Living on Mars, Scientists Find Microbial Life Together

Madelyn Hoying, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, and Wing Lam (Nicole) Chan, an MIT senior in aeronautics and astronautics, joined Crew 290 at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) earlier this year. Crew 290, consisting of six members, completed a 14-day simulation known as Project MADMEN (Martian Analysis and Detection of Microbial Environments) at the MDRS, which is recognized as the world’s largest and longest-running Mars analog facility.

The inception of the mission can be traced back to Hoying’s participation in the NASA Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (NASA RASC-AL) challenge during her undergraduate years at Duquesne University. Following the conclusion of the challenge, Hoying, along with her colleagues, refined the mission concept and devised a test plan suitable for execution in a Mars-analog setting.

Hoying assumed the roles of the crew’s commander and health and safety officer, while Chan took on the responsibilities of the crew’s journalist, documenting their daily activities and experiences living on Mars. Crew 290 comprised three original project members—Hoying, Rebecca McCallin from Duquesne University, and Benjamin Kazimer from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, with Chan, Anja Sheppard from the University of Michigan, and Anna Tretiakova from Boston University joining in a subsequent phase. Notably, Hoying and Chan had previously collaborated in another RASC-AL competition in 2022.

A distinctive leadership opportunity

Prior to Project MADMEN, Hoying had engaged in other analog missions through MIT’s RASC-AL challenge submissions, notably the 2023 initiative titled Pale Red Dot. Drawing from her experience, Hoying reflected on the leadership nuances inherent in the different mission objectives between Pale Red Dot and Project MADMEN. The varied tasks, such as extravehicular activities and operational requirements for REMI, presented balancing challenges for Hoying.

As the commander, Hoying meticulously managed logistics, ensuring the fulfillment of scientific objectives while juggling the demands of multiple concurrent projects. The crew undertook two field experiments involving soil collection for Project MADMEN and field operations of REMI, a ground-penetrating radar robot. Balancing competing requirements for EVAs posed challenges, especially concerning the limitations imposed by REMI’s mass on rover battery life and terrain accessibility.

Hoying’s pivotal focus centered around harmonizing the crew’s data acquisition needs with safety considerations. Decisions pertaining to science goals of EVAs, team composition for each EVA, and collection sites rested on Hoying’s shoulders. Ultimately, she successfully navigated the logistical intricacies and met the collection requirements for both field projects, despite last-minute alterations due to environmental factors.

The crew’s significance in the mission

Project MADMEN’s scope extended beyond conducting geological and robotic experiments; it encapsulated an exploration of the psychological and social facets of inhabiting Mars, facilitated by MDRS’s immersive environment. Hoying emphasized the mission’s dependence on the crew’s cohesion, acknowledging the instrumental role played by interpersonal dynamics in mission success.

Utilizing daily questionnaires, Hoying monitored the mission’s psychosocial dynamics, particularly gauging the impact of contingency scenarios on factors like quality of life. The crew’s living arrangements within the two-story Hab, featuring communal spaces on the lower and upper decks, fostered camaraderie and mutual support, underscoring the crew’s unity.

“Sharing meals and engaging in communal activities allowed us to bond and appreciate each other’s company,” Chan recounts. Embracing the challenges of communal living and task coordination, Chan reveled in the novel experiences that enriched her mission participation, highlighting personal growth fostered by the mission’s dynamic setting.

By the third day, the crew had bestowed call signs upon each other, emblematic of their shared experiences and camaraderie forged during the mission. Reflecting on the journey, Hoying (“Melon”) and Chan (“PODO”) cherished the bonds formed and milestones achieved during their simulated Martian endeavor.

Crew 290’s expedition culminated with reflections encapsulated in Chan’s Martian journals, offering poignant insights into their transformative journey at MDRS. Chan’s poignant recount of their Martian sojourn serves as a testament to the crew’s resilience and camaraderie throughout the two-week mission.

The successful execution of the mission was made possible through the primary sponsorship by Duquesne University and the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, supplemented by travel support from the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium.