Sol 60 - How it all started and lessons learned

SOL 60 [23 November 2016]

What am I doing?! I think I’m trying to record hypolith abundance (Image Credit: Crew Geologist Dr Jon Clarke – and The Mars Society) 

My journey of MDRS started off as a volunteer. In 2014, I joined the MDRS Mission Support as a CapCom and that’s how I first became part of this ambitious idea of human exploration of Mars. My job as a CapCom was extremely fulfilling to me as I thought in that way somehow I was assisting to make this idea of manned Mars mission come true, in terms of making sure the smooth mission operations, and in turn, facilitating the valuable understanding extracted from the Mars simulation mission. Therefore, I thought my work as a CapCom could be a small but an important contribution towards Mars exploration; so I tried to fulfill my responsibilities to the best of my ability. While I was CapCom, I was encouraged to apply to join the Crew by several members of the Mission Support. At that time, I had no idea that my proposal for regular MDRS rotations will make me part of this special long-term Mars simulation mission which was being organized by The Mars Society for the very first time in its history. When I came to know that Shannon Rupert (Director of MDRS and PI of Mars 160) wants to make me part of Mars 160 mission as a Crew Biologist, my joy knew no boundaries. At the same time, it was a huge responsibility on my shoulders as the mission was founded on science operations than just isolation.

This is an ambitious and long-term simulated Mars mission. One of the principal targets of our Mars 160 science goals is to explore the extreme niches of the two significant Mars analogs: Utah Desert and Canadian Arctic for 160 sols and studying extremophile diversity. As Mars-based Crew Biologist, I undertake three principal projects – mapping the biodiversity of lichens (Earth-based team: Paul Sokoloff of Canadian Museum of Nature), hypolith abundance and physical ecology (Earth-based team: Dr Chris McKay of NASA Ames), and halophiles in ancient evaporite (Earth-based team: Dr Kathy Bywaters of NASA Ames). Personally, I am interested in detecting possible traces of life trapped inside microhabitats of evaporite deposits of the Jurassic period which has important implications for the astrobiological exploration of Martian evaporitic environment.

Furthermore, this long-term simulation is significant in terms of understanding the human efficiency to conduct science operations on Mars. I perform astrobiology research here at Mars Desert Research Station as ‘Mars-based astronaut-scientist’ in cooperation with ‘Earth-based scientists’ through asynchronous communication. We are also testing how this communication works between ‘Mars’ and ‘Earth’ based science team, which is how it is supposed to be on a real Mars mission.

I had never been part of Mars simulation mission before, unlike the other crew members of Mars 160 mission. They all had been part of a two-week MDRS rotation. So, this mission is my first attempt to relish the adventure of ‘Mars’ exploration and performing science in the spacesuit. This mission has taught me immensely in terms of science and habitation, but above all and for the first time, I learned that how much distance you travel to go to Mars, you have to travel as deep inside you. Through this mission, I learned that humanity’s endeavor of putting the feet on Mars someday is actually much more than science, much more than habitability and colonization. I think it is also about forgetting yourself and making something very profound out of you which actually surprise you. Being able to perform this job is incredibly humbling. I think it is a journey of discovering yourself as well along with the journey to Mars. That’s what this mission told me.

Kim and I :) (Image Credit: Crew Journalist and Health & Safety Officer Anastasiya Stepanova and The Mars Society) 

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