Dispatches from Mars, Utah

How I Became an Android
Notes from different corners of the world.
May 28 2004 11:27 AM

Dispatches from Mars, Utah

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EVA prep room
EVA prep room

Mars Desert Research Station, Utah; April 15, 2004—It took an hour to get the EVA team prepped and out the airlock door for Crew 28's first exploratory mission into the Martian landscape. As they exited, Gregorio narrated the whole process into the HabCom radio, his voice rising with excitement.

"They are opening the hatch," his voice crackled. "And ... EVA No. 1 ... of the Crew 28 ... is a go! Over."

I snapped a few shots of Kathleen and Greg struggling to close the heavy airlock door in their cumbersome spacesuits. Then I switched lenses so I could get in close as they climbed aboard the ATVs. I radioed my intentions to HabCom. I didn't have to, but we were in our first full day of sim, and everyone was playing it by the book. Unfortunately, Gregorio was functioning as HabCom at the moment. He came bounding down the ladder and caught me by my sleeve before I could exit the airlock door. I wasn't wearing a spacesuit.

"You cannot do that!" He said, his eyes widening. "That's unpressurized!"

Gregorio wasn't merely being a sim Nazi. I could see it in his eyes—he was genuinely simulating concern for my safety. If I stepped outside without a spacesuit, the blood in my veins would expand so rapidly to equalize with Mars' lower atmospheric pressure that I'd sizzle and pop like a piece of fried bacon. I explained to him that journalists had to be willing to take risks. He put his hands on his hips and considered the issue.

"I have a solution," he said. "You are an android."

"Sure," I said. "OK."

"A semi-autonomous photo droid," Gus shouted from upstairs. "How's that?"

"Even better," I shouted back.

Gregorio named me Bishop—he pronounced it "Bee-shup"—after the "good" android from the movie Aliens. As Bishop, I could wander the hostile environment without a spacesuit and take all the pictures I wanted. I could also, I assumed, smoke cigarettes whenever I wanted. And soon, the Hab-bound crew became familiar with the sight of Bishop walking blithely out the airlock door at all hours, tripod over his shoulder, unlit cigarette dangling from his lip.

Being an android had its drawbacks. I was expected to answer to the beck and call of my human masters. On Monday, April 19, we received a visit from an Associated Press photographer who drove down from Salt Lake City to follow up on a feature story about the Mars Society. Gregorio was in full swoon. He screwed on his baseball cap with the Venezuelan flag on it and tucked in his Venezuela soccer jersey. He smoothed down the corners of the miniature Venezuelan flag Velcroed to the sleeve of his spacesuit while the AP photographer shot pictures of him prepping for an EVA.

"Bishop, do you copy?" Gregorio asked. I was standing right next to him. "Can you please take us to that place where we found the blueberries?"

Weeks earlier, the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity had photographed a patch of odd, spherical mineral concretions at the bottom of a Martian crater. NASA dubbed these concretions "blueberries," and their presence suggested that the crater may have been filled with water at one time. Similar mineral concretions made of hematite could be found in dry streambeds all around the Hab's exploration zone. An EVA mission to collect some blueberry samples was a perfect photo-op.

Gus and Gregorio climbed into the back of the pressurized rover and I drove them to the site. Then Gus handed me his video camera and asked me if I could shoot some video for a documentary he was planning to make. It was a big camera, and it required two hands to operate, which meant I couldn't take my own photos at the same time. What was a poor droid to do? The AP photographer and I tagged along behind Gus and Gregorio, capturing their every step down the rocky streambed. Gregorio stopped to key his radio.

"Bishop," he said excitedly. "Do you copy? Come take a picture! I found blueberries!"

I sidled up next to him and snapped a picture. He fumbled for his own camera in the breast pocket of his spacesuit. "Can you—?" He flicked his gloved index finger up and down in the universal finger-on-the-shutter-button sign to indicate that he wanted me to take his picture. I removed his camera as he stood with his arms outstretched. After taking pictures of Gregorio posing next to the blueberries, I slid the camera snugly into his breast pocket again. He knelt down on the ground and pried loose a rock studded with blueberries.

"Bishop, take this specimen, please. Do you copy? Over."

I was starting to overheat. Sweat ran into my eyes and my shoulders were sore from carrying everyone's equipment. Blueberries or no blueberries, I wasn't about to hump a load of rocks back to the truck.

"Isn't that cheating?" I said. Gregorio squinted fiercely at me through the glare on his helmet. "Commander," his voice crackled over the radio. "I think the android is malfunctioning."

April 20, 2004—Crew 28's last official EVA, and my last mission as Step-N-Bishop. Destination: Hanksville. The crew had been confined to the Hab for days as the result of yet another mechanical failure. One of the ATVs had broken down, effectively scrubbing all remaining EVAs into the desert. The pressurized rover was only good on the main BLM road, and no one was interested in exploring that. I e-mailed my wife and told her about our troubles. She passed the news to my mother, and my mother did what any worried mother would do if her son were marooned on Mars: She baked five dozen cookies and FedEx'd them overnight. Crew 28 had a new mission, and we roused ourselves to the task of retrieving what Gregorio called "the cookie supply module." Kathleen declined to join us because, in her words, "it wasn't realistic." As if not going, as if sitting around a fake Hab, surfing the Internet, and breathing air that was 21 percent oxygen was somehow more authentically Mars-like.

Over the past three years, Hanksville inhabitants, all 250 of them, have grown accustomed to seeing spacesuited Mars Society astronauts pushing shopping carts down the aisles of Johnson's Market or standing in the lobby of the Whispering Sands Motel waiting to talk to Don Foutz. But they still enjoy the spectacle, and they greeted us with bemused smiles. Not counting the giant dinosaur bones in the back shed of Ernie's Rock Shop, there isn't much else to ogle at in Hanksville.

We gave up on the simulation after the Hanksville EVA and spent the remaining few days reveling in our failure as Mars astronauts. We went joyriding in shirtsleeves to strange and beautiful corners of the desert—far, far away from the despised Hab. In some ways, those were perhaps the most "realistic" moments of the entire mission. Humans, like most mammals, are restless creatures. We don't enjoy sitting around too much; or when we do, we get sick easier and die quicker. I won't go so far as to say that it's in our destiny to one day explore and settle Mars, but I do believe that curiosity, that nervy impulse to go somewhere, anywhere, is all we need to get us there.

Coda: I hadn't noticed how beautiful Iowa was when I passed through it the first time on my way to Utah. Maybe it was dark, I don't remember. When I reached the Iowa state line going back to New York, I'd been driving for close to 20 hours. My vision was blurry, my senses dulled. As the sun came up over the horizon, it illuminated the lush green swells of earth streaming past my windows. The sight of those silvery green hills glistening with dew came as a mild shock, and I sat up straight in my seat and blinked my eyes to get more of it. I recalled a chapter of Ray Bradbury's classic novel The Martian Chronicles. A crew of astronauts land on Mars, only to find themselves in small town Iowa, circa 1928. They are prepared for alien landscapes, for hardship, for what Freud called the Unheimlich, the uncanny—literally, the anti-home. Paradoxically, the astronauts aren't prepared to accept the utterly recognizable. They are shocked by the site of Iowa, suspicious. As it happens, they did indeed land on Mars. The problem is that Mars isn't merely a physical place upon which they can stick a flag. It's a spiritual mortuary where souls go to live peacefully after they've done their living on Earth. That's a whole different kind of space travel, for a whole different purpose. It's no wonder all the astronauts end up dead in the end. 

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