mars simulation utah
Expedition commander Paul Knightly walking to the Mars research station.

Living the Mars Simulation: The Real-Life Mission to Boldly Go

Story and photos by Paul Sokoloff, from the May/June 2015 issue of Outpost Magazine 

The Mars Society makes a serious case for a Red Planet presence—starting with a group of experts in Utah's Mars-like desert. 

When the first person steps foot on Mars, there’s no doubt that they’ll say something deeply inspiring to the rest of humanity eagerly awaiting 22 minutes (by radio) away. What these Martian astronauts will really be thinking though is: “Gee, I’m really glad my helmet isn’t fogging up right now.”

I know this because while I was tromping around the simulated Martian deserts of southern Utah, my helmet wouldn’t stop fogging up. Helmet visibility issues are just one of the so-many-little-things that analogue Mars missions seek to test and fix before people ever step foot on the Red Planet.

Firstly: yes, I really was pretending to be an astronaut, exploring the surface of Mars. No, it wasn’t cosplay or a sci-fi convention. Yes, we have to wear the suit, every single time we leave the station. No, you cannot break the simulation and scratch your nose, because removing your helmet would mean certain death on another world. Welcome to Mars—sort of.

Read This: Is it Possible to See the Curvature of the Earth?

Dress rehearsals are nothing new to space science. For instance, NASA built a simulated lunar surface in Florida to train the Apollo astronauts heading to the Moon. Given the expensive and risky nature of manned spaceflight, it’s completely rational to try new technologies and techniques on Earth first.  That’s where these analogue missions come in—by simulating off-world exploration in some of Earth’s most extreme environments (the Polar Regions, deserts, under the ocean, the list goes on) we gain valuable data about just what it will take for humanity to expand off-world. And if the end goal of all this effort is to boldly go across the stars, Mars is set to be our first step along the way.

I’ve always been fascinated by space. I mean, I think I had read my way through half of my local library’s sci-fi section by the time I was 15, including the good, the bad, and the really pulpy stuff. Likewise, it probably goes without saying that I was utterly obsessed with all things Star Trek from an early age. I never really identified with the fearless captains or the daredevil pilots though; it was the scientists—the logical and competent Mr. Spock, for example—who I thought were the coolest.

This fascination with exploration and science spurred me to pursue a career in biology. Nowadays I still voraciously consume sci-fi, but as a botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa I get most of my reading done during downtime on expeditions charting the plants of the Canadian Arctic. Collecting and cataloguing plant species on tundra steppes, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest human settlement, can certainly feel like exploring a new world.

real-life martian simulation
Knightly makes first contact with the "martian" flora.

Still, I suspect there will always be a small part of me that will want to strap into a rocket, yearning for adventure in outer space. So when I read about the Mars Society’s Mars Arctic 365 (MA365) project—a simulated year-long mission to Mars that is scheduled to take place this coming summer on Devon Island, Nunavut—I knew I had found a way to marry my two loves: Arctic adventure and space exploration. And so, after getting my husband’s approval (to be honest, I think he’s just happy I didn’t apply to Mars One—the private effort looking to send 24 colonists on a one-way trip to Mars that you’ve likely heard so much about; no, we are not that Mars project!), I applied to the program alongside 200 other international candidates. I don’t think I’ve ever replied to an email so fast as when I was informed that I was one of the 21 finalists for the mission.

Two months later I found myself waiting at the baggage carousel of Grand Junction, Colorado’s small airport, collecting my sampling gear and my regular clothes. My spacesuit would only be issued once I arrived at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) just outside of Hanksville, Utah. As the closest airport to MDRS, Grand Junction would serve as the staging ground for expeditions. Each MA365 finalist was placed on one of three crews; crewmates were matched up based on skills and personality types.  Ours, Crew 143, was slotted right in between the other two finalist crews, and we were all about to meet each other for the very first time.

