A rocky start
So begin the chronicles of Crew 291: the largest Australian cohort ever deployed to the MDRS, comprising Andrew Wheeler (commander), Steve Hobbs, Rob Hunt, Clare Fletcher, Scott Dorrington, and Alexander Tobal.
We arrived at the MDRS the night of Saturday 20 Jan 2024 – believing ourselves late, but actually a day early. This was a nice surprise for us but a lousy one for Sergii at Mission Control, who nevertheless came out to show us around the habitat and to our quarters. It’s fair to say that the facility exceeded expectations, with its domed, utilitarian architecture immediately immersing us in a Martian mindset. Andrew, aka “Commandrew”, demonstrated his humility and nobility of leadership by sacrificing the commander’s room (with its own porthole!) to a certain crew journalist.
Having arrived in darkness, the Martian terrain had hitherto been shrouded from us. However, dawn revealed the true spectacle of our surrounds: a vast, primordial, alien landscape of ruddy plains and slopes, set against monolithic cliffs, ridges and plateaus featuring spectacular strata and defining the horizon in every direction. Stones and boulders of every shape, size and colour littered the ground, or jutted from larger formations to give them otherworldly silhouettes. The rock nerds in our crew (that is to say, all of us now) were fascinated by the surreal geomorphology and spent our first morning taking photographs.
On Sunday the 21st we began our induction. Sergii led us through comms and EVA procedures, including a demonstration of the station’s impressive EVA suits. This was followed on the morning of Monday the 22nd by rover training. We spent some additional time climbing Hab Ridge and exploring the enormous plain beyond (and its sea of interesting fossils and minerals), bordered to the west by the imposing Skyline Rim.
This was our last chance to do so as carefree visitors… because from exactly 12:00 hours local time on the 22nd, we were ‘in sim’ – i.e., under conditions intended to simulate the lived experience of being on Mars. No contact with the outside world, barring a two-hour comms window from 19:00-21:00. No excursions from the habitat without appropriate EVA gear and a 5-minute stint in the airlock (upon both exit and entry). It was time to look, think and act like Martians.
Our EVAs began almost immediately with a pair of back-to-back, three-person, ninety-minute EVA training excursions. Both teams followed similar routes to nearby ‘Marble Ritual’, in rovers and on foot, to test suit ergonomics and comms (and to further explore and document the terrain). Barring a few minor technical hiccups, primarily in regards to our comms equipment, these excursions went smoothly and successfully.
These technical successes are not what the crew will remember from our first EVAs however. Rather, we will remember the sheer adventure of it all – the sense of childlike glee that overcame even the most stoic and professional members of the crew as, for ninety minutes apiece, we fulfilled our dreams of becoming Martians.
The final revelation of the day was something far less expected – that dehydrated fruit (i.e., strawberries and blueberries, NOT rehydrated) would become our biggest vice. That stuff is mana.
Highlights of the day: EVAs (and rover roving fun), fossil-spotting on Hab Ridge, dehydrated fruit, Scotty’s ‘meteor-wrong’ pun, Steve’s spectrometer worked flawlessly, general awe.
Lowlights of the day: Spider removal, Rob’s hilltop dancing, emptying the toilet holding tank, jetlag, an unnamed crewmember’s glasses now belong to Mars.
Sol 2 awaits.
– Alexander Tobal, Crew 291
A rocky start