Diane Turnshek is an astronomer whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches astronomy and experimental physics lab at Carnegie Mellon University and at the University of Pittsburgh “The Physics of Science Fiction” as well as astronomy. She’s a contributing author of Many Genres/One Craft, a 2011 award-winning book on writing. She has taught college writing classes, helped organize science fiction conferences, founded Alpha, the genre workshop for young writers, and ran the 2007 SFWA Nebula Awards in NYC. Diane has four stellar sons and an out-of-this-world boyfriend.
I am on Mars, at least that’s what it looks like here in the high desert of Utah. Six of us are living in the Mars Desert Research Station, a two-story cylindrical habitat 30 feet across with steep ladder stairs between floors. Our bunks are 4 by 11 feet and we share one bathroom. Why am I here for Christmas instead of home with my four children? For science.
We are pioneers, studying how humans could live on another planet. We’re in full sim. We eat rehydrated/dehydrated food, suffer a 20-minute lag time with communications, travel outside the Hab in spacesuits and ride ATVs in the red desert. We each pay for our travel and a flat fee for food and lodging, but what we get back is invaluable. We have forwarded the progress of science, taking humanity one small step closer to striding onto the surface of Mars.
In front of the Hab (photo by Erick Tijerino)
I first heard about the Mars Desert Research Station from SF author David D. Levine who was a crewmember in 2010. He came out to my Alpha Workshop and wowed my teen genre writers with his experience. He is not the first science fiction author to travel to Utah and experience life as a Martian colonist in the Mars Society’s Habitat. Wil McCarthy wrote up his trip to analog Mars in the July/August issue of Analog in 2005, and there have been others back to the founding of the MDRS in the early 2000s.
Applications are taken in September for the season lasting from December 1 to May 18–it is too hot in the desert in the summer to hike in a spacesuit over rough terrain. What sort of people are they looking for? A demonstration of the right stuff—applicants who are tough, experienced, smart, independent yet able to follow orders, with valuable skills like first aid training, tinkering with electronic systems, cooking, riding ATVs and the ability to chronicle their adventures for those at home. A scientific study with possibility of publication is highly regarded. Most crews this year are teams from the same institution, not independents like this one. I am an astronomer. Crew 120 also has a geologist, an airline pilot, a physicist, an engineer and, hmmm, Derek is hard to classify. Saying he’s a social entrepreneur is such a small part of his abilities. He is a go-to guy who regularly accomplishes the impossible. A superhero, that’s it. Our crew works incredibly well together—it is amazing how close we are now, considering we didn’t even know each other a week ago.
We plan our EVA’s (ExtraVehicular Activity) to focus on the scientific component of our mission. We plan and prepare for full spacesuit missions, incorporating realistic limitations and decision-making processes of what future Mars crews may face. On EVA’s we work with our crew geologist to collect and analyze rock and soil samples, trying to determine what fossilized remains lie in the surrounding terrain. Understanding what came before will give us a holistic understanding of life on the planet, past, present and future. If there is life on Mars, we may have to look under the ground before we find it.
Diane in the spacesuit on Hab Ridge (photo by by Nora Swisher)
We wore our spacesuits out onto the surface and hiked over rough terrain for kilometers, gathering rock samples and photographing breath-taking geological formations. Layers are exposed by erosion and we picked up un-Mars-like petrified wood, fossil shells, flint and rocks with tunnels dug by beetles. The shoosh of the fans pumping air is the only thing you can hear, besides the occasional radio chatter. A stillness, a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world, a determination to hold up your end under any circumstances.
The weather presents challenges for us; here in the desert the winds can pick up suddenly and blow sand. It is extremely dry, but does get precipitation and the rain can quickly change to snow. Snow transitions to ice and mud, making it incredibly difficult to maneuver by car, foot, or ATV. This has been our reality–we have experienced everything except severe sandstorms and hail, though we still have another week on board.
And then it snowed, destroying the impression we had fostered that we were truly on Mars. Ice, sub-zero temperatures, high winds and snow trapped us in the Hab for days; the only excursions were those I had to make to the observatory with its 14” telescope. We played games, wrote reports, planned what we would do if the weather cleared, baked bread and watched Dr. Who Christmas episodes.
We just got back from one last scouting EVA. The winter storm hits tomorrow and we’ll be here, in the Hab, sharing a White Christmas special dried food dinner with the gorgeous Swiss film crew that is here taping us for a movie.
It could be worse.