Never the kind to leave one of his crew behind, I met Paul Knightly (our commander and the crew’s only American) first when he pulled up at the airport, saving me from dragging 70-plus lbs of duffel bags to my motel. Paul K. (the crew tried using nicknames to differentiate us, but we eventually fell back on last initials) is a geologist based out of Kansas City. His love of astronautics (while in college he founded a local chapter of SEDS—Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) is only rivalled by his devotion to his alma mater’s varsity teams.  

Our team’s executive officer (XO), Alexandre Mangeot, had already settled into his motel room, trying to shoulder through his jetlag after flying in from Bordeaux the day before. An engineer who worked on spacecraft propulsion for his PhD (literally a rocket scientist), Alexandre was the only member of our crew who had served a rotation at MDRS before, and was looking forward to sharing his know-how with the crew. That, and the “awesome” burgers at a greasy spoon in Hanksville he kept raving about.

mars rover nasa expedition
Drought-tolerant and radiation-resistant, lichens, like the orange species covering this boulder, are studied by astrobiologists for their ability to thrive in extreme environments.

A fellow Canadian arrived next. Ian Silversides, an aerospace engineer from Montreal, who would serve as “Mr. Fix-It” during our rotation, keeping the Hab’s systems running. (That’s Hab as in “Habitat,” the main living space at MDRS—nothing to do with the Montreal Canadiens.) An avid climber, cyclist, baker and traveller, Ian’s infectious enthusiasm for our rotation would serve us well over the coming weeks.

We finally met up with our crew journalist, Anastasiya Stepanova, at dinner, where she had a big surprise waiting for the rest of us (I’ll tell you more about that later). By day a PR manager in Moscow, Anastasiya has long dreamed of travelling to space, and earned a degree in space journalism (there’s a cool major), under the tutelage of a former cosmonaut. She was also one of two Mars One candidates on our crew.

The other Mars One hopeful, and final member of our crew, was Claude-Michel Laroche, another Montrealer, and a reservist with the Canadian Forces. Claude-Michel was in charge of the GreenHab, the experimental greenhouse attached to the primary Hab.

You might think that as a botanist, I might have been a logical choice for that role, but as Crew 143’s biologist and health and safety officer, I would have my hands full with research and keeping everybody safe. Plus I kill plants for a living anyways; Claude-Michel did a much better job in the GreenHab than I would have.

With our international crew of millennial space-nuts fully assembled, we could finally head onto the Mars Desert Research Station, and the first phase of Mars Arctic 365.

•  •  •

In a nutshell, the MA365 mission is meant to be a comprehensive dress rehearsal for a manned mission to Mars. While few other initiatives have looked at the psychological impact that the confinement of long duration spaceflight would have on a crew (most notably, the MARS-500 mission, which locked six cosmonauts in a simulated spacecraft for 520 days), MA365 will be the first dry run of a full year of surface operations on Earth’s most Mars-like environment: the dry, cold and barren polar deserts of Devon Island.

This ambitious mission will be the longest expedition ever undertaken by the Mars Society, an international NGO devoted to developing the capacity and the political will needed to mount a manned mission to Mars. The society has been hosting simulated astronaut crews at its Mars Desert Research Station since its inauguration in 2001. Interestingly, this more accessible station, situated along Cow Dung Road (seriously), is the second habitat; their Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (the site of MA365) in the Canadian High Arctic was their first.

This intense “go big or go home” philosophy is best embodied by the society’s founder, Dr. Robert Zubrin. Before his reinvention as one of America’s foremost space lobbyists, Zubrin was an engineer at Lockheed Martin tasked with developing mission plans for, among other targets, manned missions to Mars. His conceptualized “Mars Direct” plan was never fully adopted by NASA, but forms the basis for the society’s analogue missions—their weeklong to four-month long Mars mission simulations, where every aspect of life on Mars is approximated as closely as possible.  Everything from the analogue spacesuits, to the white cylindrical habitats (designed as if they were to fit under the cowling of a rocket), embodies the Mars Direct assertions that getting humans to the Red Planet could happen with today’s technology. Zubrin wants to get us there as soon as possible, and asserts that unnecessary frills would only hold us back.

