Q&A

'Amazing experience': Calgary engineer returns from Mars mission simulation in Utah

Calgary engineer Zac Trolley spent two weeks on a Mars 'mission' in the Utah desert, where he experienced what life on Mars might be like.

'The airlock closed — and we were on Mars,' Zac Trolley says

Calgary engineer Zac Trolley recently returned from a two week long simulation of a Mars mission in Utah. (Zac Trolley)

Calgary engineer Zac Trolley appeared on The Homestretch in January to talk about his plans to participate in a Mars mission — in Utah, where he recently spent two weeks in a simulation of a trip to Mars.

Trolley made a return visit to The Homestretch to talk about the experience.

Q: How did you get involved with this project?

A: The crew that was selected from the International Space University, which I went to in 2014. Every year there's a slot available for an ISU crew, and I was put on the mission almost a year ago now — I was the backup crew, someone dropped out [and] I got selected.

It was an amazing experience.

Q: How did it all unfold? Paint us a picture.

A: I hopped on a plane, took the redeye down to Utah, we rented a car, and drove a few hours down some windy roads, down through a four by four path, turned a corner — and there was this base out in the middle of the desert. It kind of looked like the Badlands, and we were out all on our own.

There was a director there to help us get acquainted, the other crew was there, we got the handover, then the airlock closed — and we were on Mars.

Q: Was it a big facility?

A: The main habitat was about eight metres in diameter. [It had] two floors — but with 6 people, that's not a lot of room.

There were some other smaller units —we had a green house, a science dome — but if you're having a bad day, there's not a lot of space to go and hide.

Zac Trolley says he's still resolved to one day make it to Mars, following a two week long simulation in Utah. (Zac Trolley)

Q: Did you go on any space missions?

A: If you want to leave the habitat, you have to don a space suit — and that procedure is a bit timely. You have to be fully protected, so [you need to wear] boots, gloves, coveralls, a backpack which is about [11.33 kilos] 25 pounds, with your helmet on, so when you go outside, you're actually completely cut off from the outside world, which is a bit disconcerting, actually.

WATCH Zac Trolley chat with CBC Calgary's Rob Brown about his Mars 'mission' 3:36

Q: What was day-to-day life like?

A:  It was pretty mundane. Because you're in charge of operation of the facility, so we'd get up at 8 o'clock, and do a breakfast meeting. Lay out the plan for the day. Then there's making breakfast, cleaning up breakfast, doing activities like, for myself — as the crew engineer — checking the water system, checking the power system, ensuring all the suits were still functioning properly.

Then, if we had a mission or were going out travelling somewhere, suiting up, getting suits on, then coming back, getting suits off, cleaning up, writing reports, doing other experiment activities.

We were doing 12 to 16 hour days for two weeks — it takes a lots of time and effort.

Q: How was the food?

A: We had a big can of Tang and a bunch of freeze dried foods — so part of the engineering was developing meals that were palatable, every day, day in day out.

'They replicate some of the same experiments you would do if you were on Mars. Collecting rocks, doing samples, doing surveying. What works, what doesn’t,' Zac Trolley said. (Gary A. Becker/The Mars Society)

Q: Did you exercise every day?

A: For us, we were going outside fairly regularly and with the suits on, it's actually a lot of work just walking around. That gave us a lot of exercise.

Q: Who was in your crew?

A:  Our commander … is a professor at an aeronautical university in Florida. Our XO actually works in mission control for the space station. Our Japanese associate works in human factors design.

We had an astronomer from down in the states as well who does all kinds of kids outreach. Our artist-in-residence does underwater aerobatics — she was a deep sea diver for many, many years and does a lot of suit testing and art under water.

Q: Why an artist in residence?

A: In Contact, if you remember that movie, at the end they said, we should have sent a poet. When you go through this experience, how do you [ultimately] tell the story?

She actually brought a 360 camera, and we recorded a lot of video in 360, so we can share that experience.

Q: So do you still want to go to Mars?

A:   I'm quite resolved to go to Mars.

Q: What's next?

A: I'm actually looking at some other facilities to go and try out on and work with them. Eventually what I want do is try and integrate more coordination between the facilities, so the facilities can start specializing and developing certain skill sets that not everyone has to replicate … and I'm hoping to find a niche where Canada can fit into that program.

Q: What's your takeaway from it all?

A:  That we're going to make it.

It's going to be a hard road, its going to be a difficult road, but from the people I've talked to, from the people I met, from the conversations I'm having now, it's a question of when its going to happen.

It was a dream come true for Calgary engineer Zac Trolley when he took a two-week trip to Mars earlier this year. Well, ok it wasn't actually Mars -- it was a desert camp in Utah that simulates life on the red planet. It's a project by The Mars Society, a group of scientists and space enthusiasts who want to kickstart a journey to the planet. We spoke with Zac just before he left. Now he returns to join host Doug Dirks in studio to tell us about the experience, and his plans for his next mission. 7:56

With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca