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Diaries from Analog Mars: Preparing for Launch

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Diaries from Analog Mars will be presented as a sequence of personal entries from former Mars Society of Canada Director Jin Sia, who has deployed to the Utah desert to conduct analog space exploration activities as part of a select crew of engineers, biologists, journalists, and others.

Together, we will follow along with Jin as he embarks on a unique and fascinating journey.

Continue reading to enjoy Jin’s first entry, as we share in his nail-biting preparation for departure…

“She packed my bags last night pre-flight/Zero hour, nine A.M….”

Lyrics to Rocketman by Elton John

If I were going to Mars, what music would I bring with me?

It’s a great icebreaker question, and one I’m having to find a serious answer to. I’m a musical person, but I don’t listen to music casually. What would be appropriate for driving through the desert, watching the austere landscape go by? Or for staying up late, contemplating the nature of the universe under a riot of stars? How does one encapsulate every situation in a playlist?

After a lot of deliberation over a friend of a friend’s borrowed Spotify Premium account, I finally settled on a smorgasbord of film soundtracks and songs from a variety of genres. Interstellar, La La Land, First Man, Star Wars (of course), Evangelion Neon Genesis, Ludovico Einaudi, Queen, assorted filk (Fire in the Sky by Kristoph Klover and Starfire by Julia Ecklar), space pop, and instrumentals. Yes, Starman is in there.

Knowing that I wouldn’t have access to the internet for two weeks aside from email, I cast a wide net.

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” said Socrates. If preparing to be away for just two weeks at MDRS (the Mars Desert Research Station) requires this much forethought, how much time do real astronauts put into their packing lists? While our crew will be conducting scientific research there, this is also a deeply personal journey; it is teaching me about my personality’s approach to long-duration spaceflight.

I’ve loved space since the age of three, and I knew I wanted to make Mars my goal at least as early as eleven. Mars has guided my every major life decision. Mars got me to leave my home country of Malaysia by myself at the age of 15 to come to Canada. More broadly, it’s become almost a rite of passage to make this pilgrimage to space analog stations for aspiring astronauts and explorers. Dr. Sian Proctor went on a mission at MDRS years before she finally earned her place on Inspiration4, and there’s at least one other astronaut who has been there too, although her name escapes me at the moment.

MDRS is located in the deserts of Utah, near a town called Hanksville. Its populace would be dwarfed by one-tenth the student population of my university, Western University. It’s located out here, in the truest middle of nowhere, for good reason – being two to three hours from the nearest large city of Grand Junction, Colorado, MDRS may just as well be on the International Space Station.

And it really does look like Mars, to my untrained engineer’s eye. Vast plains of layered ochre rocks stretch as far as the eye can see, and maps of the area are pierced from north to south by a desiccated riverbed. One of my roommates is a fellow student at the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western University, studying for his PhD in planetary geology. He tells me that the reason the area looks so much like Mars is probably that both landscapes were formed by similar processes – the drying-up of bodies of water depositing sediments, which then turned into plains of sedimentary rock. Both have ‘sedimentary units’, in geological parlance.

Mars Desert Research Station
The terrain surrounding MDRS. Utah, Earth (Image from a previous deployment, Crew 245)
Mars geography NASA
Ladon Vallis, on Mars. Taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona)

This desert is where we will practice and test the techniques for living on Mars.

I initially applied to go in 2018. I happened to be walking through just the right hallway in the Engineering 3 building at the University of Waterloo, and saw an ancient poster for the Waterloo Astronaut Training Corps. I got in touch with the founder, who mentioned that he had completed a rotation at MDRS. I had vaguely heard of analog stations like the NASA NEEMO underwater facility off the coast of Florida, but I had never known that I could write an application myself to go to one.

I had already missed the early-bird deadline for the 2019-2020 field season.

I was a nineteen-year-old second-year engineering student at the time, and it didn’t seem like I had a good chance of competing against the NASA scientists and PhDs who usually got in. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try: if I didn’t get in this time, I’d try again next time – and again, and again, until something budged. What I didn’t have in formal qualifications I would make up for in passion and dedication. In the days leading up to the final deadline, I nearly gave up on the application several times because of the size of the task. But something at the back of my mind told me that I would be seriously missing out.

Long months passed. Fall gave way to winter, then winter gave way to spring.

