My Son, the Martian

The Mars Desert Research Station in Utah is dedicated to examining how humans may explore Mars. 

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It’s a long drive to Mars, often from the Denver airport. The trip passes dead mines, waterfalls and ravines of the Rocky Mountains before it opens into the alien-looking high desert of Utah. The red, orange and yellow dirt, tonal layers of rock and startling blue sky are a surprise of color, with a rare overlay of purple groundcover after a rain. A sliver of dirt road threads through a narrow valley that opens up, and the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) Habitat appears as a white capsule beside a mound of rock against a butte backdrop. The low white bubbles nearby are the observatory and greenhouse. The MDRS is privately operated by The Mars Society, an organization dedicated to examining how humans may explore Mars.

Pete Morgan-Dimmick standing halfway up a butte. | Josh Borchardt
Pete Morgan-Dimmick standing halfway up a butte. | Josh Borchardt

The Hollow Mountain Gas Station in Hanksville stocks everything a desert dweller could need, including water for the MDRS. Twice a week, their pumper trundles 7.1 miles to fill the water tank behind the habitat (Hab). Inside the Hab, six scientists and engineers monitor their water use for two weeks while they conduct research that adds to the collective intelligence about human life beyond Earth. My 28-year-old son Pete Morgan-Dimmick, was one of them.

It was another step on a long journey for Pete, who set his sights beyond the terrestrial at age four and declared his goal was to be an astronaut.  Before kindergarten, he took apart a tape player to see how it worked and was building customized computers by middle school, curiosity and practice that served his space-exploration plans.

Like everyone at MDRS, Pete was a volunteer. He went through a rigorous application process and was then grouped in a crew of six for a two-week rotation in April 2014. He used all his job leave, kissed his fiancée goodbye, submitted his $1000 supply fee, and paid his 2,600-mile round-trip travel expenses between Texas and the MDRS. Some participants bring their own equipment and supplies, but they all carry an enduring passion for space exploration and discovery.

“By getting people involved and excited about science and space exploration, we’re creating the people who will do it for real in the future,” says Pete, “We’re creating interest, excitement, and experience in the people who will one day be planning and performing such a mission for real.”

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The Mars Desert Research Station isn’t space camp. It’s real science and technology done by experts, the doers, in those fields. They publish papers of MDRS discoveries that inform the scientific community. They work in simulated isolation to reveal what does and doesn’t work in that kind of environment. To that end, the Hab is a small two-story cylinder similar to the close quarters of a spacecraft.

The MDRS 2000 | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick
The MDRS 2000 | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick

Team-building for the group of strangers began over a casual meal at Blondie’s Eatery in Hanksville before they officially settled into the Hab and their work as Crew 141. Pete, executive officer for the rotation, studied space and interdisciplinary science as an undergrad, worked in computer hardware and has a master’s in space systems, with another underway in space architecture. Team members often share qualifications, including multiple post-graduate degrees in science and engineering, scuba certifications, pilot licenses, and experience with the computer and aerospace fields in industry and academia.

Their skills go well beyond professional training, because, just like with a real Mars crew, if something goes wrong, they have to fix it on site. As Pete says, “beyond Earth orbit, there’s no one to call.”

Each crew member had a specific role. Boeing aerospace engineer Alex Diaz, who specializes in human space transportation, assigned and oversaw crew tasks as the team’s Commander. The desert was a perfect practice field for his focus on Extra Vehicular Activities (EVAs).

As executive officer, Pete was second-in-command. He gave support to any tasks that needed it and wrote the official reports. His goal was to enhance his work as a NASA flight controller for the International Space Station and to form “a better understanding of the perspective and conditions of astronauts in space.” There’s a lot of cross-over, and during his stay, Pete also served as commander, engineer and journalist.

Josh Borchardt on the ATV ready to pull the rescue stretcher. | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick
Josh Borchardt on the ATV ready to pull the rescue stretcher. | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick

Kavya Manyapu was crew engineer, a Boeing flight test engineer with an eye to launch humanity in its search for “countless beacons” of life beyond Earth. She was in charge of the ATVs, water, fuel, and Hab repairs.

Science teacher Josh Borchardt was health and safety officer for first aid and safety compliance, with the unofficial title of crew biologist. His work with plants in the GreenHab helped unearth new agricultural opportunities in deserts or other small localized areas with limited food-growing advantages.

