Mars Crew 134 at MDRS, 2014, by Kai Staats

“In February of 2018 I visited NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston with colleague Sheri Boonstra from Arizona State University. At that time, my team was just nine months into the development of SIMOC, an agent-based model and educational web interface to a Mars habitat simulator, now hosted by National Geographic. In that visit to JSC I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Don Henninger, a now retired expert in plant physiology and human-in-the-loop analogs. In the course of our brief meeting he set in motion a desire to build a new kind of analog, something more closely aligned with how we will live on the Moon and Mars in second and third generation habitats. While we cannot fully duplicate the harsh conditions, we can develop a research station that provides many of the same challenges faced in long duration, off-world habitation.

For me, this project goes back many years, to when like so many kids in the shadow of the Apollo era, I wanted to be an astronaut. Childhood friend Jason Zach and I fabricated a space craft beneath the staircase of my basement bedroom in Columbus, Nebraska. We attached sheets of cardboard to the wood runners and wired lights, buzzers, and a complex array of buttons. Markers gave birth to panels and emergency systems. Jason was in charge of sound FX while I navigated our way to the stars. Our backyard was the treacherous terrain in which we explored strange, new worlds and encountered aliens who fell victim to our laser fire.

Kai Staats at SALT, Sutherland, South Africa The closest I have come to that sensation again was sitting on the live floor of SALT in 2013, then the largest telescope on Earth. The narrow slit of the massive dome was open to the brilliant night sky. With the subtle movement of the optics carriage far overhead I felt as though I was moving at an incredible velocity; the motion of the stars not of the rotation of the Earth, but my starship engines open wide.

That sense of timeless imagination is difficult to obtain today. Encumbered by ceaseless digital communication and access to thousands of movies online, we rob ourselves of the ability to fabricate entire worlds in our minds. I can yet rediscover the sensation that comes with embracing the unknown, but it takes several days of being off-line, on a cross-country road trip or backpacking far from the nearest cell phone. Sometimes, when a long stretch of moonlit road is smooth and without anyone to pass, I turn off the headlamps to enjoy a brief but beautiful voyage between the stars.

SAM is a vessel for the imagination as much as one of scientific study and experimentation. Much like my time at MDRS with Mars Crew 134, SAM is an opportunity to focus on the here and now, to enjoy laughter, conversation, and storytelling with your crew mates without concern for space or time. Maybe SAM will be that for you too, and more.” –Kai Staats, October 16, 2020.