Brave New Frontiers for Young Reporters

YRE alumni heading to the red planet... Kind of.

Two Young Reporters alumni will be incorporating the crew of MDRS Mission #238 at the Mars Analog Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, starting on January 2nd, 2022. The re-scheduled mission will take place one year later than projected, following a prolonged pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the associated travel restrictions, and public health concerns.

MDRS is one of four Mars-analog research stations currently managed by the Mars Society, an American space-advocacy non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of the human exploration and settlement of Mars. In addition to the MDRS unit located in the Utah Desert, other stations exist in locations with geological and climatological conditions analogous to the red planet’s, namely in Canada’s Nunavut Arctic region, in the Australian Desert, and in Iceland.

In the 1990s, the project Biosphere 2 in the Arizona Desert had made an early (failed) attempt at habitat development, as depicted in the film Spaceship Earth. Nowadays, the Mars Society is one of a handful of international non-profits running a dozen Mars-analog habitats around the world, from Hawai’i to Antarctica and from Chile to Israel. Missions are also sporadically operated by American, Russian, Chinese, and European space agencies.

Portuguese Young Reporters alumni Pedro José-Marcellino and Marta Cortesão will be joining crew #238 as Crew Documentarian/Journalist, and Crew Astrobiologist, respectively.

Pedro, a Canada-based film producer, is one of the oldest YRE alumni/mentor and a member of the international jury. Selected by Mars Society for the original crew #238, he’s been preparing since 2019. Twenty-five years ago, Mission Antarctica, his 1996 YRE mission, occurred in Spitsbergen, Norway, incidentally around the corner from a present-day Mars- analog station. Pedro will be responsible for the mission’s media assets and public narrative.

Marta Cortesão, who is finishing her Astrobiology PhD in Cologne and works with the German Aerospace Center, was identified after a Crew Engineer drop-out during the pandemic created an opening. Working with YRE International Coordination and YRE Portugal, Pedro and Crew #238 ran a month-long search across the YRE network and unanimously selected Marta. She was officially approved by Mars Society’s mission control in February 2021. Marta will be responsible for the mission’s space science, and for operating its space observatories.

The remainder of the crew is composed by Commander Jonathan Yoke (USA, former SpaceX, Navy Seal), XO Sionade Robinson (Ireland, expeditions scholar and business professor), Crew Engineer Simon Werner (Germany), Health & Safety Office Robert Turner (USA, paramedic), GreenHab Officer Kay Sandor (USA, therapist), and Artist-in-Residence Agnieszka Prokrywka (Poland/Finland). Pedro and Marta will be wearing FEE/YRE patches, as well as national patches — Cape Verde/ Canada/EU for Pedro, and Portugal for Marta.

Each of Mars Society’s research centres comprises of a prototype of the Mars Habitat Unit (pictured) similar to those advocated by Mars Direct and NASA’s Mars Design Reference Mission for sending humans to Mars. These are multi-deck units, providing a combination of living and working space for crews of up to six people at a time, with additional space elsewhere in the station. Analog astronauts — or citizen astronauts, as they are often called — live in the pods as they would in Mars, adhering to a strict routine of personal and scientific needs, with limited contact to Mission Control, and going out into the analogous habitat only on prescribed missions. Life in the pods is exactly as seen in the SciFi movie The Martian. Activity outside the habitat requires operational coordination and donning Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) suits.

Developed in 1990 by Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin, with Martin Marietta and David Baker, Mars Direct is a proposal for a human mission to Mars, which is purportedly cost-effective, feasible within our current technological limitations, and possibly during our lifetime. The concept was expanded upon in Zubrin’s book The Case for Mars, which details the philosophy and practicalities of humanity’s expansion to another planet, and the ecological understanding necessary for the leap.

One of its major proponents is SpaceX owner Elon Musk, who has been very public in his large systemic vision for building a sustainable human presence in Mars over the very long term — something he foresees as well beyond his life, or SpaceX’s plans. The growth of such a system over decades cannot be planned. It is a complex and adaptive, developing as future humans make their own independent choices as to how they might — or not — connect to the broader system of an initially incipient, and then bustling, Mars settlement. Elon Musk is a supporter of the Mars Society programs, and one of MDRS’ two observatories is named after him.

Marta and Pedro, who represent 25% of crew #238, will be planting a FEE flag on site.