Science Officer Humberto De Las Casas Zolezzi is a mechatronics engineer and was a returning member from a previous crew. He designed, ran, tracked and reported scientific findings. He joined this exercise because of a promise he made to himself to try to always “be part of the change the world needs.” He also finds it invaluable to work with crew from so many professions and places “with the common goal of a better future for humanity.”

MDRS Hab, rover and astronaut. | Kavya Manyapu
MDRS Hab, rover and astronaut. | Kavya Manyapu

The journalist was Christopher Cokinos, an author, naturalist and University of Arizona associate professor of English. His task was to pen the crew blog and record all activities.  He even provided a list of “Some Science Fiction to Read While Thinking of Mars and Habitats.”

Jorge Mirez had served as commander of the preceding crew and stayed on to continue a long investigation. Jorge’s interpreter was Humberto, a fellow Peruvian.

As diverse as they were, the crew were united in their motivation.  In Josh’s words, “I’ve always considered myself an adventurer … I think of this as an endeavor … I can help contribute to humanity but also learn more about myself in the process.”

The team cooked and ate together every evening. They relaxed with movie and music nights, plus yoga and meditation exercises led by Kavya and Christopher, as well as individual downtime. Late in the day, their attention was on the two-hour window of internet access.

As valuable as teambuilding exercises were, they were eclipsed by the work.  Many tasks were initiated by “what if … ?” What if the crew lost their communication systems? What if a crew member fell into a crater? What if food resupply from Earth were delayed?  Crews anticipate as many “what could go wrong” scenarios as they can, and seek viable solutions.

Kavya Manyapu (right) signals "you" and "air" to Chris Cokinos (left) as he responds "air good." | Pete Morgan-Dimmick
Kavya Manyapu (right) signals “you” and “air” to Chris Cokinos (left) as he responds “air good.” | Pete Morgan-Dimmick

The team initiated a project to create hand signals for communication without radios. Conditions were perfect – a language barrier, bulky spacesuits, and an EVA mini-rover with no microphone. The crew came up with gestures big enough to be seen from a distance, that were unambiguous, easily recognized and accommodated the mobility restrictions of space suits. They designed signals to check personal well-being, radio communications, directions, visibility, mobility and speed, as well as movement and alert status. They were later shared with an astronaut-trainer at NASA.

Jorge had brought to Mars/Utah what Pete described as a set of “giant tinker toys of wheels and parts” that he used to build a bicycle that could be reconfigured as a rock cart. Another set of the same pieces was made into a stretcher that would accommodate the huge backpack of an injured crewmember. Everybody and everything should be as multi-purpose as possible.

Josh Borchardt and Kavya Manyapu in the GreenHab | Alex Diaz
Josh Borchardt and Kavya Manyapu in the GreenHab | Alex Diaz

Josh spent much of his time in the greenhouse, the heart of any environmentally enclosed life-support system. An on-site greenhouse “reduces the need for or weight of resupply ships from Earth … provides oxygen and edible food, purifies air and water, and adds to the psychological well-being of the people on board.” His experiments yielded information about how certain plants could, with the right support, grow in thin Martian soil. He believes these are among the first steps in the creation of an extraterrestrial closed habitat that he sees as “lush with life”.

There were few unexpected events on excursions, but one was the discovery of water at the bottom of a wide, deep crevice. Finding water in the desert is a nice surprise, so the crew marked the coordinates and returned the next day to drop a long narrow container for collecting water samples that were then returned to the lab for testing. Like all discoverers of uncharted territory, Crew 141 had the privilege of naming the site. The area around the Hab is covered with tiny seashells, remnants of the sea bed it once was, so Kavya dubbed their muddy discovery The Red Ocean.

Raising a water sample from The Red Ocean | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick
Raising a water sample from The Red Ocean | Courtesy of Pete Morgan-Dimmick

Everyone from Crew 141 has an unwavering passion for the mysteries of space. As the person who raised the executive officer, this writer knows that they never lose sight of the overall human benefits and developments that space exploration creates, from freeze-dried food and Velcro to medical developments that can help treat Multiple Sclerosis. These smart, brave people perpetuate the human trajectory of “What’s next?” Their progress at MDRS is documented with supporting photos.