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In April of 2006, a human research mission to the red planet was simulated at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. For two weeks, a crew of six Austrians conducted experiments in an analogue Mars mission, similar to how such a mission could be expected to play out during a real Mars expedition in the future. All of this happened in cooperation with the US Mars Society and was supported by a mission control center in Salzburg through satellite communications.
At AustroMars, the crew, the support team, the experiments and a large portion of the hardware came from Austria. 20 experiments, 37 scientific and industrial institutions as well as 145 voluntary scientists, engineers, doctors and space enthusiasts participated in the mission.
10 years later, we want to take a look back and ask some of the participants about their memories of the AustroMars mission. In the first edition of our interview series on AustroMars, we talked to the first three participants of the mission.
OeWF: Gernot, you participated in the AustroMars mission as a health & safety officer. Which memories have you kept in mind after 10 years?
Dr. Gernot Grömer: Many, many, many memories. Even though the AustroMars mission used less advanced technology by today’s standards, it was still the defining project for us. We still draw on those lessons learned at the OeWF today. From the point of view of the HSO, the topics health and risk were of particular importance to me. In addition, I was also the project lead which meant that I had to work full-time in preparation of the mission months ahead. It was a giant step for all of us to go from “no mission experience” to “AustroMars”. Especially since none of us had ever tried a project in that order of magnitude before.
I kept a logbook at that time and when I read it nowadays, there are still dozens of memories popping up and I see this unbelievable, magnificent desert landscape in front of me again.
OeWF: Which (particularly important) experience have you taken back from Utah?
That one should always take time for oneself, despite all the stress and the workload. These personal experiences are the ones that stay – the scientific data is accessible through the archives for a long time. But the feeling to do your first extra-vehicular activity, or the awesome feeling to return safely to “Earth” after the mission and eat an apple; that was simply amazing.
OeWF: What did you cook during the analogue mission? And how?
We had some nutrition experts craft a diet plan for us which featured very balanced meals. Unfortunately, we made a mistake when calculating the provisions for AustroMars so that after the first half of the mission, we had to use our emergency provisions which were all rice-based (the whole flight crew could not see any more rice for several weeks afterwards). What I kept in my memories were the delicious vegetable dishes with freeze-dried basic utensils. And the bread. This wonderful bread, which we prepared every day with a baking mixture in our baking machine. The smell of freshly baked food permeating the habitat was an incredibly homely feeling – we then added some spray butter and a pinch of fast growing cress which we grew in the station: This was the freshest food we ate in the MDRS.
OeWF: Daniela, you participated in the AustroMars mission as communications officer and just recently joined the OeWF at the time. Was the mission a reason to join the OeWF?
Daniela Scheer: Yes and no. I got the idea from a friend who applied as an analogue astronaut for the mission. But to me, Mars was just one of nine planets in the solar system at the time (Pluto did still count). I was more interested in the project because of the opportunity it provided to gain practical experience in media work. The OeWF offered me this opportunity by participating in the mission. Afterwards, there were new projects and other interesting tasks, so I stayed.
OeWF: What was your highlight of the mission?
Being able to let my creativity run free and the experience of doing a service, together with a bunch of mixed personalities who get paid with friendly words only, for which other institutions would need ten times the time and a hundred times the budget we had.
OeWF: There are lessons learned from every analogue mission. Have there been PR mishaps or funny incidents?
Lesson learned: Try to do it without politicians. And if you cannot avoid them, get professional advice (from someone with a diploma in kindergarten education).
OeWF: Christian, you are a trained pilot and acted as a back-up crew member in Utah. Were your flight skills required during the mission?
Christian Hutsteiner: Most of the mission was guided by autopilot. I only took the steering wheel on the way back home from Mars so that my piloting training was not in vain. ;-) Of course there was no real flight. Not even a computer simulation. We just “said” we were flying and in order to be in a real simulation, there was a problem in the end and I took over. Flying the spacecraft was part of my application. I wrote that there has to be someone to fly that thing.
OeWF: Which part do you like to remember these days?
The collective dinners on the station which featured current problem solving and partly trivial conversations (which the spirit frequently needs) as well as the first breakfast back on Earth at the mountain are very dominant and positive memories. The first breakfast has been great because the onsite-support brought us fresh fruit (which we had talked about a lot during our rice-heavy dinners) and good beer. Furthermore, we could experience the first sunrise without a space suit. And since we were really obsessed about the simulation, it really had been the first moment back home on Earth.
OeWF: Have there been surprises during the mission nobody thought of before?
The biggest surprise was how fast it was over. We had barely arrived on Mars when the flight back home took place. I was the flight engineer, meaning that I was responsible for every technical issue on the station, ranging from electricity over air to water supply and disposal. There have been daily control tasks as well as unplanned repairs. Together with Norbert, the commander, I worked on technical experiments. Furthermore, I also participated in several EVAs. Everything had to be documented in a very comprehensive manner. And because of the workload, there was little time left for thinking or recreation. But it was a lot of fun.
All in all, I only have positive memories of the AustroMars mission and I am proud and happy that I have been a part of it.
Thank you very much for sharing your memories with us.
The interviews were conducted by Marlen Raab, OeWF editorial team.
This article is available in: German
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