go. I had tried for years to go but my story pitches never made the cut, maybe I wasn’t an experienced enough photojournalist at the time for an agency to trust me with an assignment that took quite an investment to tackle. At times I had thought this place was going to be my Red Shirt assignment.
But now it seems in recent years science and space exploration have become sexy again. I made the story pitch and then I was on the road. Traveling through the desert of southern Utah is always a treat. It is a stark and naked land that has not seen much of the touch of man and at many places is devoid of any life. And as a fan of science, I have always been a fan of movies that dealt with space is some way and Utah has played host to many of my favorites. With those images in mind, I have often found myself pretending in my head that the trail I was hiking was actually on a distant planet and I was searching for signs of alien life.
The research station is set perfectly in a landscape that could easily pass as an alien world. Countless creatures and space travelers have met their fates on the silver screen in this land. Much of the science taking place on site is based on a simulation of conditions and the environment of Gale Crater on Mars where Curiosity is exploring.
When I reached the station I was greeted by a young crew of excited scientists. I am in my mid 30’s and I am sure I had 10 years on some of these faces. But these were my heroes with awesome titles like Commander, XO, Habitat Engineer and Health and Safety Officer. These were the faces of who are leading the way for man to explore beyond our blue dot. During the cooler winter months crews of six scientists (geologist, biologist and engineers and many others) rotate through simulations of how it would be to live on Mars.
It may be uncomfortable. Everything you need to survive you need to be able to produce on site or bring it with you and be able to fix if it breaks down. Despite only being able to shower every few days for only a couple of minutes in order to conserve water, their station did not smell like a gerbil cage.
The Mars Society has been in charge of creating an environment for experts and students to study how science would be done on a Martian world. Over the last 10 years 32-year-old geologist Melissa Battler has spent over 200 days living and working in a Mars simulation either in the desert of Utah or on Devon Island in the Arctic. She was the commander of the crew on mission that I spent time with in Utah.
It’s her studies and others like it that are paving the way for us to make the jump off this planet. But it takes serious dedication. Over the past 10 years she has worked an average of nearly three weeks a year in a space suit mock-up trying to do her job. Geologists rely on their sense of sight, touch and even taste to unravel stories from stone. Now imagine trying to do your job with three or more senses taken away from you.
Then there are guys like Matthew Cross whose background is in engineering and who is studying how to make rovers work alongside man during missions. “Coming out and seeing the geologist use the equipment hands on is a different thing… its one thing to hear and read about it about, its another to experience it first hand.”
But they were also just people enjoying the experience. They had co-opted the names and characters from the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica to entertain themselves while cut off from much of the outside world. At one point when Matthew was trouble shooting a problem with their rover, Volker Maiwald, the XO and habitat engineer from Germany, came over and touched the rover. For a moment when it seemed to come to life they joked that he was part Cylon.
I understood the reference because I remember growing up watching the original series with my sister who is a devoted fan of the latest version of the series. She too has been dedicated to learning all she can of the world. I will always cherish the time spent watching Star Trek: The Next Generation together, imagining myself as an awesome Number One preceded by the spoken words of “Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before” where ever I showed up.
Regretfully my time in southern Utah and on Mars had to come to an end. As I made the drive back to the nearby town of Hanksville on the dusty road I kept thinking to myself that this group of six embodies so much of what I wish I could become. They were passionate and chasing their dreams.
As Mission Commander Melissa Battler said, “Humans, we are explorers… there are a lot of obstacles but we can overcome those obstacles.”