By Published: Nov. 5, 2021

“Today, we woke up on Mars,” Shayna Hume (MAeroEngr’20; PhD’23) journaled on April 13, 2021. Nestled inside a two-story, 1,200-square-foot cylindrical habitat with five other aerospace specialists, it appeared to be true — red desert stretched out for miles in every direction, and the sunrise glowed orange over distant canyons.

It turns out, Utah’s high desert country is an eerie match for the Red Planet. Hume and her colleagues were embarking on a simulated mission via the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) just outside Hanksville, Utah. Civilization was merely seven miles away.

The MDRS, run by the global space advocacy organization The Mars Society, is the largest and longest-running Mars surface simulation facility in the world. Its mission? To help humanity prepare for the rigors and challenges of life on Mars through “analog astronaut missions” in which research crews spend two weeks living as though they’re on the Red Planet. They live in the habitat conducting experiments, eating freeze-dried food and generally living as though the air outside is not breathable. 

“[An analog space mission] is a scientific expedition to locations on Earth that simulate the extreme conditions of space,” Hume explained. “These places usually are either very, very hot or very, very cold because those tundras and deserts are the most similar to space that we can get on Earth.” 

Hume’s crew, who dubbed themselves the “Red Planet People,” decided to enter the simulation overnight so they could “wake up” on Mars. “It was with an eerie knowledge that today would be very different from yesterday,” Hume journaled that morning. They had officially turned in their tech, sealed up the doors and hatches and joined the ranks of analog Martian astronauts. 

Journey to the Stars 

Over the course of the past seven years, Hume has thrown her heart, soul and academic vigor into aerospace.

“What happens when you put a bunch of young people who are very ambitious in a room for a weekend?” Hume laughed. “We came up with so many ideas.

A doctoral student in aerospace engineering, Hume studies spacecraft landing systems and takes particular interest in the project management side of aerospace. While pursuing her degree, Hume took part in the inaugural Matthew Isakowitz Fellowship Program, a prestigious mentoring program that accepts 30 college students per year interested in commercial spaceflight. 

It was through this program that, in 2018, she met three of the crewmates who would eventually make up the Red Planet People.

“What happens when you put a bunch of young people who are very ambitious in a room for a weekend?” Hume laughed. “We came up with so many ideas. We started discussing what opportunities we could take advantage of together, now that we had this little community,” said Hume. “Out of all that brainstorming came the idea of doing an analog astronaut mission.” 

The group applied to the privately funded program, and they were accepted for the spring of 2020. In April, they embarked on their mission to “Mars.”

A Sol in the Life 

After quarantining for weeks, rigorously preparing and planning menus, experiments and schedules, the crew settled in for two weeks in the habitat (or “hab”) — a structure consisting of a bathroom, airlock and spacesuit room, “staterooms” (long tube bedrooms you can slide into at night), a kitchen and common space table. 

Hailing from academic institutions across the U.S., the Red Planet People were six strong: Dylan Dickstein as mission commander, Shayna Hume as executive officer, Julio Hernandez as crew botanist, Olivia Ettlin as crew scientist, Shavran Hariharan as crew engineer and Alex Coultrup as health and safety officer, as well as media officer.

For two weeks, the crew woke at 7:30 a.m., congregated for breakfast at 8 and started procedures for the EVA (extravehicular activity) by 8:30 — sterilizing equipment, going over checklists, checking vitals, getting into flight suits. Then, part of the crew would don spacesuits and head out to conduct various experiments with a rover named Perseverance, while the rest of the crew stayed back to monitor hab operations. 

As executive officer, Hume oversaw the project management of the crew as a whole while they performed various experiments. Subject matter spanned the gamut — Ettlin constructed and maintained a small hydroponic garden with peas and onions; Hernandez experimented growing peas using soil chemically simulated to mimic Martian soil; Hariharan conducted a dexterity experiment testing other crew members’ reaction times while wearing different types of spacesuit padding. 

“The research we did was independently run and was largely ‘proof of concept’ research for us to explore options for longer and more rigorous studies in future analog missions,” Hume explained. In other words, this first mission was hopefully the first of many for the Red Planet People. 

An Unpredictable Planet

Life in “space” may be a fun novelty, but it’s also far from easy, according to Hume. She described the experience as landing somewhere between a deployment and a research expedition. The team operated on very limited technology. They could send only a couple of emails every day and had to ration a limited amount of data so they could submit their daily reports. 

The schedule, planned by Hume, was rigorous. “I wanted to run a tight ship,” she said. However, she later discovered that even the best-laid plans can fall apart in an environment with so many variables. 

“You see the world without borders. You realize that we’re all connected.”

“We were told that we would only finish 50 percent of what we intended to do while we were there, and that was completely true,” said Hume. “I found out that you can do a lot of planning, but as soon as you are in simulation, emergencies happen. There would be a ‘leak’ somewhere we needed to fix. Our scissors would break while collecting soil samples. A radio would malfunction. An unexpected storm blew through.”  

But perhaps the most challenging aspect was the feeling of constantly being on call. 

“Being an astronaut is a full-time job. It’s very hard to clock out,” Hume noted. “It was like an extreme version of working from home. We really had to put effort into solidifying our off time and our alone time because we were exhausted by the end of two weeks working around the clock.”

“It’s hard because anyone who ends up on Mars will be a passionate person who loves what they do. It’s easy to throw yourself into it completely. So, giving space for mental health, giving space for self care, those are things that are very easy to ignore in engineering because they’re not the goal of the mission. But they’re really important in the long run.”  

The Overview Effect, From Earth 

When many astronauts are in space, they describe something that has been termed “the overview effect”— a cognitive shift that happens when you view Earth from space. From that massively zoomed-out perspective, our planet appears fragile and united. “You see the world without borders. You realize that we’re all connected,” said Hume. “Almost every astronaut has talked about the overview effect. It’s become quite famous.”

"I could see how close we are to the future that’s ahead of us. It’s not as far away as we think.” 

Even as an analog astronaut, Hume reported feeling remnants of the overview effect while at the MDRS. 

“You couldn’t forget that you are in simulation, but you could kind of blur the line for a few minutes. It was an eerie feeling. We would look out the little porthole windows of the station, and because we’ve been in simulation for two weeks at that point, it was very easy to imagine that we were actually in a different world, so far away from the planet we call ‘home.’”

Even though the Red Planet People never left the ground, the experience amplified Hume’s passion for advancing the future of aerospace. 

“Eventually, people are going to be looking at the same type of view we did, except it is going to actually be on Mars. That’s a very exciting feeling,” said Hume. “I don’t quite have the words for it yet, but it put me in a headspace where I could see how close we are to the future that’s ahead of us. It’s not as far away as we think.” 

students participating in a Mars simulation
students participating in a Mars simulation
students participating in a Mars simulation
students participating in a Mars simulation
students participating in a Mars simulation
students participating in a Mars simulation

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Photos by Dylan Dickstein & The Mars Society / MDRS