Mission Possible
Текст: Tatiana Petukhova; translation: Brain Hayden | 2015-03-10 | Фото: MDRS crew 143 | 7529

In mid-February another stage in the selection process for Mars’ first colonizers was completed. From a total of 200,000 initial applicants who expressed their desire to set out to the Red Planet and never return, only one hundred remained. We spoke with one of them – journalist Anastasia Stepanova.  

– We wanted to start our interview with this question: what can you tell us about the people who are serious about getting ready for a light to Mars? What sets them apart from everyone else?

They are probably the same people who earlier discovered America, Australia, and the Antarctic… They didn’t know what awaited them, but disregarding all obstacles, they forged ahead. They were focused and persistent. They had the pioneer spirit, the spirit of adventure. The people around them never knew what to think about them, but they were always something of an engine for that society, and I’m sure that if there were not a desire to discover and learn something new, our civilization would be completely different now – we definitely wouldn’t have gotten this far.

As for me, flying to Mars is my dream and the greatest possible joy. Even as a child, when I read the books of Ivan Yefremov, the Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and Stanislaw Lem, in which people fly through interplanetary space, my knees shook as I pictured it all. Could it really be that this could happen, that I could experience this myself?

What’s very unfortunate is that many people take this as an attempt to escape from life. Often even journalists title their articles with the words “Escape to Mars.”  For that reason I want to clearly state that I never run away from anything: I have a very good life, wonderful parents, and an interesting and well-paid job where I am loved by everyone. I want a new breakthrough, some sort of next step, and for me it has to be more drastic than all those that have come before.

Anastasia Stepanova, a participant in the Mars One project (currently one of one hundred applicants and five Russian citizens who have made it through the selection process). She is a graduate of Moscow State University’s faculty of journalism, and a student of the School of Space Journalism directed by pilot and cosmonaut Yurii Baturin. Stepanova is the co-author of Have a Safe Flight…! (Zhelayu vam dobrogo polyota!...), a children’s book on space exploration. Anastasia is engaged in skydiving.

Ever since childhood I have gotten into all kinds of extreme situations. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Uzbekistan, and in the ‘90s that was not an easy place to live. At the age of 16 I left on my own to study in New Zealand. That was also very difficult, but that journey made me a completely different person – I saw that life wasn’t at all like how I had gotten used to imagining it, and that I needed to try to achieve completely different things. Everything that’s unnecessary and connected with future expectations of some wonderful life went away. That period enabled me to break down boundaries – first and foremost the ones inside my own head. Then I moved to Moscow, where everything was new yet again.

Unfortunately, I didn’t select the college major that would help me become a cosmonaut, so when I heard about the Mars One project, I realized that it was my chance, and I couldn’t waste any more time. If you don’t make your dreams into a reality, you can’t feel truly happy.

– Pursuing your dream, you realized that a flight to Mars – it’s not just fun and not just an adrenaline rush, like skydiving. It’s a project that is extremely important for humanity’s development.  

Of course that part of it is also very important to me. I’m not just saying that because that’s what you’re supposed to say.  Some of the people who wanted to be the first to fly to Mars were truly outstanding – some of them served in the army, others worked at NASA. I knew many of them personally and thought that they would go further than I would.  But in the end they got left on the sidelines. Not long ago the medical director of the Mars One project, Norbert Kraft, told us about the criteria by which candidates were selected. It turned out that an important criterion for selection was the lack of a big ego. People with a lot of ego simple weren’t taken on board, even if they had many strong points, since team work could provoke very serious disagreements.

Overall I’m sad when I look at young people today and see what their dreams are. According to one recent sociological survey, the most popular profession today is YouTube blogger. What will happen to humanity in a few decades if that trend doesn’t change?  Maybe there won’t be any more space programs if people only get excited about other, more earthly things. But I want what’s described in my favorite books to come true – I dream of a world united by the goal of conquering space. I want the consumer society we have today to become a society of people who will discover new horizons in space.

Many believe that the Mars One project is impossible. But even if everything goes wrong, in any case it will leave behind a serious foundation for a future flight to Mars. We can already see the effect that the project is having: people have begun taking more of an interest in Mars.

– I know that you couldn’t wait until the official start of the Mars One training – you started preparing on your own. Part of that was a two-week visit to the Mars Desert Research Station, or MDRS, built by Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society in the Utah desert. Was special attention given to developing the skills essential to colonize Mars?

First of all, it was about developing team work. The entire time you are in one building with the same people, which you have just met for the first time in your life. They have different personalities, they have different professions, and they come from different countries. You are all checked to see how well you can get along with people, how patient and reasonable you are. We saw other teams who visited the station before and after us, and far from everything went smoothly with them. Luckily, no conflicts or disagreements arose with our team. The main goal was to carry out the expedition well and complete the tasks given to us.

