Portland science fiction writer David Levine has never been to Mars. However he was recently in Utah – which can sometimes feel as foreign as Mars. What was he doing in Utah? Living on a simulated Mars habitat of course. For two weeks last month David spent his days collecting Mars rocks and eating re-hydrated food at the Mars Desert Research Station
– all for the sake of promoting space and future space travel. We spoke with him recently about his trip
Willamette Week: How is living on simulated Mars on the Utah desert different than just living on the Utah desert?
David Levine: The difference is that we're living in a simulated Mars habitat and we are not supposed to go outside without space suits.
Did you ever go out without one?
There were exceptions. There were pressurized tunnels between our habitat and some of the outlying buildings such as the greenhouse, the observatory and the engineering shed. And those pressurized tunnels were actually just laid out with lines of stones on each side. So as long as we stayed on the path we could go outside without our space suits just for practicality sake.
What did you do in Utah to make it feel like a Mars scenario?
We did stuff both inside and outside of habitat. We were working on a number of scientific projects. One invovled going outside and looking for microfossils. The commander of the expedition was an amateur paleontologist and he knew the geology of the area quite well. So we would go out and look for certain formations exposed in geological strata. He would take up samples and examine them under microscope looking for microfossils. And he actually found one called an Ostracod, which is a tiny microscopic crustacean. They still exist today. Other paleontologists said, “well, it's a good project but you're not actually going to find anything,” and he found one. Another project we were working on was looking for extremophile organisms – organisms that exist in extreme conditions. What this consisted of was going out and looking for certain kinds of rocks and breaking them open. In several cases we found a rock with a green layer on the inside, and when examined it turned out to contain certain algae that actually lived inside the rock. Another scientific project was the suit constraint study, which was determining how much scientific data you lose when out there trying to do your scientific work in space suits. Working with the suit on was like picking cotton on Mars, it was really tedious work. It was mostly trying to pick a little sample off a plant and put it in a Ziploc baggy and make a note. I collected my pen a lot more often than I collected any of those plant samples … It's the gloves.
How does the suit simulate what someone on Mars would wear?
It's really only an approximation and not nearly as cumbersome as an actual pressure suit would be. The suits are light and designed to be used yearround. The base layer is just a jump suit. And you have a backpack that just contains a battery and a blower. The purpose of the backpack is to bring fresh air into your helmet. Even though the helmet is not airtight, it would still get pretty stuffy in there if you didn't have a supply of fresh air. And the blowers would keep the helmet from fogging up, which was a big problem in the cold. You also had the same problems that you would have with a real space helmet in that you can't scratch or blow your nose. My knit cap would often fall over my eyes.
You were the official crew journalist. What did you find especially story worthy? What interested you most?
I'm a science fiction writer and the reason I went was to gather those telling details that make a story really come alive. I wanted to find out as much as possible what it's really like to be on a mission to Mars. And although I got some stuff that I expected to get, like I learned what the smell of dust is like and how your breath sounds in your ears when you're wearing a space helmet, the important lessons I learned were emotional. We were quite isolated and were at least three hours from the nearest little town. Basically, we were completely isolated, although we had a car for use in case of emergencies. We had no cell phone signals. Our only contact with earth was a limited bandwidth satellite Internet. When we were out there, if we encountered a problem we were on our own. The thing that I really learned at an emotional level was that when you're that isolated your priorities change. You become a unit. You care very much about each other. You work together to solve problems. Improvisation and ingenuity become the most important things. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where the engineer comes down to the conference room and says, “We need to make this fit into that using only this stuff.” That was what our days were like every single day.
Was there much drama?
There wasn't a lot of drama really. We were all dependent on each other. It was very much a family situation. We had disagreements, but it wasn't a Big Brother situation. Even though we did have a webcam on us 24-7. There were actually six webcams keeping an eye on us at all times.
Who was watching those?
Some people were watching them – I know from people commenting on my blog saying, “hey, I see you.” I mean they weren't live; they only transmit a still image every three minutes. Still, I know from comments on my blog people were watching the webcams. One of my jobs was actually keeping the webcams going. I've got a background in hi-tech, so when I discovered only three of the six webcams were working I took that on as a project of my own.
What were some of your other main projects?
One of the big problems we had was that the procedures at the habitat were not documented well. One of the things that I did was I wrote up a bunch of what I call “quick guides” saying this is what to do if things go wrong. I mean we had binders and binders of documentation, but some of it was old and it was all too verbose. What we needed to know was, when the lights go out this is what to do in what order.
Did this experience give you any new sci-fi story ideas?
Well, I'm working on a story now. I know for sure from the past that when I do something different or unusual I usually will get one story that's based explicitly on the experience, and then it may filter into other stories down the road. I have an idea about a Mars mission where things don't go quite as you'd expect. It's about a person who discovers that the real satisfaction is not in the glory of being on another planet, but the satisfaction of keeping your best friends in the whole world alive. One of the things that you learn when you're out there all by yourself…I mean this is a lesson that people have been learning ever since the first person went beyond the horizon in a boat…is that when you're out away from communication of your bosses, then we're out here, they're back there. Or in this case, we're up here, they're down there. They can't help us, and they also can't tell us what to do. We have to make our own decisions for our own purposes. We are going to try to fulfill the mission, but keeping ourselves alive is job one. I call it “protagonist-iness.” The different between a protagonist and any other character in a story is the protagonist makes things happen. The protagonist takes action that changes the plot. One of the things that I've found in writing fiction is you have to make your protagonist be protagonist-y if you're going to have an interesting story. And I think you have to be protagonist-y in your real life if you're going to have an interesting life. And one thing I learned about being on Mars is that is makes you more protagonist-y. You have to act like the hero of your own story or you're all going to die.
