NOTE: This AMA has now concluded. Thanks for your time and interesting questions!

I'm a space journalist who went on a two-week mission to the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. My six-member team (Crew 133) spent our time setting up a new radio telescope, doing simulated "Marswalks" in spacesuits, and testing out protocols for medical procedures and astronomy, among other things. You can read about our experience on

Proof: You can see a link to this AMA on my Twitter feed @howellspace, and advertised the event on its website:

The chat runs from 12 pm to 1 pm EST, Thursday, Jan. 23.

Comments: 108 • Responses: 35  • Date: 

iceiscold5027 karma

Questions from middle school science students: What signs of life would you search for on Mars? How long would a mission to Mars take? What training do astronauts need to prepare for a mission to Mars? What do you do while on a space ship travelling to Mars? What types of food would you eat on a mission to Mars? What would be the mission goals on a mission to Mars? What would be the next step if you found life on Mars? What happens if you run out of a supply while on Mars? How would you keep in touch with people on Earth while on Mars? How would the gravity be different on Mars? What type of shelter would you live in on Mars? What fears would astronauts have on a mission to Mars?

elizabethhowell29 karma

Hi everyone, thanks for writing! To answer your questions:

What signs of life would you search for on Mars?

Generally signs of microbial life is what researchers are looking for. The Curiosity rover is looking for habitable environments that could have hosted life (but bear in mind it can't find life itself). It and other Mars rovers have found a lot of evidence for water, and water is often a spot where life forms. Another thing that could be good to find is something called a hydrothermal vent, a sort of hot spring where bacteria could thrive.

How long would a mission to Mars take?

It would take years or maybe decades to build the mission and then months to fly there and back. And we haven't even talked about how long you want to spend on the surface yet! NASA and other agencies launch probes when the planets are fairly close to each other in their orbits, to cut down on travel time. This means, however, that it's best to launch to and from Mars only at certain times in the planet's orbit. So how long you spend on the surface would likely depend on when is the best time to leave the planet to get back to Earth.

What training do astronauts need to prepare for a mission to Mars?

They need to be able to do all sorts of things -- fix broken equipment, do medical procedures, perform scientific experiments, do public outreach to explain what they're doing to the public, and a host of other skills. They also have to be capable of flying themselves to and from the planet without a lot of outside help, as communications would take an average of 20 minutes to and from the planet due to the speed of light. This kind of training would take years of studying before you are selected as an astronaut, and years of training afterwards.

What do you do while on a space ship travelling to Mars?

A lot of the work would be maintaining the spacecraft, training for the landing and also performing any scientific experiments en route. You'd also need to be able to entertain yourself, however. It might be a good time to learn a musical instrument, read through a series of books or pick up a new language or two.

What types of food would you eat on a mission to Mars?

Likely shelf-stable food or dehydrated food that wouldn't go bad quickly, but if you were able to bring a greenhouse on site you might be able to plant some crops to bring you fresh food. This would depend, of course, on how warm the greenhouse could be and how well the plants could survive radiation on the surface.

What would be the mission goals on a mission to Mars?

The mission goals would likely be to learn more about why Mars is so different from Earth. Why is the atmosphere of Mars so thin? Where did the water go? Could it have hosted life in the past? If we can learn more about these questions on Mars, we can figure out more about Earth's history.

What would be the next step if you found life on Mars?

The next step would be first of all confirming that is indeed life. Then, if it is life, scientists would want to figure out what it is made of and how different it is from that of Earth.

What happens if you run out of a supply while on Mars?

You would have to build a substitute! This could be a real problem. On my own mission, we had a toilet paper shortage, which is not something you would want to have anywhere. We were careful, and we were okay, but bear in mind we were only there for two weeks. If it was several months, that would be a huge issue.

How would you keep in touch with people on Earth while on Mars?

Likely by e-mail or video communications. A phone call would be painful due to that 20-minute time delay I talked about.

How would the gravity be different on Mars?