In April, I was learning something about wind turbines in my fluid mechanics class when I got a notification on my phone. The name on it: Shannon Rupert, the director of MDRS.

I had been accepted as a backup crew member on Crew 228! Given that I hadn’t expected to even get in, I was over the Moon. I later discovered that I was in one of the only two crews out of the twenty scheduled for that season made up of people who applied as individuals, like myself. The rest of them had been ‘self-organized’ crews – university or pre-existing science teams who had all applied as groups.

I don’t think I was listening very attentively for the rest of that lecture.

Our crew was as diverse as the world itself. The Mission Commander was Dr. Lindsay Rutter and the Executive Officer David Laude, both MDRS veterans hailing from the USA. Other members of the crew included Ludovica Valentini, an Italian aerospace engineer; Stuart Hughes, a British BBC journalist; Dr. Charikleia Olympiou, a Cypriot cardiologist; Inga Popovaite, a Lithuanian PhD candidate at the University of Iowa; and Yuzo Shibata, an independent advisor to artists and scientists from Japan.

Mars Desert Research Station Crew 228
The full crew of 228

Shortly after the crew was put together, Lindsay decided to promote me to a prime crew as a second Crew Engineer, working with Ludovica. The Hab was designed for seven, but we would be able to squeeze me in as an eighth. The plan was to go to MDRS from April 25 – May 10 of 2020, which would fall during the brief interlude between the winter and spring semesters of my degree.

I was ecstatic. I was suddenly closer to getting a taste of Mars than I ever had been.

I suggested that we name our crew the Areonauts – no, that isn’t a typo! The word ‘astronaut’ comes from the Greek root words astron (star) and nautes (sailor), which when combined form astronaut, or ‘sailor of the stars’. I didn’t like the word ‘Marsonaut’ (which mixes Latin and Greek) and so proposed ‘Areonaut’, from Ares, the Greek god which the Romans plagiarized and named Mars. Stuart, the British journalist, came up with an apt motto: Multi terris, unus finis – many nations, one goal. Together, we designed a mission patch integrating the themes of diversity and unity, which was brought to life by space artist Tim Gagnon. Its primary motif is a spacecraft touching down on Mars with plants growing from its exhaust, an image steeped in layers of symbolism.

The MDRS Crew 228 Mission Patch

As the only Malaysian on the crew and one of the few ever to go to MDRS, I felt a special burden of responsibility. Malaysia is better known for its billion-dollar political scandals and systematic persecution of LGBTQ+ communities than for space exploration. A Malaysian astronaut, Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, hitched a ride on a Soyuz capsule to the International Space Station in the late 2000s in exchange for selling fighter jets to Russia. As a child, I knew I wanted to be his successor, but I knew I didn’t have much of a future in Malaysia itself. So I was determined to be one of the few people ever to carry the Malaysian flag to MDRS, and one day to Mars. Having lived in Canada for almost seven years at the time of writing, I’m the first Malaysian most people have ever met – perhaps diversity and space exploration will be words more closely associated with my homeland in the future.

“Man plans, God laughs.”

Yiddish proverb

Over video calls, Slack discussions, and long email threads, we began to bond as a crew.

It wasn’t until Crew 228 got postponed in March of 2020 that the reality of COVID-19 hit me. Not long after the decision was made, my boss at my internship told me to work from home. While we would have been some of the most isolated people in the country at MDRS, flying there and back would still have been risky.

We decided to delay to October of 2020. Surely the pandemic would have died down by then, right?


As the second wave smashed American case records, we were forced to delay again, this time to September 26th, 2021. We crossed our fingers that this would be the final postponement. By this time, I was close to graduating from my degree in mechanical engineering and had been accepted to do my Master’s degree in electrical engineering at Western University.

Then, one by one, crew members were forced to drop out of the mission. Some were unable to get vaccine shots in time, others faced travel restrictions due to being stationed in Europe. Eventually, in the weeks leading up to the mission, the crew was whittled down to Lindsay, Dave, Inga, and me. We started having to wear more hats.

Lindsay would continue as our Commander, and would conduct research in astrobiology. Dave, having a background in microelectronics engineering, would serve as both our Executive Officer and Crew Engineer. Inga, aside from collecting sociological data for her PhD dissertation, was now also caring for the plants in the GreenHab. I switched from an engineering role to becoming the Health and Safety Officer, so I recertified in First Aid and CPR.

