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Crew 161 Final Commander Report

Crew 161, “Team Skoltech” is a team of graduate students pursuing M.Sc degrees in space and energy tracks at Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology situated in Moscow, Russia. All members have spent at least a semester doing research or course work at the Massachusetts Institute of Science and Technology (MIT), USA as part of our graduate studies. Each member brings different skills and specializations to the team, the goal of which is to experience life as an astronaut on Mars with limited resources while conducting scientific research on understanding Mars as a potential planet for human habitation. Research was organized along key expertise of individual crew members: science and engineering. The team came up with research projects to study the physical and chemical properties of the Martian regolith, study the growth of plants under different climatic conditions with varied soil samples and to build a lego-robotic arm to collect the regolith which would emphasize the use of 3D printed lego components on Mars for Rovers/Autonomous Robots with tele-operation capacities.

Physical analysis was conducted on-site to understand the structure of the regolith in various depths and in various regions around the MDRS. The physical analysis, especially shear-capacitance measurements, also gives an insight on the design parameters necessary for the development of the robotic arm. Chemical Analysis was performed to check the presence of different organic salts in the soil with a view to understanding the best regions for plant growth and also to come up with requirements for fertilizers. The presence of different salts like nitrates, phosphates, magnesium, calcium carbonates were tested in different regions. Physical analysis was made in three different regions: the region with the highest shear capacitance was chosen for testing the robotic arm, the thinking being designing for the worst-case scenario guarantees robustness of the robotic arm in regions with lesser shear capacitance.

Working at the MDRS gave us a better understanding of Mars and the complexities of space exploration: consider for example how complex it is to even fix a broken screw on Mars while in space suit in a region with a third of Earth’s gravity and high radiation. Apart from individual research work, engineering checks, managing the resources efficiently, we learnt to be prepared for anything “Just in Case” as astronaut Chris Hadfield puts it in his book “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”. Spending time watching a blanket of millions of stars in the night sky made us crave for that amazing view of home from Mars.

Being in isolation with limited resources made us also deal with individual psychological conditions. It was also a good opportunity to understand individual mentality and how to grow as a team. There were many situations where we had to come up with team decisions, motivate other crew members who were feeling low and keep the team spirit high. EVAs were great learning experiences: dressing up in space suits, wearing oxygen tanks, driving ATVs and performing on-site physical activities were real experience of an astronaut doing EVA. We learnt many safety procedures to be followed from every EVA mistakes. We learnt everyday in the simulation.

Having team meetings twice in a day, dividing tasks and sharing responsibilities, going on EVA and conducting research, communicating with habcom on radio, reporting our activities to Capcom, getting approvals for our every activity were all part of our everyday activity. We also spent time in team building activities too. We bonded over board games in the evening, reminisced over memories from school, shared our varied multicultural experiences and broadened our world views through thought-provoking conversations around science, faith, world peace and the future of space explorations.

As commander of Crew 161, it has been a great honor to lead this team of highly-talented individuals to push the boundaries of our understanding of Mars. As a person, I learnt to lead by example, listen to all crew members and gauge every decision as per what’s best for the team. I am glad that our mission has been hugely successful: we formed life-long friendships and made some important progress with our research projects.

We are all very grateful for the immense support we have enjoyed from both mission support and the Mars society. We are also thankful to our university for making this dream of ours a reality. Go Skoltech!

To the advancement of space exploration!

Divya Shankar
MDRS Crew 161 – Team Skoltech a