Marvin Landis, who runs the University of Arizona’s AZ-LIVE 3-D virtual reality lab, gave me a padded chair, and there I sat, navigating, flying, seeing all around me the renderings of Mars. The photographs were processed from the HiRISE camera abroad the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They gave me the first real impression that Mars was a place. I needed that because, as much as I have read about Mars, as frequently as I watch films about Mars, as often as I have looked at Mars through my 10-inch reflector, there’s been a distance not only literal but felt. By swooping over Domoni—the most impressive of the 3-D programs Marvin ran—my body understood that Mars was real. Ironic, since I was in a virtual-reality lab. But still. I felt my hand on the joystick, and my orientation to the land—to that planet—changed. I was, in a felt and bodily way, more there than not.
And in two days I’ll be there again, but this time it will be a Mars analogue environment in southern Utah. The Mars Desert Research Station is operated by The Mars Society, which vets scientists, students, engineers and even writers such as myself to be part of two-week simulated Martian crews in a landscape that looks a lot like the Red Planet. On Saturday I’ll meet the rest of Crew 141—Alejandro Diaz, Commander (MDRS veteran); Peter Dimmick, the Executive Officer; Kavya Manyapu, Crew Engineer (MDRS veteran); Joshua Borchardt, Crew Biologist & Health/Safety Officer; Humberto de las Casas (Greenhab Officer)—and we’ll transition from the prior crew into our various projects…geology rovers…emergency procedures for distressed or injured astronauts…plant growth experiments…and more. It’s exciting. “Have fun on Mars!” everyone has been telling me in the hallways of the University of Arizona English Department. I will. But it’s intimidating too—essentially sealing yourself up in a metal can in the middle of the desert with strangers for two weeks!
But we’re strangers with a common purpose: to see our way toward Mars as a place not just to fly over in simulation but to move to, to settle, as humanity continues its lurching journey of getting things right for ourselves and the rest of this biosphere.
Over the next two weeks, the rest of Crew 141 will blog here, introducing themselves, their research and their passion for exploration. Join us.
Journalist and Writer-in-Residence