This comes up as I’m listening to Zubrin describing, of all things, a washing machine, gesticulating about how NASA would feel the need to reinvent the damn thing. In a dim microbrewery in Grand Junction, he is explaining his simple solution to dirty clothes in outer space: using a vacuum chamber to suck the dirt right out of fabric. I suppose this is the space equivalent of sticking your beer outside during the winter to keep it cold. Finding Zubrin at our first crew dinner was a surprise for most of us—Anastasiya didn’t tell us that the man himself would be driving her down from Denver.

lunar space travel
The moon hangs over the Utah desert landscape.

Quietly intense, Zubrin comes alive when describing the technologies that will one day pave the road to the stars, even pulling out some cocktail-napkin math when trying to calculate the thrust power of NASA’s Orion spacecraft (final verdict was ca. 1 percent humanity’s total energy output). As for our chances of making the MA365 mission, Zubrin, not wanting to comment until the data from all three teams was in, left us with a smile and a “your team definitely has a shot.”  

By late afternoon the next day I was driving our team the last couple of miles down the twisty dirt road that led to MDRS. It’s easy to see why this region was picked to fill in for Mars: the tapering red hills, undulating sandy plains, and wind smoothed sandstone formations all harken back to some of the earliest photos sent back by NASA’s Viking landers in the 1970s. If you don’t look too closely at the plants, and especially at sundown when the desert is flooded with warm amber light, the illusion is almost perfect.

This rugged landscape adds scientific rigor to the simulated Mars mission: many of the constraints imposed by the desert—the arid climate, cold winters and sandy traverses—are the same as on Mars. This means that innovations made at MDRS are often directly applicable to life on Mars. The station’s isolated location enforces the mind game crucial to what we came to call “sim.” When we do send the first crews to Mars, whoever we send will be each other’s only company for years at a time. Figuring out how to keep a team of highly-motivated, A-type individuals (when’s the last time you saw an underachieving astronaut?) cohesive over the long term is essential to space exploration. The isolation is mostly complete out here in the Utah desert, with only the occasional curious tourist stopping by—life on “Mars” was a lot quieter before MDRS was marked on Google Maps.

Rounding one last red-layered hill, the bright-white Hab comes into view. It looks bigger than the photos online. Good thing too, this eight-metre diameter, two-storey cylinder will be our home during the next two weeks. The main airlock door is wide open, so either Crew 142, our competition, has rolled out the welcome mat, or they’re simulating a blown hatch. Taking our first steps into the hab, we call out, hoping to make first contact with the Martians.

mars geological qualities
In addition to commanding Crew 143, Knightly is the team geologist.

Crew 142 is upstairs, gathered around the kitchen/conference table in the upstairs wardroom. This table inevitably becomes the social hub of the Hab for each crew; ours would prove no different in the weeks to come. Crew 142 is led by Digby Tarvin, an affable Australian with some of the finest mutton chops I have ever seen, no doubt cultivated on one of the several Mars Society missions under his belt. Their whole crew is giving the Hab a deep clean before the hand-off to us, and they quickly set down to showing us around our new digs.

It’s a bit like any other house inside—if your house has airlocks and a well-equipped lab (seriously, what aspiring young scientist doesn’t dream of their own secret home lab?). The kitchen is stocked with all the freeze-dried staples we would need, including the most important provision for a crew of scientists and engineers: coffee. The “staterooms” are no more than a desk and a wooden bunk in a five-foot wide room, but at least they’re private. Simulated spacesuits are stacked high on their charging racks behind the main airlock—bubble helmets with scuffed Perspex domes and backpacks that ventilate with computer fans. They certainly aren’t airtight, but they simulate the encumbrance of the real thing well enough.  

