Life on Mars: Meet the crew – Part 2

In the second part of our series on the current MDRS (Mars Desert Research Station) crew, UK engineer Zoe Townsend catches up with Paolo Guardabasso and Mariona Badenas-Agusti to find out about their roles.  


Paolo Guardabasso (Italy) - Crew Engineer

How are you settling into the MDRS life?

I think it’s really working out, the landscape is really cool to look at even if it’s dark at night. Here, the night is different.

What else is different, is there something you are missing?

The feeling of fresh fruit and vegetables, the food we have isn’t the best but you have to get used to it.  Honestly, fresh water, taking a shower seeing the rain or having a swimming pool. I’m not used to this feeling, it’s so dry here it’s not like the summers of Earth, the humidity of Southern Italy, where I am from.

So you miss Italy?

Well I travel a lot, so I’m used to this.  But, I do miss it, the food, my family and the sun.

Do you feel the isolation?

I know I am isolated, but I don’t think of it as a negative. Confinement doesn’t scare me or make me nervous. I mean I still miss humanity, but I know there is a purpose here, it isn’t suffering, I chose this I’m not forced.

What is your purpose for the mission?

I am the crew engineer. Disassembling and reassembling gives me satisfaction, keeping an eye on the station it is like I am a doctor for the station, I keep it alive.

What about preparation, would you change anything?

I was nervous, it took a lot of mental effort. I realised though, that the idea of being here is more stressful than actually being here. I was worried for the isolation because you couldn’t rely on the things on Earth; unreliable internet for example, do I have all the songs and books I need? I need to learn to keep calm and everything will be okay, nothing has to be perfect, solutions will get found.

Mariona Badenas-Agusti (Spain) – Crew Astronomer


What is your main role and purpose at MDRS?

Astronomy, I study astrophysics. There are two telescopes, one solar and one robotic which is only in operation at night. The solar is just for the sun, it allows you to see the chromosphere; interesting features such as prominence, granules and things like that. The robotic has two purposes: astrophysics, a specific camera for stellar clusters, asteroids and other bodies and astrophotography. Here, I have a project to take beautiful pictures of the night sky with the robotic telescope of star clusters and look at their ages and brightness.

How about the isolation, are you starting to feel it or not?

I know we are pretty isolated because we are on Mars and our limited internet makes it feel this way. However, with a 7-person crew you will always see someone so you don’t feel completely alone. So on one hand it’s the middle of nowhere but also with a group of people.

So after meeting the crew do you get along?

Absolutely, I hope I haven’t bothered anyone [laughs]. We have been here for a week now and I think we have done a good job of letting everyone talk out their feelings and make plans for the next day. When you are confined it is natural there will be tense moments but it is about how you solve it which is crucial.

So, if you plan in advance what are your plans for the next few days?

My plans are completely dependent on the weather. I would like to look at the sun with the solar telescope during the day and schedule plans for the robotic telescope at night. Sadly, the bad weather over the past few days have meant I have had to change my plans. Mostly I have been processing previous images from the last week, so I haven’t felt bored.

And what about the food?

As a Southern European I am spoilt by going to the market and having fresh milk and extra virgin olive oil. Luckily the GreenHab here is incredible with fresh basil and thyme, the herbs that you (Zoe) have snuck me has made me the happiest girl. I think we are all prepared for this situation, but I haven’t found any fruit since arriving at GJ launch pad.

What do you miss the most?

Fruit… and my boyfriend, family and my friends. I miss Barcelona. I was worried I would be homesick because of the isolation but it’s been fine for me. The limited internet does allow me to contact my loved ones enough.

If you could go back in time what would you do differently?

Schedule my observations with the telescope so I would have a lot more data to process whilst here. I would also spend more time on my suitcase. I missed a coat…. In my defence even though it’s a desert and 30/40 degrees during the day, but at night it drops to 8.