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I zipped my suitcase closed as I went through my packing list one last time, late on a Thursday night in April: “Socks, check. Boots, check. Astronaut flight suit, hand tools, and prerecorded messages from my loved ones. Check, check, check!” It felt only natural to worry about packing all of the essentials, this was my first time traveling since the beginning of the pandemic after all. That, and the fact that my destination was “Mars”.
In recent years, revolutionary advances in rocket reusability, advanced manufacturing techniques, and system safety have bolstered the cadence and affordability of human spaceflight missions. For example, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket costs about $62 million, compared to an average cost of $1.5 billion per launch for the United States Space Shuttle program – over a 95% decrease in price. This has ushered in a new Golden Age of space exploration, with paying customers and researchers alike having unprecedented access to the final frontier.
Earlier this year, Sirisha Bandla flew to space with Virgin Galactic as only the third Indian-origin woman to ever achieve this milestone, and both the youngest and oldest astronauts ever accomplished the same on a Blue Origin rocket soon after. Space has now become something that the average person can access. Scaling up, NASA has announced a return to the Moon slated for later this decade and the first crewed mission to Mars following soon after. These ambitious goals require collaboration and innovation on an international scale. Students and young professionals around the world who are tasked with accomplishing this have been aptly dubbed the “Space Generation”. As a member of this community, I wear this badge proudly and have sought to prepare for humanity’s next off-world steps as an engineer, scientist, and aspiring astronaut. That fateful night in April, I left home anticipating the major strides I would be making towards scientific advances in Space, instead, I left with a newfound respect for finding commonalities in diverse communities.
Suitcase in hand, I joined a crew of five other students and early career professionals on an analog astronaut mission at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah. An analog mission is a simulated human spaceflight mission, replicating the environmental and social constraints that actual astronauts would experience on a mission to the Moon and Mars. These analogs allow the scientific community to mimic spaceflight and learn from the resulting challenges, informing the design of real human spaceflight missions without the high cost and risk.
During this two-week expedition, my crew lived in an 8-meter diameter habitat, cut off from the rest of the world. Our internet use was restricted to daily report emails to our external Mission Support team, all meals were prepared using dehydrated ingredients, and spacesuits were worn every time we left the habitat for research expeditions. The crew conducted daily experiments, ranging from examinations of behavior in isolation to collecting soil samples for microorganism characterization and mapping shelters around the habitat for crew use in case of medical or environmental emergencies.
For those 14 days, we truly felt like we were off the planet. Six small humans surrounded by sweeping red Martian-esque hills, with no signs of life or Earthly comforts. This operational experience was the closest I had come to actualizing my dreams of being an astronaut. As a Crew Engineer, I conducted daily maintenance on spacesuits and life support systems, acting under pressure to resolve any issues that arose. After all, when faced with a dwindling water supply, a gas leak, and spacesuit battery failures, it became natural to put the rest of the world out of mind and focus on the problems at hand.
This mentality of separation from Earth lent itself perfectly to deep introspection, where our entire crew reflected on what it meant to be a human. On “Mars”, we were not divided by our age, race, gender, or background. We were the only 6 people in our world, and the fact that we were all human was more than enough of a cohesive force. Our cultural differences became points of celebration and sharing. One of the most memorable days in the habitat, crew members made food from their ethnic backgrounds. Our bounty included empanadas (a pastry with a savory filling), challah (a ceremonial bread), and dal made by yours truly. Through each of these meals, we were able to learn from each other and understand what aspects of our unique backgrounds led to who we are. A safe environment to teach, learn, and grow was something that I have yet to experience back on “Earth”, where it is near impossible to escape from environmental biases and political conflict.
What I learned through my time as a Martian is that space is truly a frontier for everyone. Tackling the challenges of making humans interplanetary requires collaboration on an international scale, where the lines between countries blur. The first crew to land on Mars must be truly global to succeed, as diversity in thought and skillsets is instrumental to the success of such a large endeavor. In addition, the benefits of cheap access to space travel are numerous. For example, the ability to increase spacecrafts in orbit for a lower cost means that infrastructure can be developed to sustain efforts such as reliable broadband satellite internet for rural populations or the constant monitoring of climate change through weather satellites.
With the recent launches of Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos to space on their own rockets, a common public perception is that space is simply a billionaire’s game; this could not be further from the truth. While the cost of a private launch, $450,000 on Branson’s Virgin Galactic, is still far from affordable for most, it is still a sharp decrease from the $1.5 billion price tag of the Space Shuttle. If this could happen in 10 years, the possibilities moving forward are boundless. With the public eye turned towards this industry, and private investors being drawn in hordes, the resources to push for further innovation and increases in accessibility. Bandla’s flight this year was a historic milestone in this regard. Turning on the television and seeing someone who has a similar background to you, on their way to space, is the inspiration that is needed to ensure proper diversity and engagement from all communities as we seek to further lower the barriers to entry for human spaceflight. We are now in the era where our Indian American community is properly represented in the final frontier, and spaceflight news is more than just on the periphery of our day-to-day lives.
Humans have always been fueled by curiosity, innovating to increase our understanding of the world around us. Thousands of years of stargazing have led to the present, where space is finally within reach. I am certainly doing my part to answer this call, learning how to view myself first and foremost as a citizen of Earth, a commonality that we all share on this planet. Even if you have no interest in space, I urge you to adopt this mentality, as the ties that bind us are certainly stronger than the ties that divide us. And who knows, one day, you may be packing for Mars, where the most important thing to bring with you is the right mindset.
Shravan Hariharan, originally from Edison, NJ, is a Graduate Student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Aerospace Engineering, researching how to produce usable oxygen on Mars. He completed his undergraduate education at the Georgia Institute of Technology and has previously interned at organizations like Blue Origin, NASA JPL, and NASA Langley Research Center.