Adjacent to the Hab module is the GreenHab, where a healthy crop of wheatgrass is nearly ready to harvest, and a squat white building housing the Musk Observatory (Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has long been vocal in his support of Mars colonization). At the time, there was no physical tunnel connecting the three Hab components, but to save us from having to suit up every time we want to go to the garden, we’re authorized to walk between them in our shirtsleeves. We just have to pretend there’s a pressurized tunnel there using the power of imagination, which I guess is the whole point of MDRS.

With our tour of the Hab and the various hand-off briefings complete, and following a feast of pizza from the only pizza place in Hanksville, the two crews turned in for the night. With the station only designed for six, Crew 143 ends up bedding down wherever there is extra space—most of us end up in the loft overlooking the kitchen. We’re only roused once during the night by the loud snap of a rat trap, followed by Crew 142’s biologist exclaiming, “We caught Mrs. Jingles.”

It seems our rocket has stowaways. Our competition takes their leave of the Hab mid-next morning, and as they seal the airlock behind them, we are officially alone on “Mars.”

•  •  •

Our first order of business was the same as a real space mission: planning, planning, and planning some more. Astronauts on the International Space Station have their days planned down to the minute. We have a bit more flexibility than that, but mission control still wanted to vet everyone’s research proposals, to know the who/what/when/where/why for each extravehicular activity (EVA), and required a report from each crew member on their day’s activities, submitted during a two-hour window each evening—simulating the narrow communication windows that astronauts on Mars would have with the home planet. Balancing the demands of mission control with each crew member’s research responsibilities gave us a pretty full two weeks.

The very next day we entered “sim,” the full simulation. For the following 11 days we lived like we were on Mars. Of course, there’s still air and full gravity, but there were no more trips into town for supplies and food—there are no pizza joints on Mars yet.

Even on another planet, humans are creatures of habit, and we quickly fell into a routine. For me, each of my mornings was spent coffee in hand, watching the sunrise through the porthole in the upper deck kitchen.

The highlight of each day was the EVA, when four crew members would get the chance to go outside (two crew members are compelled to stay inside for safety reasons). Mission control would only approve one four-hour EVA per day; on Mars surface radiation is much higher than here at home, so actual EVAs would be similarly constrained to prevent explorers from sucking up too much radiation.

manned mission to mars story
A crew from the European TV channel Arte interviews crew members out on an EVA.

“Space-suit up!” was Ian’s enthusiastic call to action whenever it was time to get our gear on.

It’s a cumbersome process: coveralls, boots, gaiters, helmet radio, backpack, helmet and thick gloves, all in that order. On day one it took us 45 minutes and three people per suit to gear up—fortunately, we were dressing ourselves in 15 by the end of the mission. Our spacesuited team would then huddle together in the tight airlock to wait out a simulated five-minute decompression—mandatory each time someone enters or exits the Hab. After five minutes of jokes, last minute planning or contemplative science, the radio would crackle:

“EVA team, you are clear to exit the Hab,” and we were able to crack the main door and take our first steps onto this brave new world.

These EVAs encapsulated the adventure and romance of our expedition. After all, nobody’s going to go to Mars just to stay inside the whole time. They were also critical to our research goals. As a botanist, I proposed to collect and identify all the plants, lichens and cyanobacteria (photosynthetic organisms that live inside rock) to build a reference collection for future astrobiology work at the station. This resulted in me spending a lot of time tromping around in my spacesuit boots, searching every nook and cranny for photosynthetic life. So that, alongside Paul K.’s geological prospecting, Alexandre’s research into learning and stress, and even a Hab construction project (building the actual tunnel between the Hab and the observatory) meant we spent a great deal of time outside. If our preplanned research target was nearby we would hoof it, boots slipping in bentonite clay. It was much more fun to visit further waypoints; then we could take our “unpressurized light rovers” or ATVs out for a spin. These trips were really where you could suspend your disbelief: it almost felt like we were actually on Mars.