How is the research you're doing out there going to benefit my grandchildren?
The purpose of the Mars Society is to promote space, help raise public awareness of space, and do research to help people work in space in the future. It's not an official NASA thing, but we have a lot of individuals come out who work for NASA. In a lot of cases people will take their experience back to their institutions, even if it doesn't result in a published paper. There were also scientific studies being done on us. There was a food study in which we were given two different food regimes. On alternate days we would either eat completely pre-prepared dehydrated meals or cook whatever we wanted from dehydrated ingredients. So we would either cook re-hydrated foods or just re-hydrate. And we had a survey to fill out every day with questions like: What did you eat? How did you feel about it? What's your emotional state right now? These surveys will be used in developing menus for future space missions and for the international space station. The mission that this simulates is based on a book called “The Case for Mars” by Robert Zubrin. The name of the plan is “Mars Direct,” which is a way to get to Mars without having to stop and do construction in orbit – that's why it's called direct. You can launch two crafts direct to Mars. One of them is a fuel factory – that one goes ahead – the second has the people on it and lands right next to the fuel factory. The fuel factory has been sitting there making fuel out of methane in the atmosphere and you use that to get back. The most expensive part about going to another planet is the fuel that you need to get off the other planet and get back. In the “Mars Direct” plan the fuel is actually made on Mars, so you don't have to boost any of the fuel that you need to get home all the way to Mars to get back.
How did the dehydrated food treat you?
I found some of the dehydrated meals – basically the sort of stuff you would find at REI or a survivalist store – to be really quite good, especially if you've been tromping around the desert all day. I think the thing we missed the most was real butter. We had dried milk, we had real flour, and once you re-hydrate the carrots or potatoes they were fine. And it was really convenient, instead of having to chop up an onion you just measure out a couple tablespoons of dehydrated onion and add boiling water and five minutes later you have chopped onion. So it's convenient, but expensive. The reason we use the dehydrated stuff is it doesn't weigh very much.
Did you ever dream of going to Mars when you were a kid?
Of course. I grew up in the 60s. I mean, this all started on Dec. 7th when Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic rolled out Spaceship 2, the first commercial spaceship, where they're going to sell trips to orbit for something like $200,000. This prompted me to do something on my blog that I've been meaning to do for a long time – make a list of things I'd like to do someday if money were no object, in terms of going to space. The first thing on the list was actually taking a trip to the International Space Station, which can be yours for only $35 million. Number two on that list was that I'd heard there were these simulated Mars bases, and wouldn't it be cool if I could spend a couple of weeks at one of those. So just very vague. A friend of mine replied to the blog post saying, “I know somebody at the Mars Society, and you could probably get onto one of those things.”
When do you think humans will get to Mars?
Based on the research I've done, and based on my experiences on simulated Mars, I'm going to have to say the only way we'll have a piloted mission to Mars during my lifetime is if something dramatic changes. The only reason we went to the moon in the 60s was because it was an important part of the cold war. By going to the moon we demonstrated that we had the capability of lobbing something heavy into space and putting it exactly where we wanted it. It was a means of demonstrating our technological superiority over the Russians. It was a national security, national defense priority. That's why we did it. It wasn't for the scientific exploration and it wasn't for national pride. It was to show that we had a serious capability to hit the Russians. The only way we'll go to Mars is if it becomes a national or world priority due to economic or political factors that are not currently present. I have a theory about this that I'm planning to use in a story. We know from our robot probes that there are features on the surface of Mars that look as though they were created by running water. The presence of these features implies that sometime in the past Mars was a lot warmer and wetter than it is today. So something changed to change Mars from a planet that might have been habitable to a planet that is not habitable. It may be that by carefully examining the geological history of Mars we will learn things that can help stave off a climatological crisis on earth. So if we have a global climate change that really threatens the planet, then at that point sending a piloted mission to Mars to study the climate of Mars and find out how did Mars break and what can we do to keep Earth from dying that way that Mars died some time in the past, that could be the kind of thing that might justify the really incredible expense of sending people to Mars…and I'm a science fiction writer.
What did you think of Obama's decision to pull the plug on manned space exploration?
I think you have a look a little more closely at what's actually in the budget. Most of the people I know who are enthusiastic about space believe that the Obama budget is actually a step in the right direction because the Bush Mars program was just focused on putting people on Mars. And really, if you look at what Bush said versus what's actually in the budget, he didn't budget any money really to match his statement. What Obama is doing is he's canceling a program that is probably not ever going to bear fruit because it's underfunded and putting that money into other things that have more promise for delivering real science and real results. It is perhaps a step backwards in terms of putting people in space, but it is definitely a step forward in terms of advancing our knowledge of space and getting things done in space.
If I put a space suit on and went into Forest Park what planet might I mistake myself to be on?
Forest Park doesn't resemble any planet that we know of, and almost certainly doesn't resemble any other planet in the universe. Mars is the second most hospitable planet in the solar system. And when I say hospitable, I mean, if you took a step outside your spacecraft without your space suit, you would die in minutes instead of every other place in the solar system in which you would die in seconds. There may be other planets in the universe that are as pleasant as Forest Park in terms of surface temperature and atmospheric composition. But, with what we know about how life develops, we have no reason to believe that the life forms we would find on any other planet would resemble the sort of things you find in Forest Park.