It's 38% the gravity of Earth, which means you would feel a lot lighter. If you weighed 70 pounds on Earth, on Mars you would just weigh 27 pounds. Over long periods of time, as you become used to Mars gravity this could make it difficult to re-adapt to Earth's gravity. That's serious because it could affect your bone structure, your muscles and other parts of your body.

What type of shelter would you live in on Mars?

Likely a small habitat with not a lot of private space. You have to be on good terms with your crewmates to succeed!

What fears would astronauts have on a mission to Mars?

Astronauts are trained to deal with problems by following procedures, so although they might be afraid of something like a depressurization, they have ways of dealing with it. Probably their biggest fear would be not living up to the mission plan or not succeeding in what they planned to do.

M4rbled10 karma

What kind of problems could you possibly face on Mars that couldn’t be simulated/tested on earth?

elizabethhowell7 karma

Gravity and the lack of breathable air are two of the big ones. We couldn't simulate the gravity at all, but we did have simulated repressurization and depressurization "phases" in the airlock before and after "Marswalks." (We would stand inside the airlock for three minutes before/after to simulate this, but that was about it.)

jeremycb297 karma

What type of physical shape do you have to be in or get into to be selected for this? Was their any weird medical stuff that you were not prepared for?

elizabethhowell7 karma

We had to fill out a medical questionnaire asking about life-threatening medical conditions. We also were in contact with a flight surgeon while we were on site. We had to be in reasonable physical shape, but it was more them taking our word on that rather than submitting to an examination or anything of that nature. It is challenging, though, in the sense that you're climbing hills and walking long distances (up to 5 miles/8 km in our case) in a mock spacesuit in muddy conditions.

ATM1095 karma

Were participants allowed to take normal prescription medicines though, as long as they were in good shape and without life threatening condition?

elizabethhowell3 karma

Absolutely. I took a prescribed medication on site as well as some painkillers for a routine thing -- not a problem.

I-eat-mop-hoop7 karma

Why wasn't it done in Antarctica? The temperatures there are more representative of the temperatures on Mars.

elizabethhowell10 karma

You're very right that the temperatures and environment of Antarctica are far more representative of what we'd expect on Mars. It's cold, it's isolated and researchers typically spend months of time down their doing their work, which is more like a long-term space mission.

Getting to and from Antarctica, however, is expensive and time-consuming. While I can't speak for the Mars Society, I would suppose that as a non-profit they decided it would be easier to set up bases in Utah and also on Devon Island (where the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station is located). Also, each MDRS crew is composed entirely of volunteers, often people who are students and give up time and work opportunities to travel there. Two-week missions are a long time when you're in that kind of work situation.

While MDRS is not in an environment that is completely close to Mars, it does come close in a lot of ways. For example: we can walk for miles and miles without seeing so much as a telephone pole, it is a desert environment, and our Habitat is close to the size of what explorers would have on the Red Planet, according to the Mars Direct concept it is based on:

thegrizz516 karma

Do you play Kerbal Space Program to prepare for you missions?

elizabethhowell3 karma

I have not played it, but some of my friends have and tell me it's awesome. I need to download that sometime soon.

pglc5 karma

So, you didn't run into any martians by accident?

elizabethhowell6 karma

Not that we could find, but one never can say for sure. ;)

Tanya6224 karma

After two weeks there, how do you think a small group of people would fare on Mars together for a much longer stretch of time? And what do you think they could do to cope with the emotional or mental stress of being so secluded and far from Home?

elizabethhowell4 karma

It was hard even for two weeks to be away from our family and friends. I have friends with babies that are growing up quickly, I co-own a baby guinea pig that is almost twice the size now, and some of my friends and family were going through changes (good and bad) that I wasn't able to be supportive of while I was away.