The most important tool that future astronauts will bring to Mars is not a spacesuit or sampling gear, but a sense of humour.

Mars Desert Research Station
The Mars Desert Research Station Hab (right) and GreenHab (left).

I’m not suggesting that a smashed helmet faceplate is anything to be laughed at (although Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face-explosion scene in Total Recall is laughably ridiculous), but rather that space travel and life inside a small habitat on—or pretending to be on—another planet can be cramped, tedious and full of frustrating setbacks. Those without the ability to laugh at themselves, or who can’t handle minor annoyances, are not going to fare well trapped in a tin can for a few years.  

As the rotation wore on and our crew gradually got to know each other better, we were happy to discover that we all could indeed take a joke. We certainly lived up to our reputation as the millennial crew: we were all friends on Facebook by day three, and there was palpable excitement in the Hab when I got retweeted by the Canadian Space Agency. We also got a lot goofier as the days wore on: custom soundtracks were piped into crews waiting in the airlock ("Life On Mars" by David Bowie was my favourite), and evening rounds of Cards Against Humanity frequently involved Anastasiya exclaiming, “You have a word for that?!”  

We did keep a lid on the crazy when two French media crews came to visit us out at the Hab. Outreach is one of the main goals at MDRS: without popular support for a mission to Mars, the political will to do so simply won’t appear. Our mostly Francophone crew was eager to show them the work we were doing, and how deeply each one of us desired to one day visit the Red Planet. The journalists seemed to agree, but one group was under the impression that the Space Shuttle travelled faster than the speed of light—it seems that we have a lot more reaching out to do.

In general, Hab life was a microcosm of our lives on the outside, with work and chores balanced by yoga classes, discussions about philosophy and the enthusiastic fans following us on the official Facebook page, baby-wipe showers (water is scarce on Mars), and of course cheesy movie nights.

One evening, like many during the second week of the simulation, found Crew 143 huddled over laptops at the kitchen table. This late in the simulation most of us are writing up our final mission reports, dispatching blog posts or trawling scientific literature for anything that might give us an edge in the competition. Ian, reading a study on water use and rationing conducted at the Devon Island field station a few years ago, peers over his laptop screen and grins at the group.

“They brewed beer on Devon Island. If we’re chosen for FMARS, I’m totally brewing beer up there.” Then assuming a sincere, professional expression, he adds: “It’s a safe way of storing water for long periods, the alcohol keeps the water sterile.”

red desert landscape
The red deserts surrounding MDRS add realism to a successful simulation—the region looks so much like Mars that sci-fi movies are often shot here.

I’m pretty sure he’s completely serious. For safety reasons, alcohol is strictly forbidden at MDRS. Good food, however, is absolutely essential to the success of the mission. After all, happy scientists are productive scientists.

In fact, some rotations at MDRS exclusively focus on food research—we might go to the stars one day, but we’ll still need to eat. Dinner was the social event of the day, so some of us got really good at improvising with the shelf stable food available in the Hab. Ian baked hearty bread nearly every day, I made a pizza from scratch for the first time I can remember, and we even pulled out all the stops for Thanksgiving. We had a Spam turkey.  

Time certainly seemed to speed up on sim-Mars (as opposed to real Mars, where a day is 39 minutes longer than here on Earth). The end of the simulation was on us way sooner than anyone would have liked—although I was looking forward to showering without baby-wipes again. On the day that Crew 144 was due to arrive we woke up to a life where we’d have to get used to going outside without a spacesuit again. Paul K. climbed the stairs up to the crew deck with a grin on his face.

“I just broke up with the airlock. I went downstairs and said, ‘Airlock, I don’t need you anymore!’”

Later on in the afternoon Crew 144 pulls their white Suburban up to the Hab. This group of MA365 competitors was formidable: a group including an MD, a NASA scientist, an army officer and an Antarctic survival specialist. The one thing that they lacked was the same thing our group was missing at the beginning of our rotation: the camaraderie borne of this unique, intense experience. We instantly noticed this when we went to take a group shot just outside the Hab. Crew 144: upright, professional, excited. Crew 143: dirty, all hugs and huddles, with tired, happy grins. “They’ll get there,” I thought.

