Students Spend Spring Break Exploring Mars

Common spring break destinations are often described as warm, sunny and relaxing — but perhaps not always Martian.

Mars Society Crew 101
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Mars Society Crew 101

The seventh Georgia Tech crew to visit the Mars Desert Research Station safely returned to “Earth” at approximately 10 p.m. EDT on Sunday.

Ten Georgia Tech students spent their spring break as members of Crew 101 on a simulated mission to Mars. During a two-week trip to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) outside Hanksville, Utah, students conducted experiments and research to develop knowledge needed for human exploration of the red planet. Professors coordinated with students to address work that was missed during the first week of the mission prior to the start of spring break.

MDRS was built in 2002 and is maintained by the Mars Society, a nonprofit made up of space scientists, engineers and others interested in advancing the case for sending humans to Mars. The Utah site has hosted students from the Mars Society at Georgia Tech since 2005.

“Crew 101 is lucky to have a diverse crew made up of aerospace engineers, a mechanical engineer, a polymer science engineer, a biologist and a biomedical engineer,” said aerospace engineering student and Crew 101’s Outreach and Health and Safety Officer Christine Redmond, who added that all of her professors were as excited as she was about her participation in the Mars simulation.

With biology major Christina Graves serving as the mission’s chief scientist, experiments included a project that could be used to prove whether microbacterial life exists on Mars, as well as a Georgia Tech flagship experiment to improve radio communication.

This crew also focused on educational outreach by partnering with NASA INSPIRE, an online community of high school students. The crew mentored students virtually by helping them refine research proposals, holding live chats and organizing interactive projects, quizzes, games and competitions.

Four crewmembers worked away from the Utah site in mission support roles throughout the duration. These members designed experiments prior to the crew’s departure for MDRS, provided protocol for each experiment and supported those at the station via email throughout the mission.

For the six crew members living “on Mars” for two weeks, Redmond said the easiest part of the mission was achieving positive crew dynamics.

“Crew members are required to live in close quarters for an extended period of time and share limited resources throughout the mission,” she said. “Crew 101 has been noted for its communication with the national Mars Society’s mission support. Teamwork and communication are some of Crew 101’s greatest strengths.”

The hardest part, Redmond said, was following the Mars Society’s astronaut food study, which limits ingredients and cooking methods to those that are used in space. Despite the challenges, the remote location and limited resources were a welcomed change of pace for crewmembers.

“After several months in the busy city of Atlanta, what we’ve enjoyed the most has been the isolation and scenery. Since most of us are major space enthusiasts, our favorite part has been stargazing at night,” Redmond said. “It really looks like we’re actually on Mars and, while we are in ‘sim,’ it can feel very realistic.”

Crew 101 reported online daily about its experiments and progress, and will summarize its results in a post-mission report in the coming weeks.