Life on Mars: Meet the crew – Part 3

In our latest instalment on the crew of the Mars Desert Research Station, commander Marlen and executive officer Vittorio fill us in on the challenges of the mission, including missing the food from back home.  

Marlen Castillo Vilcahuaman (Peru) – Crew commander


So as the crew commander, can you tell us a little bit about how you got the role?

I think it is because of my past experience in this environment; I know how it works here. However, I’m not sure I have any special skills as a commander.

What skills do you think are required and why don’t you think you have them?

In a group a person will rise to the role of a leader, it’s not just about telling people what to do but also encouraging them. Whereas I like to be alone, I have to tell myself to go outside and see what everyone else is doing. I have seen some natural leaders.

Life on Mars: Meet the crew – Part 1

So are you settling into MDRS life?

Yes, it is familiar and comfortable. I had some fears about the crew but now I am sure we all get along. Like my last time I was here at the MDRS I knew nothing about my crew and after two weeks, me and another guy were best friends, I knew his food preferences his hygiene routine, we are still really close.

What do you find is different from your previous time at MDRS?

Last time I was a college student still worried about exams. I came here and wasn’t sure of myself, and it was my first experience of astrobiology. I remember being here and thinking of things I wish I could have done and now I am doing them.

What has surprised you this time around?

Now I am the one knowing how things work. Last time it was only the last 3 or 4 days I started to get the hang of it and this seems like a continuation of that time.

So why come back?

Something called to me. Last time I was fascinated about the place in general so I started to read about all the stuff I could do here. Now I am between my studies, so it was the best opportunity as I’m not sure I will have another chance later. It was a good choice.

Life on Mars: Meet the crew – Part 2

Anything bad you forgot about?

Oh yes, the bathroom [laughs]. It is very different to the one we have at home but you have to get used to it. I’m a biologist, I am used to harsh environments, and we are tough.

What advice would you give yourself if you went back one month?

1) That I wish I would bring a dish from Peru called aji de gallina 2) To bring my hiking boots, I don’t know where they are…but if my mum sees this then no I haven’t lost them [laughs] 3) Sometimes I forget the details, I forgot something I need for the lab work, I have been here before so I should know better but life on Earth is complicated. I still had to work whilst I planned my trip.

Vittorio Netti (Italy) – Crew XO


So why MDRS, what is your purpose for being here?

The purpose is to bring humans to a new planet and start habitation in the most remote places, which is why I came to Mars. The reason I accepted the mission was my work on drones. Drones are an important asset; life here is dangerous and it is important to give tasks over to machines.

How are your tests going?

Today was the start, we ended up testing two of our drones. Unfortunately, one had some issues with balance and flipped over. We did the first observation inspection of the base using the Tarot today. The purpose of the Tarot is to cut down on EVA times or to be used for safety, for example thermal cameras to identify lost crews. Our aim is to use it for mapping on Mars. The X-5 is our other drone, it takes off and lands like a helicopter. Powered by a solar panel it can fly for 12 hours without the need to recharge. It will map Mars and find areas for a new base or resources. So far this work has been done by rovers but they are slow.

How are you managing with the feeling of isolation?

Honestly, I am less isolated than I was on Earth. The base is not so big and we are close together in a common space. On Earth I live alone and have my own workplace, so normally I would need to go out and find people. Here, we are on top of each other, it is just an idea of privacy. For now I can deal with it but I cannot take a break from it. I have already felt the need to be by myself.

Life on Mars: Zoe Townsend’s MDRS mission

What do you miss the most from Earth?

The food… but as an Italian, the sea, on Earth I lived in Venice where water is everywhere. It is calm but so full of life at the same time. Here is it just desert. I would love a virtual reality of the sea, the sound and sight even maybe the smell.

You mentioned food. Is the food here really bad?

It’s not food! We have been doing the impossible. These dehydrated powders are horrible, it’s not in my habit, and I am used to fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. Thankfully we have a GreenHab but it is limited, we need to expand. Hector has been doing a fantastic job in there; we managed to make homemade pesto, and it just reminded me of the flavours of Earth food. Here the food has no texture, no shape, it’s the reinterpretation of food.

Finally, what advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I think I prepared well, however there are the physiological factors. These you cannot prepare for; you face difficulties you just can’t run away from. The reality is we are in a tin can in the desert. Actually nope…I would bring better food [laughs].