If I Were to Land on Mars…

A small malfunction lands three astronauts on Russia’s version of the Red Planet.

The recovery crew arrived five hours after the Soyuz landed. (Don Pettit)
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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.

The parallels are striking. First we lived in a weightless environment for five and a half months. Depending on the choice of propulsion, six months is a good estimate for a one-way trip to Mars. So our level of deconditioning was about the same as that of a crew arriving at the Red Planet. We piloted our own spacecraft through a high-G entry maneuver, similar to what a crew may have to do at Mars. Our landing sequence involved a combination of parachutes and landing rockets, culminating in a hard landing on dry ground in one of the more remote places on Earth. For reaching the Martian surface, such a combination is an attractive option. And the landing site will be remote.

On our own, we performed a number of basic operational tasks not unlike those a crew might execute after landing on Mars, such as spacecraft safing, which involves reading procedures, flipping switches, and pushing buttons on the control panel to power down unneeded equipment to extend  battery life for the radios. Since the Soyuz capsule ended up on its side, we did this strapped into a seat fixed to a slanted ceiling. We then opened the hatch by ourselves, unstrapped, and crawled out. In my spacesuit, I weighed 200 Earth pounds. On Mars, at 0.38 of Earth’s gravity, it would require over 500 Earth pounds to equal the same loading on my body. So while future Mars astronauts will wear heavier suits with life support systems, they will be lighter there than I was in Earth’s gravity. We deployed the survival gear that was scattered in numerous small bundles throughout the spacecraft. It takes a pair of strong hands to pull these bundles from their stowage in odd nooks and crannies—woolen clothes, food, water, a medical kit, a portable radio, and a flare-shooting pistol.

We performed all these operations with no outside help. We might as well have been on Mars.

One lesson I have learned from living on the space station is what it means to be home. The answer is directly proportional to how far you have traveled. Depending on the distance of your trip, it could mean when you’ve reached your driveway, your city, your state, or your country. A crew returning from Mars will undoubtedly consider themselves “home” when their trajectory places them in orbit around Earth. And for our serendipitous Mars landing on Earth, we were, at the same time, on another planet and at home.

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