Crew 133 members Elizabeth Howell (left) and Pedro Diaz-Rubin at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Credit: Matthieu Komorowski


It's so hard to hammer in the stakes for a radio telescope while wearing a spacesuit. One after another, my crew members pounded metal into frozen ground, joking about how hot it felt with the sun beating down on us. It seemed everything was taking twice as long as it should have, which illustrates how hard a space mission can be.

Crew 133 was not in space, however. We were spending two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a facility run by the Mars Society to simulate exploration on the Red Planet. A large part of our mission focus was astronomy – a natural fit since we were in a desert far from any lights!

We built the aforementioned radio telescope, which will allow crews to watch solar activity and track flares on Jupiter's moon Io. We also observed Jupiter moon transits using a Celestron 14-inch CGE1400 installed in a covered observatory. It was cold observing in the observatory, but at least we were sheltered from the worst of the wind.

We lived all day and night in a 1,200-square-foot Habitat that was heated and even included small bedrooms for six crew members. Water was limited, Internet shortages were severe, and our days were packed full of "Marswalks", cooking, growing plants in the greenhouse and general Hab maintenance.


Crew 133 engineer Joseph Jessup in front of the Mars Desert Research Station habitat near Hanksville, Utah. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Every time we went outside, we had to don mock spacesuits to get the job done. That's because on Mars, you can't head out the door unprotected – quite simply, you'll die. Even a pretend spacesuit takes a while to put on. First you don the jumpsuit, then put on boots and "gaiters" to protect your lower limbs from mud. Next comes the backpack, which includes a fan you'll need to drive circulation in the helmet, which you put on last and attach with two hoses.

The first time that helmet came down on my head, I had a moment of "Gosh, this feels so small." But you get used to it very quickly because the focus is not on wearing the spacesuit, but doing tasks for hours upon hours while wearing it. After a while, Spacesuit 8 became a second skin to me. I knew when I put it on, fun things were going to happen and that we'd help move the science forward another increment for future crews.

These days, I browse the crew photos and think about the fun we had on the mission, at least when we weren't getting all muddy or hot from doing work outside. This was a great example about how doing something unusual will lead to professional and personal connections for the rest of our lives.

Already, research collaborations have started and I am looking at changing my vacation plans to spend more time with the amazing members of Crew 133.

Elizabeth Howell is the communications manager of AWB and spent two weeks at the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in January 2014.