Over longer periods of time, I think it's important to have time off occasionally to devote a few hours to staying in touch with them, because you do start to feel out of touch with things. So I think that with that, and also treating your crew members as a substitute family (which I did), goes a long way to helping you feel better.

link09114 karma

Is SpaceX's reusable rockets w/grasshopper what NASA or other organizations plan on using for a return trip from Mars to Earth? And do the Mars Rover Missions tell us enough about the atmosphere for such a return trip?

elizabethhowell3 karma

NASA hasn't come up with a firm framework yet for how to get to and from Mars, but they're keeping their options open. Reusable rockets, Grasshopper (which you can read more about here and Morpheus ( are all possibilities for landing and then taking off again on another planet, but as these are prototypes they likely will change their design before they are used elsewhere. As for the atmosphere, there still are quite a few mysteries about its composition, such as where the methane went ( There probably is more that needs to be researched before taking a return trip.

probably_not_a_horse3 karma

How did you feel after watching Space Jam?

elizabethhowell2 karma

I'm a huge fan of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but I have unfortunately never seen Space Jam. If anything, this mission taught me just how many space films I've missed out on over the years. One that I really enjoyed, and had never seen before, while we were on site was Outland, which stars Sean Connery. I was joking to others that it was a bit like a CSI Jupiter or CSI Io.

jkorpela3 karma

How many times did you die?

elizabethhowell2 karma

We didn't die or simulated die while we were on site, but that said it was taxing to hike up a hill at 4400 feet in a mock spacesuit. I sure was breathing hard, but at least I was still breathing!

Poorrusty3 karma

Did you eat different food?

elizabethhowell2 karma

Yes, it was dehydrated and shelf-stable food. I really missed drinking milk! Some of our crew members were quite inventive, however, and made things like cookies and cake and pudding and hamburgers. Here is my less successful early attempt at cooking:

shvinsk2 karma

Was any of it actually any good?

elizabethhowell2 karma

Mine wasn't very good, I think, but the other crewmates did well! I was a huge fan of the cookies that one person baked while we were on site. And the hamburgers impressed me.

TheB1GLebowski3 karma

How was gravity simulated for mars atmosphere? Do the suits have to be modified for a Martian atmosphere vs lunar atmosphere?

elizabethhowell3 karma

The facility doesn't have the capability to simulate gravity, unfortunately, but it sure would be fun to play in the gravity if it was! (Imagine sports on Mars, where it's 38% the gravity of Earth.)

Our spacesuits weren't quite pressurized; we wore jumpsuits, as well as helmets and backpacks. Here's more info on how the spacesuits are put together:

Universu3 karma


How are participants in the Mock Mars Mission selected?

Where do you think is the best place to land and live on Mars? Near Curiosity or Opportunity?

elizabethhowell7 karma

Every year, the Mars Society puts out a call for volunteers for its two sites, the Mars Desert Research Station and the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station. You can apply as part of a team or as an individual.

In my particular case, I'm also a part-time distance student at the University of North Dakota. Paula Crock (our commander and also a UND student) put out a call for volunteers to all students in our department, which is Space Studies. As they had a journalist position, I met the qualifications for that position and she said I could join the team. We then applied to the Mars Society as a group and luckily, were accepted based on the quality of our science proposals and general resumes.

It's so hard to pick a spot to land on Mars, but I would say any of the spots where the rovers found evidence of ancient water would be a great starting point for discussion, as that could have been a habitable environment. In December, this ancient Mars lake discovery by Curiosity in particular excited me:

Mail_room_guy3 karma

What is your opinion on the space X program to colonize Mars? Is it a real possibility or is it headed for disaster?

elizabethhowell3 karma

I think it's too early to say right now. It's hard to evaluate a mission until you get a firm timeline, costs, see a rocket being built, and know exactly what they're planning to do. The number of colonizing missions being proposed to Mars (Mars One is another example) is exciting, however. With all the discussion, one would hope something would happen eventually!

classicstickless3 karma

How long do you think it'll be before we can actually and successfully travel to Mars and back?

elizabethhowell6 karma

We had a huge debate on our crew about this and I think the consensus was decades at the least. That said, technology keeps surprising me. I remember watching the movie Contact in 1997 and being jaw-dropping astounded that people did video conferences regularly in that film. I thought that would be decades away. But now, Skype and Google have made that an easy thing. So it's hard for me to predict with any accuracy.

hijenx3 karma

What surprised you the most from the mock mission?

elizabethhowell3 karma

Just how many darn skills you need to succeed as an astronaut. For example: On my next mission I'd better improve my cooking skills quickly, as after a time my crewmates were beginning to get their own breakfasts and lunches rather than watch me try to figure out dehydrated food cooking!

