If I Were to Land on Mars...
A small malfunction lands three astronauts on Russia’s version of the Red Planet.
- By Don Pettit
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
(Page 3 of 4)
Perhaps the best way to describe what we felt like is to say what we did not feel. We did not feel pain when we moved. And we did not lack strength. In orbit we had worked out for two hours a day, both cardiovascular and weightlifting exercises. We had the lean, muscled look of healthy people, not the atrophied bodies of those who had made the first long-duration spaceflights.
Our limbs felt heavy because our brains were not yet compensating for their weight. Like a lab scale that subtracts the weight of a beaker to measure only its contents, an Earth dweller’s brain accounts for the weight of the limbs. In orbit, we had lost this function, and it would take about 10 hours to regain it. Before exiting the Soyuz, each time I reached out to cycle a switch the trajectory of my hand would start off low, forcing me to hoist my arm to reach the correct spot on the instrument panel. Returning a tennis serve would have been more difficult.
Motion was unpleasant, a nuisance, provocative. Any head movement made my vestibular system complain bitterly. Of the three of us, I struggled with the worst symptoms, which is not uncommon for a rookie. Apparently, the body remembers the trials of past spaceflights, making each additional return easier.
When our post-landing chores were done, we chose to bask in the sun. It felt good to lie on my back and commune with Mother Earth. The sky was a most wonderful blue. The smell of freshly ground earth and crushed spring grass from our Soyuz’s tumble filled our noses. A sparrow’s song greeted our ears. A breeze touched our faces. The three of us propped our heads on our pile of survival equipment as if it were a giant communal pillow. Our bodies radiated outward like a three-spoke wheel.
By now we had been up for more than 18 hours, a long day by any measure, one that would end up lasting 36 hours by the time we went to sleep in a bed. But at that moment, sleep was impossible. My sensations, filled with newly rediscovered Earthly pleasures, overpowered any desire to sleep.
About two hours after the landing, we made radio contact with a search airplane. The crew had started a spiraling search pattern from the planned landing site and eventually flew within radio range. The helicopters arrived about three hours after that, proof of how isolated we were.
Four burly men came toward me with a stretcher, led by a Russian flight surgeon. I considered trying to negotiate in Russian that I could move without the stretcher, but opted for the easy approach and went for a ride in style, complete with real fur coverings. Obviously, I was lacking a measure of the right stuff.
So we had made a serendipitous discovery: Because of how the mission unfolded and culminated in a lost recovery, it had an uncanny resemblance to a trip to, and a landing on, Mars. We showed that barriers associated with such a trip, in the form of human physical performance deficits, can be overcome with the knowledge gained from the similar effects experienced on long-duration space station missions.