Red planet resident
MSU physics student spends two weeks in Utah simulating life on Mars
After trekking an hour up the slippery face of a mountain in full space gear, Mike Moran had reached the summit. Moran and two other crew members traveled 30 minutes from their temporary home in the Mars Desert Research Station to Olympus Mons, a Martian mountain three times the size of Mount Everest.
“The view was amazing,” said Moran, a physics junior at MSU. “It was great to stand up there and relax and walk around the summit looking out at the (station).”
After only eight days in a desert in Utah, Moran said he let himself forget his Mars adventure was only a simulation.
Moran returned home Feb. 7 from two isolated weeks adjusting radiotelescopes, venturing into the desert on team missions and collecting biological and geological samples to simulate a manned mission to Mars.
More than 40 years after man first landed on the moon, humanity still is looking for ways to expand its reach into the universe, Moran said.
“Eventually we are going to have to leave our planet, either because we messed it up with all our wars, there’s no resources left or we just want to get away,” he said. “It’s cool to know that we are starting that eventual process now.”
The Mars Society
The Mars Desert Research Station, or MDRS, is a $125,000 two-floor circular station, that is eight meters in diameter and 10 meters tall. The station aims to replicate what a possible habitat on Mars would look like and eventually could serve as the blueprint for a colony on the red planet, said Artemis Westenberg, the mission director of The Mars Society, which oversees the station. The Mars Society is an international organization aimed at advancing space technology and demonstrating a feasible and inexpensive way to inhabit Mars, Westenberg said.
The 9-year-old station has been home to numerous crews during operation, and The Mars Society has demonstrated what could be learned in a trip to Mars by showing how it could be done.
“If we go to Mars, we’re not going to go there just to demonstrate, ‘Hey, we can get there and now we can fly back, take some pictures (and) plant a flag,’” Westenberg said. “You need to learn what it means to be a human being and astronaut living on Mars for 18 months.”
During Moran’s two weeks in Utah, the MDRS crew embarked on 20 extravehicular activities, or EVAs, to conduct research such as seismic surveys, test for microorganisms, filtering water for reuse and test space suit safety, Moran said.
Moran also used the station’s radiotelescope to observe microwaves sent from Jupiter and Saturn, which also could play a role in future exploration, he said.
“We were doing work, but we didn’t even realize it because we were simulating the Mars mission,” he said. “It was too much fun to get bogged down with work.”
Moran has spent his life staring at the stars.
Many kids give up on their dreams of being a firefighter or president when they grow up, but Moran never did. He has always wanted to be an astronaut.
When he found out on the morning of Oct. 25, 2009, that he would be conducting research with the rest of the MDRS crew, Moran said he ran around his apartment screaming and waking up any roommate he could find to tell them the news.
“It’s almost like a dream come true,” he said.
Although he was the only undergraduate student in the crew, Moran excelled in his first experience with research that many people would not be able to do, said Brian Shiro, a geophysicist and the commander of Moran’s MDRS crew.
“Mike has performed just as well as any of us on the mission,” Shiro said. “He may not have as many years experience as we do, but it doesn’t show. I really admire his keen intelligence, sharp memory and ability to soak up knowledge.”
Moran’s expedition to the MDRS in Utah won’t be the only thing he accomplishes in his career, said Greg Klein, a mathematics junior and Moran’s roommate. In his free time, Moran only reads books on space and astronomy, and his life seems to be dedicated to eventually traveling to space, Klein said.
“I don’t see any reason he wouldn’t be an astronaut one day,” Klein said. “It’s crazy if you actually step back and think about what he did. I wouldn’t last a day or an hour there.”
Moran said it has been hard readjusting to life on campus this week, and said he misses the MDRS almost every day.
He plans to keep in contact with crew members and is one step closer to accomplishing the goal he’s had since he was a little kid, he said.
“You just look up at the stars and those are billions of miles away and we’re actually looking backward into time when we look at them,” he said. “It’s cool to actually see what’s out there and look at it, figure out why it’s there and what’s going to happen in the future. It’s awe-inspiring to me.”
Laying the groundwork
Missions such as Moran’s could pave the way for potential Mars exploration.
Current estimates from NASA and the European Space Agency predict a trip to Mars will cost about $66 billion throughout several years, with the U.S. spending about $39.5 billion, Westenberg said.
If there is funding, Westenberg said she predicts humanity could reach Mars in as little as 10 years.
Visiting Mars is a part of humanity’s future and the more funding and effort put into the project, the sooner it will be accomplished, Shiro said.
“Someday people will go to Mars,” he said. “We may even colonize it. This can’t happen unless we know how to live and work there. … In the long term, humanity must expand outward from Earth to ensure our survival as a species. Mars is the first step.”
Many people oppose space travel, claiming it is a waste of money and there’s no need to reach new planets, Moran said. But reaching a planet isn’t the only positive gained from space travel, he said.
Exploration into space has brought products such as computers, LCD TV screens, GPS and memory foam to Earth, and a trip to Mars potentially could create even more, Moran said.
“The technology we use today, a lot of that stems from the Apollo program going to the moon and NASA,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to predict what technology would stem from sending humans to Mars and laying the groundwork down there.”