Another important factor is checking how a person deals with the limited use of things that he has gotten used to. Of course, this affects water most of all. Robert Zubrin asked us to reduce the water use norm established at the station. And that was 30 liters a day per person, which included drinking water, preparing food made exclusively from freeze-dried ingredients, washing plates, hygienic needs. In the end we achieved a consumption rate of 23 liters a day. At the same time, we didn’t sense some limitations – for example, even though we were only able to take a shower once a week and for two minutes, moist towelettes saved the day.

You also need to adapt to sleeping at the station. Your “bed” is a bed in name only. You take your sleeping bag with you, put it on top of a wooden plank – and there’s your bed. At night there’s a lot of noise: the ventilation system hums; the winds howl, and sometime they are so strong that the station shakes; mice come out, sometimes triggering mousetraps in the process.

Special attention is given to spacewalks. You can only go out onto the surface in spacesuits. When planning an exit, you have to report it to the command post twenty-four hours ahead of time, telling them what you plan to do and why. Only after that can they give you the go-ahead. One exit requires 2-3 hours, with two people staying at the station and four leaving it.  You are not allowed stay at the station or exit the station alone. Those conditions are essential to providing safety and “insurance” in case someone suddenly gets ill. The station has a special air lock used to exit onto the surface. Absolutely everything is replicated, right down to decompression. Though the spacesuits aren’t real, of course – they only weight 8 kilograms. Even in them, however, you lose a lot of hydration and tire out quickly, which means that losing consciousness is a real risk. The air is run through the helmets like it is in a ventilation system – from the outside in. Communication is through a walkie-talkie. You walk and can hear your own breathing, you see red hilly landscapes that convince you you’re on the Martian surface. And only when you see that solitary plant do you suddenly realize that you’re on Earth. The feeling you get from work on the surface is astounding in any case.

– How does the MDRS decide which tasks to give the teams to fulfil?

Every person gives an individual application with his own project. The team forms later.  The project can be anything – geological, biological, a project to improve the station. For instance, my colleague, Jan, carried out a complete inspection of the station and prepared a document about how it could be improved.  One of his suggestions was how to change the water pump system. The problem was that the water reservoir was directly above the bedrooms, and at one point something broke and the ceiling simply started leaking. Another person, a woman from a team who came to the station after us, simulated a surgical operation. She even brought along a 3D-printer that she used to print out medical instruments.

As for me, I’m a journalist by profession, and my project had to do with publicizing the Mars Society, Mars, and space exploration as a whole. Each day I wrote about how I had spent my time, both in diary format and in reports, all of it in Russian and English. My goal was to tell people in everyday language what the project is like from an inside perspective. All of it was published on several websites.

– Does that mean that in the near future you might become the first Martian journalist?

I think that after another ten years of training in Mars One, I’ll have a different profession. They teach us many skills and subjects. We have to repair the station’s equipment, give medical aid, carry out various experiments. As for the project’s PR, then it most likely should be given more attention. Even photographs taken by Mars rovers can get people interested. And the first settlement on Mars will, I’m sure, goad the interest of those who had never taken an interest in space before. That’s why if I am one of the four lucky ones (that’s how many people will make up the first Mars mission crew), then I might be the one to write the first news report from Mars.

– How does life at a real Mars station differ from what you had in Utah? It’s obvious that Mars has different gravity and different temperatures. But there has to be something else, doesn’t there?

The station in Utah doesn’t have a closed life-support system. One of those costs a lot of money, which the Mars Society doesn’t have – it runs on donations. For example, on Mars the main source of food will be a greenhouse, but the greenhouse we have in Utah is very primitive, so food comes from outside. The MDRS Station was originally created as a museum exhibit – only later did they take it out into the desert and build on to it.

On Mars the life-support system will be closed. An enormous number of sensors and indicators (the levels of water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc., the temperature) will have to be watched, since the smallest mistake could be deadly. In Utah we understand that if something goes wrong, we all run outside and in a couple of hours they will pick us up. It’s only a two-hour drive to the nearest town. The Utah station’s level of approximation to reality can be given as somewhere around 50%.

In that regard even the International Space Station is not that much like what will be on Mars. In the case of an emergency on the ISS you can usually expect help from Earth.  If, for instance, a spacesuit breaks, the next cargo rocket to the ISS will deliver a new one. If the ventilation system stops working, Earth is very likely to get a transport there in time to save the crew. But on Mars we can’t afford those luxuries. The cost of a mistake there is much higher, and your thinking has to work in a completely different way.

– Vladimir Vysotsky [a famous Russian singer-songwriter of the 1970s – translator’s note] believed that the true essence of human nature becomes very clear in the mountains. How about at the station in Utah? Does it allow a person to rediscover himself?