There was one problem…

Despite having lived in Canada for seven years, I was still not eligible to apply for permanent residency. After graduating from the University of Waterloo for mechanical engineering in early June of 2021, my Canadian visa had expired, which meant that I would not have been able to reenter the country while returning from MDRS.

I applied to renew it at the end of the month immediately after receiving my study permit for my Master’s, but the pandemic delayed processing times to as long as five months. I discovered an exception in the regulations that I could potentially return to Canada using only my study permit, but I was discouraged from doing this as it was unreliable.

As the date of the mission approached, I grew increasingly nervous. A swelteringly hot August came and went, and Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada still had not responded. In a move deeply uncharacteristic of my cautious personality, I decided to go ahead and book my flights anyway. I knew that if we delayed the mission again, the Areonauts would cease to exist as a crew. The mission happening at this date was especially important for Inga, for whom the pandemic had delayed data collection for nearly one and a half years. And as the Health and Safety Officer, the crew needed me on-site to satisfy safety requirements.

MDRS Habitat Floor Plan (Credit: The Mars Society)

September came.

I started my Master’s degree at Western University. I checked my visa status daily. The mission countdown timer on our crew’s website counted the days remaining to the 26th with menacing precision. In addition to the visa struggles, when I started my one-week planetary sciences crash course surrounded by fellow students who were stunningly brilliant minds in the field, I suffered a crushing attack of imposter syndrome – the intrusive thought of, “How did I get myself into this?” The attack passed, but the stress remained. I woke up full of tension one night, repeating to myself: “I will figure it out. I will figure it out. I will figure it out.”

Then, on Friday the 10th, at T minus sixteen days, my visa was approved.

My excitement was short-lived – I had to mail my passport to Ottawa to get the visa affixed to it. That could take as long as fourteen days, excluding mailing time. I was caught in a dilemma: I could travel to the USA without my Canadian visa and risk not being allowed to come back, or I could mail my passport in and risk having to miss my flights.

It was as if the universe were testing my determination; as if it were telling me, “You really want to go to Mars? Prove it.”

At the end of the most anxiety-ridden Friday of my life, I put my passport in the mail five minutes before Canada Post made its last collection for the week.

The days continued counting down.

T minus fifteen days
T minus fourteen

On Friday the 17th, at T minus nine days, my visa was approved. But it would still take more time before the passport would be mailed back to me. I fired off a quick email to the Mars Society USA asking for a letter that would allow me to put in a request for expediting. By Monday, we had put it together, signed by Dr. Robert Zubrin himself. I sent in the request.

On Tuesday, at T minus six days, my passport was back in my hands.

I had passed the universe’s test.

All the other preparations – last-minute shopping, arranging for classmates to email me slides from my lectures, tidying up research projects before departure, packing – were blissfully gentle by comparison. Those were fully within my control.

As I write this, I’m currently at Toronto Pearson International Airport, waiting for my flight to Denver to begin boarding. At Denver, I’ll catch a connecting flight to Grand Junction and arrive in the evening where I’ll meet Lindsay and Inga. Then tomorrow, we’ll meet Dave and head down to MDRS together.

T minus one day.

“Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s been three years since I applied to go to MDRS, the length of a round-trip mission to Mars.

I’m excited. It’s the anticipation of a brand new adventure on the horizon, the culmination of years of preparation, the weary satisfaction of a hiker at the tail end of a long trek. In hindsight, I needed these experiences to prepare me not just for MDRS, but for the even greater mountains I will need to summit ahead on the long trail to Mars. My fight to get to MDRS has felt like a miniature version of the struggle to become a real astronaut one day. With the confinement and isolation of seemingly endless lockdowns, I feel prepared for whatever simulated Mars has in store for me.

It may be a difficult two weeks, but I will figure it out. With the uncertainty of life these days, “I will figure it out” has become my mantra. Or perhaps it’s a sign that I’ve started taking on the truly large challenges I need to grow.

I will figure it out.

I will figure it out.

I will figure it out…

Be a part of this!

The Mars Society of Canada offers a professional and credible platform for all Canadian space advocates to influence public opinion and government policy. By becoming a member of our federal not-for-profit, you provide direct support to our public outreach and Mars exploration advocacy efforts. We proudly represent the voice of thousands of Canadians who believe in the profound benefit of space exploration, and a multi-planetary future for humanity.

Edited by Evan Plant-Weir

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