Podcaster:  Diane Turnshek but Recorded by Matt Turnshek

Organization: Carnegie Mellon University Physics Department

Carnegie Mellon University Physics Department
The Mars Society MDRS site:
Links to all our blogs:

Description: The Mars Desert Research Station, in the barren canyonlands of Utah, is a cylindrical, two-story habitat where six-person crews live in a simulated Mars environment for two week rotations. This research facility is designed for scientists to study how people could someday live on Mars. It was built in the early 2000’s by the Mars Society. Crew 120 consists of a pilot, an astronomer, a physicist, a geologist, an engineer and a social entrepreneur working at the UN. The Musk Observatory houses a Celestron 14-inch CGE 1400 telescope with a CCD camera. Join us on a walk-though of the Hab, the greenhouse and the observatory and ride with us on an ATV adventure into the red hills of analog Mars.

Bio: Diane Turnshek is an astronomer and a science fiction author whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere. She teaches astronomy and experimental physics lab in the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University. She also teaches 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 and founded Alpha, the SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. Diane has four stellar sons and an out-of-this-world boyfriend.

Matt Turnshek, a Carnegie Mellon University student.

Today’s Sponsor: Carnegie Mellon University Physics Department is proud to sponsor 365 Days of Astronomy. CMU astronomers hope to explore and explain the mysteries of our cosmos through robust research, teaching and outreach programs.


Hi, welcome to Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days of Astronomy. My name is Matt Turnshek and I’m a first year college student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Someday, humans will walk on the surface of Mars. To prepare for that day, The Mars Society has created a simulated Martian habitat in the high Utah desert and has been running crew rotations from December through May for the last decade. Six person teams occupy the 30-foot diameter cylindrical structure for two-week stints in the desert. Through the efforts of the few, we are learning how settlers in a Martian colony will survive.

Crew 120 is there now–a pilot, a physicist, a geologist, an engineer, a United Nations human rights officer and . . . my mom. Why is she away from her four sons at Christmastime? Because she believes this project is important for the long-term survival of the human race. She writes accurate science fiction, teaches astronomy and is grateful to Carnegie Mellon University for covering her travel expenses. She can’t call us from the analog Mars base, but she’s been able to keep in touch via email. We’ve heard about her flight from Pittsburgh, PA to Grand Junction, Colorado, the long drive to Hanksville, Utah and the off road trip out to the Mars Desert Research Station. Downstairs is a single bathroom, two airlocks, a bay for the spacesuits and a lab with a tool shop. Upstairs are the crew’s sleeping quarters (individual rooms four feet wide by eleven feet long) and a living space with a simple kitchen. Portholes look out on stark desert vistas in all directions.

Crews at the MDRS live and work as if they are on the red planet, testing equipment, working out supply lists and learning new procedures. There are rules. To be “in sim” means to wear spacesuits outside the Hab, except for the marked off corridor to the greenhouse and the observatory. There are regulated exceptions. The crew engineer can go outside without gearing up to check on the propane tanks, the generator, the trailer with a water tank on it and the all terrain vehicles.

The teams have different scientific missions. Some crew rotations study human factors, redefining necessary group activities in close quarters. They may fill out psychological questionnaires: Do you have cabin fever? Have you had enough alone time? How are you sleeping? Other teams focus on the outside world–how difficult is it to survey the land and investigate geological formations in a spacesuit? Food studies are important to long term habitation. Even during short trips aboard the International Space Station, astronauts frequently tire of the food and lose weight. This is a serious issue for colonists. How can we prepare standard dehydrated foods to be more palatable? Perhaps freeze-dried chicken, cauliflower buds and beef-flavored vegetarian meat substitute can be tasty with careful preparation and enough spices.

A rover lives in the Hab, too. The four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering robot, Max, has a movable camera with full tilt and pan and a GPS tracker and logger. It is controlled remotely from the Hab. It was used after high winds ripped through the area on the first night. Max went outside to check to see if anything had been blown away in the storm. Like Earthlings, Martian pioneers would rely heavily on robots to explore under extreme environmental conditions.

The best parts of my mom’s days are the Extra Vehicular Activities or EVAs. Some trips outside the Hab are pedestrian EVAs and sometimes the crew rides all terrain vehicles (ATVs–Yamaha Grizzly 350s). The dirt roads occasionally have been washed away by the rains. All the more fun trying to find them, she says. I think we four boys have raised her right. The posted pictures are spectacular. Water and wind sculpted tan sandstone with rock layers of other colors: yellow, brown, black, greenish and the ubiquitous red rock everywhere, looking for all the world like the planet Mars. Factory Butte visible off in the distance to one side and a cloud-tipped mountain off to the other side. Massive rock piles that have lost the war against gravity, tumble down hillsides. Petrified wood, its individual cells replaced long ago by colorful minerals. Canyons and hills, berms and gullies, landforms called Kissing Camel and Teetering Rock.

According to my mom, the worst part of the day is writing reports. Mission Support guides the crews from afar and answers questions. Every night at 7 pm Mountain Standard Time, MDRS-Mission-Support logs on for the daily reports.  Engineering report details all repairs and modifications to the Hab. EVA report outlines the paths taken, GPS waypoints and geological finds like fossilized tree stumps. The Health and Safety Officer (HSO) gives the medical condition of the crew. The astronomy report covers activities at the Musk Observatory, which houses a Celestron 14-inch CGE 1400 telescope with a CCD camera. The journalist report conveys the unique nature of the experience and the beauty of the canyon lands with a personal flair. The commander’s report reviews all activity. The system is designed the way a real mission would be. Without voice calls to Mission-Support, the crew needs to describe exactly what is happening. Clarity of communication is key.

Interested in applying? In early Fall each year, The Mars Society sends out a call for volunteers to travel to the MDRS. What is the “right stuff?” It’s hard to know just what combination of skills will catch the eye of The Mars Society planners. First aid training? A science degree? Familiarity with electronics, rocks, cooking or off-roading? Perhaps the answer lies in the daily reports and many blog posts—the MDRS Crew 120 even is doing a successful Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA).

“Christmas on Mars” reads like science fiction, but only through experiments such as this will we be on track to put humans on Mars in the upcoming decades. Dreams are the first steps. Simulations are the next ones. Small steps for humankind. Where will you be in the reach for Mars?

Thank-you for listening. This is Matthew Turnshek, signing off for Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days of Astronomy.

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