It does. I experienced that myself. The station “wipes away” everything external that we consider essential to being content. But as is turns out, there’s nothing horrible about not taking a shower every day or eating certain good foods. You begin to value esprit d’corps and a common goal – and there everyone dreams of space flight. It’s no longer important what a person looks like, how he’s dressed and where he works. Interaction itself is what’s important. By the way, at the station I was the only woman, and I experienced no discomfort due to gender distinctions.

When I was at the station I missed more than anything else fresh, crisp fruits, vegetables, the wind, and fresh air. When we exited the station after a simulation, we felt so happy. Is taking everything away from a person what it takes to get him to appreciate the simplest things? The station completely changes your values scale. There I clearly understood that a person can get used to anything, and to be happy a person doesn’t need those things that we’ve all gotten accustomed to. 

– What will be the next step in your training?

Besides the Utah station, the Mars Society has another station in the Arctic. The first year-long mission is already being planned now. I hope to be among those who take part in that mission firsthand. It will be much more like the conditions on Mars in terms of the length of stay, the extreme external conditions, and the consequences of making a mistake.

Besides that, this fall all 100 applicants will go to the Netherlands for the next round of selection. We will be divided into groups, after which we will be sent to trials that will test our psychological endurance. Based on those results 40 people will be selected and further tested for their ability to deal with isolation. In the end 24 people will remain – they are the lucky ones who will begin their training in 2016.  They will move to the Mars One base and will even be paid a salary.

– The mission to Mars is supposed to be one-way. Are you completely sure that you are ready for a one-way ticket? That situation is played out very well in the movie Interstellar:  one of the astronauts goes as far as to murder other crew members, endangering the survival of humanity in the process, just so that he won’t be left alone on another planet. That happened even though he had been given good training, including psychological training, and knew that the situation in which he ended up was more than likely.

When people ask me about things that I might be afraid of, I always answer that the most horrible thing for me is if something happens to the other members of the crew, and I’m left alone. I think it takes an incredible amount of effort to not go insane and not transform oneself from a distinguished physicist into a thug, like Doctor Mann. Of course, now I’m not ready to handle that fear, since I haven’t even begun my training. But there is good news, too.  Norbert Kraft promised us, “When you fly to Mars, it will seem like heaven after the tests and training I have put you through.”

– It reminds me of the methods Suvorov supported. He first introduced the principle of “the harder it is in training, the easier it is in battle.” But no matter what training you have for a Mars mission, you will never get a 100% simulation. Even if you go through very serious training, the human factor still remains a factor for uncertainty. What’s to be done in those cases?

It’s true that on Earth you might behave perfectly, but no one can say what happens several months after the start of the mission. As Norbert once told me, the most complicated period will be when we can no longer see Earth and we still can’t see Mars. We will have nothing to tether ourselves to, there will be nothing to hold on to at all. Mission control’s task then will be to swamp us with stuff to do. Keeping constantly busy is the key to keeping yourself sane. And if someone does go crazy and starts attacking the other members of the crew, I hope that the ship and station will be equipped with tranquilizer guns capable of calming that person down.

– Are you ready to make extremely difficult decisions that could have very significant consequences? Even decisions that human lives could depend on? For example, are you capable of locking a member of the crew out of the station if he poses some danger to the rest of the crew, knowing that to do so guarantees that the crew member outside will die?

I’m sure that if I need to do that, I will. In life I’ve gone through many extreme and unpleasant situations. And when I need to act quickly, I act.  So far everything has turned out fine.

– But what if we look at a crisis of another sort. Going to Mars is, more or less, the meaning of life for you. But imagine that you spend the next ten years diligently preparing to go to Mars, and in the end the Mars crew leaves, and you’re not part of it. What will you do then? Become a nun?

Certainly not. I think that the experience I will have gained by that point will allow me to become a cosmonaut. If that doesn’t come off, then I will have an incredible amount of material for a book which, I hope, will inspire many other young people. In America, when I spoke with Zubrin, I once told him: “Robert, I’m very surprised that you picked me of all people. I’m not a scientist or an engineer…”  And he told me:  “Nastya, now we have Elon Musk – he’s our greatest hope. But how did he become our greatest hope? Because one day he opened a book by Ray Bradbury or Arthur Clark, and the book inspired him, it gave him an entire new world. And even if you only get to write a book, I’ll be very glad.”

– In that case, here’s a final question. It’s 2025. You are standing on the steps leading up into the first spaceship to carry man to Mars. You are given the opportunity to address humanity, which will remain here, on Earth. What do you say to everyone?

I’ll prepare for that separately, of course. But even now I can say without a doubt that, as I go to Mars, my thoughts will still stay with the Earth. I would challenge people to keep and preserve the Earth. Finally, to  wake up and follow basic moral principles, work on themselves, live honestly and sincerely.

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