Which may explain why I am initially underwhelmed by crew 58 at the Mars Desert Research Station. Following my dramatic invasion of the MDRS, and climbing a ladder, I find myself face-to-face with a roomful of trainee astronauts who all look very, er, normal. They range in age from about 22 to 38, in gender from male to female. They are sporting things such as beards and spectacles and amusing novelty T-shirts. And while a few might conceivably be in the kind of peak physical condition we’ve come to expect of people sent into space, many, visibly, are not.
Nor is the facility quite as dustless and professional as I’d been expecting. The station’s main kitchen and common area feels more like a youth hostel than an antiseptic astronaut hatchery. There are coffee cups and Gatorade bottles strewn about the place, boxes of crackers and tangles of laptop cabling. On the wall is pinned a grubby map of Mars—appropriate enough, I suppose, only I think it’s the same one my 4-year-old niece has pinned on her wall, possibly extracted ecstatically from the same junior encyclopedia.?
Under the able command of one Commander Melissa Battler, the seven members of crew 58 have been selected by the Mars Society for its most arduous mission to date: a four-month stint at a station deep in the frozen tundra of the Canadian Arctic, 90 minutes by light plane away from the nearest human being—who may or may not be a doctor. The discussion I’d interrupted was of where precisely on the chest one is supposed to stab a crewmate with an empty syringe if he or she develops a “tension pneumothorax.” Once that is settled, the group briefly reviews their rules for family emergencies. Crew members will be allowed to “break sim” and go home for two weeks if a parent or sibling dies. But not if it’s a grandparent. And not if the parent or sibling merely gets told he or she has a week to live. In that scenario, a crew member will have to wait until he or she actually dies before getting the two-week leave.
Now this is more like the Right Stuff, I reckon. The crew’s casual, approachable demeanor, I decide—as they wrap up the meeting with a discussion of how to fend off two polar bears when you have only one shotgun—is not so much in opposition to their inner intensity as a necessary complement to it.
Mars, after all, is very far away: six months each way using the best of current technology, interrupted by a long period on the planet itself, mining and refining the fuel for the return trip. The reserves of inner fortitude required for something like that are staggering to ponder, but it’s also going to take a superhuman endowment of Roommating Skills. The people we sent to the moon may have all been able to land a wingless F-104 on a tennis court. The people we send to Mars will also have to know how to kick back of an evening, shoot the breeze, play a little zero-g Travel Scrabble, listen to a little Dave Matthews, and yes, hang up a poster or two. Nothing gets older quicker, I would imagine, in the vast reaches of outer space than some humorless astro-whiz who spends his downtime locked in his cabin doing sit-ups and shaving his buzz cut.
Not that you could shave much of anything in the tiny cabins of the Desert Research Station, I observe as the crew readies dinner. They’re like coffins with desks and have the effect, suddenly, of focusing my attention on the issue of how a mixed-gender crew of Martian pioneers are supposed to handle the whole Sleeping With People side of human existence. When conducted in a handful of cubic feet, with five attentive ear witnesses, the result could be disastrous. There would be jealousies, and snickering, and eventually, if our experience on Earth is any guide, women would be flinging ashtrays at men, not to mention stuffing the men’s belongings into shopping bags and passive-aggressively depositing them just beyond the air-lock door.
The only answer, I guess, is self-control. My respect for the inner fortitude of crew 58 ratchets up another couple of notches, and a couple more when we sit down to dinner and I finally taste the food. Somehow I was under the impression that astronauts survived entirely on light-brown paste, squeezed into the mouth from a sachet, that transforms miraculously into a gourmet meal as soon as it hits the tongue. Turns out I have it backward. For dinner, I’m served a bowl of freeze-dried chicken and rice that looks like an actual meal but tastes like light-brown paste.
Yet the crew sucks it down with good humor, and increasingly I find myself staring at one or another of them and wondering how their face would look on a stamp, or even a banknote. The more they tell me about themselves, the clearer it becomes that these people are serious. They really think they’re going to Mars, and they’ve organized their lives around the prospect.
Crew Engineer Ryan Kobrick, for instance, happens to mention that he’s a graduate of the “International Space University.” I interrupt to ask if he’s sure that such a thing exists. He assures me it does. It’s in France, apparently, and I fall silent, suddenly aware that Kobrick has what must surely be one of the great astronaut names of all time: “Ryan Kobrick.”
Just then, however, there is an incident. From within a cardboard box of freeze-dried meals comes a scrabbling sound, and then the box topples over. Tumbling out onto the floor, grappling a packet of sweet-and-sour pork, is the station’s resident house cat, an orange tabby named Pixel O’Neill. The crew promptly loses it. Commander Battler announces, sobbing with mirth, that a more adorable, amusing spectacle she has never seen. Ryan Kobrick of the International Space University dives for his camera, and the next 20 minutes see the crew posing for pictures with Pixel O’Neill, whose name, I am informed, is an homage to one of the characters on Stargate, or Battlestar Galactica, or Star Trek: the Nth Generation.
Slowly, I grasp the essential truth: These people are nerds. Lovable nerds, without question, but nerds nonetheless. They’re content to spend months locked up together pretending to be Martian astronauts, because if they weren’t they’d be locked up together in one of their bedrooms rolling 12-sided dice and pretending to be battle dwarves or shape-shifting elves.
It’s an ungenerous analysis, I’ll admit, and one that persists until morning, when Commander Battler, looking rather fetching in her pajamas, grants permission for me to don one of the crew’s space suits and go walk around in the desert. I start out feeling very silly indeed. The space suit is unmistakably just a space-suit costume: a pair of white overalls with a fishbowl helmet and a motorized backpack pointlessly blowing air at my face through a tube.
The desert, however, is magnificently bizarre in the morning light, an endless blistered cinnamon crust shot through with mauves and mustards and periwinkles . . .
And then it starts to snow. I’m wearing a space suit, upon a multicolored alien landscape, and it’s snowing, and in the instant before my aesthetic apparatus overloads and jams my entire brain, I find myself wondering if Battler, Kobrick, and the rest might not make it to Mars after all. So what if they’re nerds and are driven as much by an urge to play dress up as by a realistic Martian ambition. Who’s to say the game has to stop? Maybe, in short, the business of exploring space isn’t quite as joyless and deliberate as I always thought. After all, it’s a task undertaken by living human beings, and life, it seems painfully obvious all of a sudden, has an incorrigible tendency to be deeply, cosmically strange.