Life on Mars: Purdue students at the Mars Desert Research Station

Author: Kenneth Pritchard
AAE student Kenneth Pritchard shares his experiences as part of a Purdue team on a two-week mission simulating the experiences of crew life on a research station on the red planet.
group photo of the crew in front of the MDRS
Crew 272 outside the main habitat just before beginning our simulation. This humble structure contains all of the bedrooms, the kitchen, the restroom/shower, a common area, and all of our EVA equipment.

A team of Purdue students went on a two-week mission to the Mars Desert Research Station, simulating the experiences of crew life on a research station on the red planet. Below is an account of their trip from Kenneth Pritchard, a Purdue AAE student and the team's journalist. The team is accepting applications for the next crew — the deadline to apply is April 21. Fill out the form on their website.

Hanksville, Utah is one of the closest places you can get to the surface of Mars – not in terms of physical distance, but due to the two locations’ shared affinity for sun-soaked sands, an alien landscape, and the conspicuous presence of one Mars Desert Research Station.  This facility, often shortened to MDRS, is an analog space habitat maintained by the Mars Society. Like other habitats of its kind, MDRS hosts researchers for rotations in live simulation of operations inside (and outside) the deep space habitats of the future. Analog astronauts of various backgrounds come to study the associated challenges of living and working in remote isolation. The red, iron-rich backdrop of the Utah desert provides authentic Martian context to this research. Our crew was the 272nd to visit MDRS, and it was the fifth crew comprised entirely of Purdue students and staff.

Kshijit preparing poha
The crew engaging in some early morning yoga.
Kshijit preparing poha
Kshitij in the midst of preparing some tasty breakfast poha.

Crew 272, dubbed the “Purdue Redusters,” was fearlessly led by Commander Kshitij Mall, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Kshitij is a veteran analog astronaut who previously participated in one of Purdue’s first two-week rotations at MDRS. He worked with the Space & Earth Analogs Research Chapter of Purdue (SEARCH) to assemble this year’s crack team of student space explorers from hundreds of applicants. After several months of meetings and research project development, we set out for MDRS with a crew of seven, including representation from four schools (AAE, ABE, EAPS, and ME) and three countries (US, India, and Canada)! A support network was formed by Purdue Mission Control, our primary advisor, Prof. Cesare Guariniello, other research advisors and collaborators, and our ever-reliable backup crew.

sunrise over the desert as seen through a small round window
A colorful view of the Martian sunrise through a window on the upper deck.
a view of a rock feature in the desert. three students in space suits walk in the foreground
Three crew members head out on foot for an EVA. When the destination was within walking distance, we’d leave the rovers behind to conserve power. Like on Mars, the high iron content in the soil near MDRS gives it a red coloration.

An average ‘sol’ at MDRS started with some light exercise led by our health and safety officer, Megan Rush. Stretching is much needed after we emerge from our tiny bunk rooms – floor space doesn’t come cheap when you need to fit seven people in a space-portable dome! We ate our gourmet dehydrated breakfasts together each morning, and for dessert we’d enjoy a group briefing on the sol’s plans. Crew Geologist Adriana Brown typically led groups of four in our near-daily extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) to nearby geologic formations with names like Cowboy’s Corner, Candor Chasma, and Kissing Camel Ridge.

The view from the window of the science dome, where many crew members sought quiet time to get work done.
The view from the window of the science dome, where many crew members sought quiet time to get work done.
spa time
Some much needed ‘spa time’ after a hard day’s work. Pictured is the upper deck of the main habitat, a multipurpose room where we spent most of our time.

In the spirit of true simulation, the air outside was considered to be unbreathable. This meant a strict pre-EVA procedure of donning bulky air-circulating EVA suits, checking out radio equipment, and performing a prebreathe session in the airlock. For destinations out of range on foot, we’d climb into electric rovers and motor over. Aside from geological investigations on site, Kshitij could conduct his field research on radio navigation, and our Crew Engineer Mason Kuhn could pilot a nifty Mars-operable Skydio 2 drone for terrain scouting and mock search-and-rescue missions. The personal rewards for making these treks were gorgeous rust-colored vistas in the desert topography.

Megan holding two rock hammers that were 3D-printed
Megan and the replacement rock hammers she 3D printed using different materials. 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, will be an important capability on future space missions. It allows crews to independently create or replace tools. Engineers on Earth can even design components and send the files via data transfer – it’s much cheaper than sending another rocket.
Mason tinkering with a malfunctioning EVA suit in the lower deck of the main habitat
Mason tinkering with a malfunctioning EVA suit in the lower deck of the main habitat (he fixed it!).

There was plenty to do for anyone stuck back at the ‘Hab’ during the EVA. Via airlocks and tunnels connected to the main living dome, we could reach the Science Dome with a lab and workstations, the Musk Observatory, the Repair and Maintenance Module, and a greenhouse called the GreenHab. On a given sol at the Hab, GreenHab Officer Madelyn Whitaker was often tending to the thriving microgreens. Our scientist, Arly Black, might have been processing data regarding the effects of isolation on cognitive performance factors, while I (Crew Journalist Kenny Pritchard) crafted a sol summary and planned living schedules for sols to come. We’d debrief upon the return of the EVA group and enjoy some kind of dehydrated powder medley for dinner – just like mom used to make! After our narrow window for report-writing and external communications, the evening brought some free time to unwind, as mental wellbeing is an important component of crew health in space missions.

four students in space suits in an airlock
An EVA group crammed in the main airlock prior to leaving the Hab. In space missions, it’s necessary to perform a ‘prebreathe’ to prevent decompression sickness from decreased pressure inside the space suits. This is similar to the controlled descent procedures adopted by scuba divers.
Madelyn tending to plants in the greenhab
Madelyn conducting her microbiome research in the GreenHab. She grew radish sprouts to test the effectiveness of a newly developed soil for space habitats – the crew even got to taste test them near the end of the mission.

Throughout the two weeks of exploration, maintaining the Hab, and surviving the uncertainties of an inhospitable environment (and each other’s constant company), we were often forced to adapt to changing conditions in order to accomplish our academic goals. Sometimes this meant adjusting a schedule, and sometimes it meant devising a crafty solution, like when we 3D printed replacement tools as part of Megan’s project. The experience was overwhelmingly educational in many ways. We learned to gel as a team, master novel procedures, and produce research under unforgiving circumstances. It’s safe to say that MDRS left its mark on us – I hope we can say the same about our impact on analog habitat research and our university’s pioneering involvement in the field. Carrying on the legacy, Crews 288 and 289 will depart from Purdue next December.

Students in simulated space suits holding a Purdue banner in the desert
Boiler Up!

Publish date: April 20, 2023
Author: Kenneth Pritchard