The next morning, with the crew hand-off complete, we departed MDRS, entrusting this little slice of space to our successors. There was no dramatic watching the Hab recede into the distance of the rear-view mirror: as soon as we rounded the corner the station was gone. And we were alone in the immensity of the red Utah desert, lost as easily as in the immensity of Mars itself.  

hollow mountain gas station utah
The Hollow Mountain gas station in Hanksville, Utah, is the last chance to shop before liftoff at MDRS.

Our group of new friends gradually went our separate ways from there, with more than a few tears, hugs and handshakes along the way. Still no word on which crew has made the cut for MA365, but Anastasiya did make the cut for the top 100 candidates for Mars One—that other aspiring mission to Mars—so at least one of our crewmate’s Martian dreams may yet become a reality.

However MA365 works out, I know that my two weeks on “Mars” will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’m sure I’ll be reminiscing about the mission with Paul K., Alexandre, Ian, Claude-Michel and Anastasiya for years to come.

Maybe when we visit each other in our respective homelands. Or maybe when we undertake a year-long mission on Devon Island together. Or maybe, just maybe, when we’re visiting each other under the dome of the first colony on Mars. I have every hope that people will get to Mars in our lifetime, and if by some twist of fate I were given the chance to go, I know that all of us would be ready and willing to join humanity’s next giant leap.  

OUTPOSTINGS: WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before the U.S. Congress and challenged his country to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11, with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins aboard, fulfilled the late president’s goal with just months to spare.

More than half a century later, we are again considering extraterrestrial landing, this time on Mars. Though no U.S. president, or in fact any world leader, has gone so far as Kennedy, there’s no shortage of brilliant minds working on heading to the Red Planet. Some say it can be achieved with current technology in little more than a decade (though subscribers to that plan, Mars One, know it’s a one-way trip, making it literally the winner in the “things to do before you die” sweepstakes); others suggest we’re still a century away. Yet when that first Mars expedition becomes a reality, what can those pioneers really expect?

Location: Blissfully free of the perils of mass tourism, the Red Planet is the fourth planet in our Solar System. Located approximately 228 million km from the Sun and between 54.6 million and 401 million km from Earth (depending on the positions of the two planets), it can usually be found by turning left at Venus.

Documentation: Canadian travellers do not require visas to visit the Red Planet. Yet.

National anthem: Gustav Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War”

Time Difference: Mars takes approximately 24 hours to complete one full rotation on its own axis (a Martian day is just 39:35:244 minutes longer than an Earth day), and makes one complete orbit around the Sun (a typical year) in 687 Earth days.  

Geography/Climate: Due to the tilt of its poles Mars has seasons not unlike ours on Earth, though they last longer. Mars is approximately half the size of Planet Earth, but has only 38 percent of our surface gravity—thus making it both a great place to go for a bouncy-walk and sufficient for long-term settlers to grow accustomed to over time. According to NASA, Mars has a cooler desert environment, with no liquid surface water but vast polar ice caps and possible underground storehouses from which water could be extracted.

These facts, combined with the presence of a thin atmosphere to help screen radiation, make Mars an alluring destination for exploration. Given that Mars’s spectacular scenery includes vast canyons and towering volcanoes, the planet just might be the ideal getaway for intergalactic travellers—not to mention the best adventure destination in the universe, after Earth.

Breathing: With Mars’s atmosphere comprised of 96 percent carbon dioxide, visitors are advised to either bring their own oxygen supply or air-purification system—or to simply try holding their breath.

Atmosphere: Mars boasts an average atmospheric pressure of 600 pascals (Pa). Not as hearty as Earth’s, with an average of 101,325 Pa, but it certainly puts jealous Mercury (at approximately one nanopascal) to shame!

