Is there life on Mars?

Dinesh Deonarain reports about his simulated trip to the Red Planet.

Dinesh Deonarain is an Urgent Care Fellow with an interest in Wilderness Mecicine who recounts his experience with a simulated out of world experience.

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“Nav. Base. We’re detecting solar flare activity on the monitor with the possibility of a 5 to 10 Gray exposure by the time of impact on the Mars surface.”
The base station alarms were still going off during his transmission. A speedy trickle of sweat coursed down the full length of my spine.
“Copy that base. What is our time to impact?” I tried to speak slowly and in a measure way, but I could hear in my own ear piece that I was far from that mark.
“Estimated time of impact is 20 minutes. Repeat two zero minutes. Suggest immediate delta evacuation to base.”
“Copy twenty minutes until impact. Will organise delta evacuation to base.” I reset my watch. Twenty minutes. I pressed the start button and the digital counter began its furious countdown spin. I peered over to the ridge to get eyes on the team. They were about 500 metres out. This was going to be close.
A radiation dose of 5 gray might be survivable on earth with prolonged tertiary hospital intensive care, but on Mars recovery would be unlikely. Ten gray would mean certain death on any planet. I had to move the team. Now.

“Nav. Lead.”

“Go ahead Nav.”

“Did you hear that?”

“Yes.  I did...”

“It’s not good.  We have to leave now.  Suggest mustering at my location to plan for delta evacuation.”

“Copy that… EVA team, this lead…”

The radio crackled then went silent.  Collectively, we were all holding our breath. Even the lead.

“…we are expecting solar flare activity in less than 20 minutes.  We are delta evacuation.  Proceed to Nav’s location immediately and let’s get home!” 

I could see the team on the ridge.  They were already moving to my location.  I kept my hand raised to guide them in.  They were moving quickly, despite the bulk of their spacesuits.   At three hundred metres, I saw something that made my blood run cold.  One of our EVA crew lost their footing and stumbled over the rough terrain.  I felt my heart kick up a gear and my thoughts spun.  An injury now would be a mess.  A spacesuit tear and subsequent decompression would be a disaster.

 

"Nav. Lead.  It looks like you're having some trouble over there.  What's our status?  ETA to solar flare contact is 18 minutes."

This is just one example of the complex scenarios that were thrown our way during our training at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah- a facility which supports training in preparation for space and off-earth habitation.  During this week-long course I, along with 5 other doctors from around the world, have been immersed in a simulated Mars environment in order to experience the challenges that are imposed by the most extreme of 'wilderness' environments: off-planet existence.  Not only were the medical issues difficult, but we were challenged in roles that were outside our usual medical scope: navigator, expedition leader, communications officer.  It wasn't hard to suspend disbelief in the blood red rock valleys of southern Utah.  In fact, it was more difficult to remind myself that this was only a 'sim' and that my feet were still rooted on Earth.  Our instructors for the week included Rick Cole, a NASA flight surgeon who had worked with countless astronauts and Ben Easter and Dana Levin, two talented emergency medicine doctors with additional aerospace medicine training.  They didn't spare us by making the simulations easy, rather, they delighted in coming up with scenarios designed to cognitively overload us and challenge not only our medical skills, but our ability to stay cool under pressure and to work as a team.  By the end of the week, we realised that Mars, though beautiful, could be very unforgiving.

 

Dr. Dinesh Deonarain is an urgent care fellow working presently in Nelson.  He has done extensive training and practice in wilderness medicine and has developed a recent interest in aerospace medicine.  This excerpt is from his experiences at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah, USA.