Museum botanist Paul Sokoloff is completing a scientific “vacation”…at a Mars simulation station in the deserts of Utah! Here he shares some daily diary entries that cover his two-week experience.

Day One

Stepping through the airlock to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) made it all real. We arrived at the MDRS on the evening of November 15, and introduced ourselves to crew 142, the outgoing expedition that had opened the “hab” (the station’s base) for the season two weeks previous. Just as with my own crew two days earlier, we all made fast friends. Crew 142 briefed us on the various ins-and-outs of the “hab”, and we celebrated the completion of their mission with a pizza dinner from the only pizza place in town.

Image of the large cylindrical space station.
View of the “hab”, the large pod that serves as the home and lab space for Paul and his crewmates. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Two

After crew 142 departed this morning, our team sat down to plan out the two-week rotation. Sounds like a lot to do, and the crew is looking forward to beginning our research projects. With one last night free before the simulation begins, we headed out at night to practice a little astrophotography—the night skies here are spectacular!

Four people ride ATV’s into the desert.
Crew members head out on a geological trip, all the while wearing the required space suits. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Three

Our first full day in “sim” (simulation) started off as all days do on Mars—with coffee! It was our first day for an EVA (extravehicular activity or “space” walk); the four-person EVA team took nearly an hour to suit up while familiarizing ourselves with the gear. After a five-minute cycle in the airlock we stepped out onto the surface of “Mars”! We spent the next two hours tromping around the desert collecting plant and rock samples, and performing basic maintenance around the hab. The time passed quickly, and before we knew it, it was back to the airlock to return —EVAs are as tightly controlled here as they would be on Mars. The day ended with the team huddled around our laptops pounding out reports; on Mars, communication with Earth would be limited each day, and a two-hour window of time in which to file our daily logs simulates this.

View of the Utah desert, with lichen-covered boulder in foreground, and a member of the crew in behind.
A member of crew 143, wearing the proper spacesuit, is dwarfed by the vast landscape of the Utah desert, which serves as an analog for Mars. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Six

A documentary crew from Earth visited us today. They seem like hardy folks—they could even walk around the “Martian” landscape without pressure suits. They must be some sort of advanced robot…I kid you! The crew was from the French channel Arte, who came to interview an MDRS crew for a documentary series on manned spaceflight. They were keenly interested in what we were doing, and more importantly, why we were here. For each crew member, the answer was remarkably similar—because the work we do at MDRS gets humanity one step closer to space, and to Mars.

A French documentary crew from Arte interviews crew members in the Utah desert.
A French documentary crew from Arte interviews crew members in the Utah desert. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Seven

Today was my day off. Well, sort of. As part of the simulated mission parameters, we are restricted to one EVA for the crew per day, and the outside team has to be back in the hab within four hours. On top of that, only four crew members are permitted to be on EVA at any one time, so “Mars” walks are very tightly planned around here. Each person does something different when they stay in the hab. Some work, some clean, some catch up on sleep. Today, with a relatively free schedule, I cooked and surprised the incoming EVA team with homemade pizza!

Day Eight

As the crew’s botanist, and its health and safety officer, you’d think I’d know better than to pick up a cactus in the desert, even while wearing my suit gloves. But no, I had to go and collect it. I spent a good 20 minutes picking stinging hairs out of my hand once we got back to the hab. Still, today was very productive—a team of four, including myself and our resident geologist, Paul K., proceeded on ATVs to Tank Wash Stream north of the hab. This was a very rich site for our scientific projects, and at the end of the EVA
I entered the airlock with an overflowing bag of plant specimens.

A cactus in the desert.
Watch out! Cacti are some of the vegetation documented by Paul Sokoloff during his scientific collecting. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Ten

Another Martian day, another productive EVA. Fun Fact: on Mars a day is called a sol, and is 37 minutes longer than a day here on Earth. Today we collected geological and biological specimens close to the hab, and as has happened often on this trip, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the biodiversity in the desert—everything from great swaths of lichens blanketing sandstone boulders, to many species of the legume genus Astragalus (the group I studied for my Master’s degree), and even cyanobacteria growing inside rocks collected out in the desert. The biodiversity I was less pleasantly surprised to find was the rat we discovered scampering about the hab!

Closeup of a plant from the genus Astragalus.
The desert around the Mars station has many plants –including species of the genus Astralagus. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Paul Sokoloff.

Day Eleven

It was hard prying myself from my bunk today after a late night joking around with the rest of the crew. We’ve only known each other for 11 days, but throwing a bunch of highly motivated individuals into an isolated hab, while on a simulated space mission, has a way of turning out a batch of very fast friends. Our second media crew dropped by, this time from the magazine Paris Match. Our discussions touched on everything from advanced propulsion systems for Mars missions to the ethics of transporting Earth organisms to the Red Planet.

Day Twelve

I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone —while it feels like we just got here, crew 143’s simulated Mars mission comes to an end tomorrow. Our rotation at MDRS will continue until Sunday, giving us time to wrap up our final reports, clean the hab, and brief the incoming crew 144, but the simulated Mars mission will be over, and we’ll be free to come and go from the hab at will, “sans” spacesuit. Fittingly, our last full day in “sim” is Thanksgiving here in the United States, and in honour of our American commander, we’ll be celebrating with a Thanksgiving Dinner on “Mars”. I know I speak for the entire crew when I say we are very, very thankful to have been a part of this ongoing mission to prepare humanity for its next great step.

Read Paul’s previous blogs in this series:

Trading My Plant Press for a Space Suit
Life on Mars?