Paul Sokoloff in front of a rocket installed on a lawn.
It’s long been a not-so-secret aspiration of mine to one day go to space. While I’ll be safely on terra-firma during my stay at the Mars Desert Research Station, a botanist can dream! Image: Warren Cardinal-McTeague © Canadian Museum of Nature

Space inspires—how many of us have dreamed of one day reaching the weightless expanse beyond Earth and traveling to distant planets? I certainly count myself as one of many people, having grown up on a steady diet of Alastair Reynolds, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Jean-Luc Picard, who would jump at the chance to strap into a rocket and journey beyond the atmosphere.

With each passing year, that was once firmly in the realm of science fiction is becoming reality (did you see the 3D printer just shipped to the International Space Station!!). There is a massive community of Canadian researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, and astronauts contributing to the global space community, and next week, I will be proud to consider myself (in a very small way), one of them!

During what I’m sure will count amongst my most interesting vacations, next week I’ll begin a two-week stint as a member of the 143rd crew to staff the Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station in the deserts of southern Utah, USA. Our international crew of six will be conducting analog space research—not only does the landscape in the Moab desert resemble Mars, but we will be living and working as if we actually are on Mars.

Several small buildings and ATVs in a barren, hilly landscape.
The Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah—this eight-metre-diameter white cylinder will be my home and office for the next two weeks. From left: observatory, Hab and GreenHab. Image: Bandgirl807 © Bandgirl807 (Wikimedia Commons license CC-BY-3.0)

The Habitat itself, a squat two-story white cylinder with a design lineage clearly straight out of NASA, is constructed to Martian specifications, complete with airlocks, a workshop/lab, a dining area and crew bunks—all within a shell eight metres in diameter! We’ll get fresh vegetables from the “GreenHab”, a greenhouse designed around some of the most important organisms we would need to bring along off-world: plants!

Most importantly, we’ll be isolated from the outside world—one of the most important aspects of MDRS research is understanding how to maintain the crew’s morale and psychological well-being during extended journeys to the Red Planet.

Collage: A truck and almost a dozen ATVs in a barren landscape, two temporary shelters.
The Mars Institute’s Haughton-Mars Project on Devon Island in 2008. Here, like other analog research sites, exploration of the Canadian Arctic lays the groundwork for the exploration of other worlds. Image: Marisa Gilbert © Canadian Museum of Nature

As such all, our daily activities will take place “in sim”, the research and engineering projects that we will be working on (I’ve been cross-appointed as crew biologist and the Health and Safety officer), will take place under the watchful eye of mission control—and conversations can only take place under a simulated 20-minute delay, after all, radio waves can travel only so fast between Earth and Mars!

Whenever we take a walk (an EVA!), we’ll don spacesuits—simulating fieldwork in the encumbering gear that would sustain actual Martian astronauts. These walks will be a treat to savour, though, because time outside will be tightly controlled. Mars’ conspicuously missing magnetosphere means that surface time equals high radiation exposure for surface crew—so we’ll keep an artificially imposed rem limit in keeping with “sim”.

Aerial view of the Haughton-Mars Project site.
The Haughton-Mars Project site on Devon Island, Nunavut, in 2008. Image: Martin Lipman © Martin Lipman

Analog research like this is best conducted in extreme conditions; the closer the Mars’ cold deserts the better! While MDRS is certainly Mars-like, some of the best, least-accessible Martian analogs are in our own backyard! The Haughton Crater on Devon Island, Nunavut, hosts two analog research sites: the Mars Society’s Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station, and the Mars Institute’s Haughton-Mars Research Project.

Our own Natalia Rybczynski led the team that discovered Puijila darwini in the same crater—recently she recounted seeing crew members from FMARS rambling around the crater in spacesuits, doing their best to pretend the interlopers weren’t there (sim, after all).

A circular building on stilts and two ATVs in a barren landscape.
The Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station at Haughton Crater on Devon Island, Nunavut, in 2009. Image: Brian Shiro © Brian Shiro (Wikimedia Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0)

Knowing me, if I ever make it to FMARS and see Natalia working on the crater, I’d likely excitedly wave, forgetting myself. Either that or I’ll pretend she’s a Martian, and walk over to make first contact—for the good of humankind, you know.