Food: While some scientists believe Mars is capable of supporting the growth of Earth lichens, unless you plan on living on the moss-like shrub for the duration of your visit, freeze-dried astronaut food or climate-controlled greenhouses are recommended. Failing that, Mars Bars are always an option.

Health Risks: Due to the thin atmosphere the effects of the Sun’s rays are more pronounced than on Earth, and the reduced gravity can bring about osteoporosis and muscle deterioration for long-term visitors. High levels of surface radiation will limit the amount of time you can spend outside, even in a spacesuit; anyone with respiratory problems is advised to seek shelter during dust storms. On the bright side, Mars is great for people trying to lose weight: the effect of gravity on mass means anyone weighing 100 kgs on Earth would only weigh 38 kgs on Mars. 

Getting There: While periodically the closest planet to Earth, Mars is a long-haul destination. Depending on the technology used and the alignment of the planets, a lightning-fast roundtrip journey could conceivably be completed in as few as 245 days—though a more common timeline to get a spacecraft from Earth to Mars would be six months, making a roundtrip mission likely to take about 15 months.

When to Go: A Martian summer lasts twice as long as one on Earth, so it’s a great destination for snowbirds. The planet’s highs often reach 35°C near its equator (yes it has one too) during summer, while dipping to a nippy –143°C at its poles during winter. It’s worth planning any trip around the Martian solar calendar as the planet’s infamous dust storms—which sometimes consume the entire planet for a month or more—are more common when Mars is closest to the Sun. 

Getting Around: ATV-like rovers—similar to the lunar rover or moon buggy used during the Apollo missions—are still the most popular mode of transport on Mars. (Keen hikers can take advantage of the lower gravity for less taxing extended trekking excursions.)

Accommodation: If only dropping down to the planet for a night or two, the cramped lander itself might be sufficient—but longer stays might require semi-permanent modular bases. Such colonies would likely be launched from Earth in advance and assembled by the first arrivals. The bases would likely include living quarters, work areas, laboratories and greenhouses to grow food. Although solar energy could be harnessed, the inevitability of massive dust storms that block at least some of the sunlight would necessitate backup energy sources.

Depending on the distance between the planets at the time, a radio signal from Mars to Earth takes anywhere from four to 22 minutes to reach Earth, making voice communication subject to awkward silences. (Satellite-relayed Internet connections are also slow and expensive—don’t expect to be able to Twitter, Instagram or update your Facebook page easily.)   

Things to See and Do:

Olympus Mons: Located in the western hemisphere of the planet near the Tharsis bulge, and at approximately 25 km in height, Olympus Mons is not only almost three times the height of Mount Everest but is both the largest volcano and the second-highest known mountain within our Solar System. It’s not necessary to obtain a climbing permit if wishing to summit, and since it has a gradual incline no Martian mountaineering experience is required.

Valles Marineris: Though not as impressive as our own Great Rift Valley, Mars’s Valles Marineris ranks among the biggest valleys and canyons in the Solar System. More than 4,000 km long, up to 200 km in width and with a depth as great as seven kilometres, the rim of the valley is a great place to watch a sunset, or better yet start a paragliding business.

Viking 1 Lander: The first successful Martian lander, The Viking 1, touched down on the Red Planet on July 20, 1976. It sent data back to Earth, until a faulty command from Mission Control severed communication on November 11, 1982. Visitors to Mars can see the lander, now known as the Thomas Mutch Memorial Station, in the equatorial region of the Chryse Planitia.

Phobos and Deimos: Mars boasts not one but two moons: Phobos and Deimos. Both irregularly shaped orbiting rocks are well worth a side trip, if time permits.

For the hundredth time, yes—Paul Sokoloff has read The Martian, Andy Weir's strangely familiar novel-turned-Matt Damon film about a botanist stranded on Mars. If he ever makes it to the Red Planet, he's promised his family to try to be on the return flight home—if there is one. 


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