Dateline: Mars

March 16, 2010

Late last year current MFA Design Criticism Department student Mike Neal visited Utah’s Mars Desert Research Station as part of research for his thesis project. He recently appeared on WNYC’s Studio 360 to discusss the project with faculty member Kurt Anderson (who is also hosting the department’s upcoming D-Crit Conference), and Neal sent the Briefs the following dispatch from the red planet…


Right after Thanksgiving dinner, I packed my bags and flew to Mars—or rather the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), a Martian simulation in the Utah desert. As part of my thesis project I was selected by the Mars Society to spend two weeks at MDRS, where I would study the design for living on another planet.

Crew 84, my rotation, included a Swiss astrophysicist, an Italian evolutionary biologist, a geoscientist and two mechanical engineers. We lived in a tiny “tuna can” habitat based on the proposals of aerospace engineer Dr. Robert Zubrin, the founder of the Mars Society. The air was thin and dry; personal space meant a 4×10’ room; and going outside meant wearing a space suit that took away much of our vision, hearing and dexterity while conducting experiments and navigating the rocky and dangerous and surprisingly Mars-like terrain.


Our limited water was rationed to one Navy shower every three days and two toilet flushes each day per person. Much of it was recycled through the greenhouse, making most products like shampoo, soap and even toothpaste incompatible with the sensitive biological components. Even the potable water for drinking and rehydrating our meals was boiled and filtered. As on Mars, there was no phone signal, and the Internet was severely limited in bandwidth. If the generators gave out late at night, the subzero temperatures outside made us never take the heating system and warm clothes for granted. The small luxuries of normal life I began to think of as “Earth excess.”

The design around us became our world; like a planetary Modernism (though not as sleek), it was one of minimums. Yet, surprisingly much of what we lost didn’t seem that important. Even in the claustrophobic suits the expanse of the landscape was freeing, and personal retreats into our rooms seemed less important than gathering around the table at mealtime. After coming back to New York I realized that my time on “Mars” had taught me a lot about how I lived on Earth, that design had a long way to go on both planets, and that people can be a lot stronger and more adaptable than they think.

Images: Mike Neal at the Mars Desert Research Station, 2009.

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