GuitarMcPussyFish3 karma


elizabethhowell3 karma

This wasn't a topic we addressed as we were only out there for two weeks, but people did talk about missing husbands/wives/girlfriends/boyfriends etc. while we were out there. On an extended mission, it might be easier to send couples to deal with that, but this is a huge topic of debate. Imagine if there was a breakup during the mission, for example. That would be hugely uncomfortable as there would be nowhere to escape from your ex.

BornTradition3 karma

Based on your experience, how long do you believe it would be feasible for astronauts to stay healthy mentally in a confined environment of a spacecraft/settlement on mars?

elizabethhowell2 karma

I do, but I also think it's important that you stay in touch with family and friends and also have a certain amount of alone time or reflection time to stay balanced. My attitude during the mission was that my crewmates are like a family, and I should treat them that way. Luckily, they all thought the same way. We became quite close as a group and I miss them now. We have plans to visit each other's home cities in the years to come.

khall63442 karma

Are there plans for you to do this in the future?

elizabethhowell3 karma

I just got back home a couple of days ago and haven't thought through a future trip too clearly, but I did have a great time, I loved my crew and I think it would be a valuable experience for anyone to do. I think I'd be glad to go again, but of course that depends on a lot of things (including if the Mars Society would be willing to have me back!)

Degenetron2 karma

I'm assuming there would be some sort of water recycling involved. How did the water taste? Also to what lengths do the water recycling go? I realize Mars has some ice here and there, but I imagine one would have to reuse as much as possible on an actual mission.. To simplify the question: did you just have to drink recycled pee or did they squeeze water out of your poo so you could drink that also?

elizabethhowell2 karma

We just had standard water filled from a tank, actually, so we didn't have to deal with any water recycling. Astronauts on the International Space Station, however, do recycle their urine, as you can see here:

Ariadnepyanfar2 karma

What were your REMs per day? Was handling photography equipment in Mars suits tricky? Did they have you doing exercises to battle the low gravity? Were you growing your own food? Did lack of space or privacy get on your nerves?

elizabethhowell2 karma

To answer everything in turn:

What were your REMs per day?

We didn't track this, but this would be a great scientific experiment. I did dream a couple of times on site, but they were sort of confused dreams where I imagined crewmates in my room trying to wake me up, that sort of thing. Nothing too exciting.

Was handling photography equipment in Mars suits tricky?

Yes, I was worried of dropping my camera on every EVA, and the strap didn't fit around my neck as there was a helmet in the way. I looped the camera over my shoulder or carried the strap in my hand when I wasn't using it, and that seemed to help. Another challenge was I was using gloves to manipulate the shutter, etc., but thankfully the controls were big enough and obvious enough to make that possible.

Did they have you doing exercises to battle the low gravity? Were you growing your own food? Did lack of space or privacy get on your nerves?

bigdansteelersfan2 karma

How was it?

elizabethhowell2 karma

Life-changing, because of the people I roomed with and what they taught me. I came back with so many ideas about what I want to do in my spare time, and how I can best help others with their goals as well.

Twinkie_Zombie2 karma


elizabethhowell3 karma

I read that book and oh my gosh it is so funny. I wanted to bring it with me, but I had so little space in my suitcase that I could only fit one (which was The Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield). I would be up for a long-duration mission, as long as there was the promise of a return trip!

chasingAIR332 karma

Thanks for doing this AMA. What was the most exciting part during your two week mission?

elizabethhowell3 karma

Riding the ATV in a spacesuit, which was mentally challenging (as you were trying to ride it safely) but also really fun because you could go further and faster than on foot. I felt a bit like an Apollo astronaut bouncing on the moon in a rover. Here's more about the experience:

Dave88752 karma

What are the plans for any Mars crew to get rid of their waste/garbage? All the talk of this being a one-way mission to the actual planet will they just eject it from the surface, let it pile up, options?

elizabethhowell3 karma

There are so many ideas and so few firm answers on this point, but one of my favourite ideas is the one about using the garbage as a radiation shield!

DMielach12 karma

Was the mission physically exhausting? How so?

elizabethhowell4 karma

Yes, it was, especially when we were outside in the mock spacesuits. In the sun it got hot really quickly inside the helmet. We also were walking up and down steep hills in muddy and slippery conditions. We didn't push ourselves to the point of exhaustion, to be clear, but we certainly did feel tired after performing these activities. It was worth it, though, as we picked up a lot of valuable geological and biological info (such as locating possible sites of hydrothermal vents). Some more info here:

slivercoat2 karma

What was the most interesting part of your daily routine?

elizabethhowell4 karma

Sincerely, it was sitting down with my crewmates and talking with them. They were all such smart people, and taught me about all sorts of subjects I didn't expect. One had a huge interest in anthropology, which sparked discussions about Neanderthals and the Maya, for example. Another was a world traveller, and gave tips on where to visit on just about anywhere you could think of. Several spoke other languages, so I was using French and Spanish on site and hearing Russian (which I only know a few words of.)

Universu2 karma

Since it is the 10th anniversary of the Mars Exploration Rover landings, which are your favorite photographs taken by Spirit and Opportunity and any interesting anecdotes about their discoveries?

elizabethhowell2 karma

Wow, it's so hard for me to make a choice that I'm just going to lean on my editor's shoulders here and point out this photo gallery of some of the neatest stuff Spirit and Opportunity found:

I think one of my favourite discoveries of theirs was the "blueberries", because these are just so weird to think about:

abluegirl2 karma

Were you provided with any links to the outside world? How did you cope with the isolation?

elizabethhowell2 karma

We had limited Internet (no videos/Skype, but e-mails) and that let me stay in touch with family and friends. I didn't feel isolated because I was in a small room with five other crewmembers for much of the day, but I did miss the people I love at home. What helped me was walking down into our spacesuit room and staring at the helmets and the spacesuit backpacks. It reminded me of why I was here in the first place -- to pretend to be an astronaut -- and that the sacrifice was worth it.

Barjuden2 karma

Will I, as a civilian, be able to go to mars in the next sixty years? I think that'd be pretty sweet.

elizabethhowell2 karma

Maybe, but you might also need a lot of money to do this (if you're paying your own way) or charisma (if you're participating in a competition like Mars One). The best way to prepare is just to learn as many skills as you can that would be useful on a mission, but to have fun along the way so that you don't feel like it's drudgery to prepare. Good luck!

mrgxi2 karma

If you had a 3d Printer on a Mission to Mars? What would be handy to print/what would you print?

elizabethhowell2 karma

Equipment and food are what we'd really want up there. If something breaks, it's useful to have a backup idea if you run out of spares!

monkey_n_pig2 karma

If you met a time travelling alien who requests you to introduce him to the one human who changed the course of mankind. Who would you suggest and why?

elizabethhowell2 karma

I'm not sure if Julius Caesar changed the course of mankind, but I find him historically interesting because he did come at a time of transition in Rome. And while it's not 100% accurate, Shakespeare's play about him is my favourite.

Laserdollarz0 karma

Have you landed on the Mun in career mode yet? The limits imposed by technology make it kind of difficult.

elizabethhowell2 karma

I'm not sure what you're asking in this question, but I will say that yes, technology does make it difficult to get to Mars because it would take a long time to get out there, plus we would have to support the astronauts on the surface and then bring them back.