EVERETT, Wash. -- Fifteen days of isolation, infrequent showers and a broken toilet didn't diminish Kavya Manyapu's enthusiasm for outer space.
The Boeing Co. engineer just returned from a research trip to Mars -- Mars as replicated in the Utah desert.
The 15-day adventure was through the Mars Society, a group interested in exploring and settling the Red Planet. The group established the Mars Desert Research Station to help identify and solve problems associated with a mission to Mars -- a trip that could take nearly two years to complete.
The Utah desert "really looked like Mars," Manyapu said. "There was no life at all."
When Manyapu and her five crew members arrived at the station, a two-story, cylindrical habitat about an hour and a half from anywhere, the toilet didn't work.
They had to collect "gray water" -- water used while washing their hands, brushing their teeth or cooking -- for flushing. After the second day, Manyapu said she had adapted to the new routine.
And at the end of 15 days? "We were all wishing we could stay for another 15."
Manyapu, who works on Boeing's 777, wants to be an astronaut. It's a dream she has had since her childhood in India.
Since coming to this country, she has earned a bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
This research trip is another step toward her goal.
Crew members shared a space that measures 26 feet in diameter. Beds were up steep stairs on the top floor, while the lab, toilet and shower were on the main floor.
"It was a very collaborative environment," Manyapu said. "We're all working toward space exploration but are working on our own contributions."
Manyapu helped with an experiment that looked at growing an edible bacteria called spirulina.
The experiment was devised by Lara Vimercati, the crew biologist. When people finally do travel to Mars, one of the major obstacles will be creating food. Bringing enough food for a trip that could take two years would be difficult.
Spirulina contains proteins and nutrients necessary for human life. Because availability of water also will be an issue, treated urine could be a source of water for growing the bacteria. Manyapu and fellow crew members had to provide urine for the experiment.
"The biology lab really smelled that day," Manyapu said with a laugh.
She is still analyzing data on how exercise might combat bone loss -- a problem with space travel. Three crew members exercised during their stay; three didn't. Manyapu monitored weight, aerobic and lung capacity of her crew members.
Like the other crew members, Manyapu ventured out of the station, donning a space suit, to gather soil samples and explore the nearby terrain, similar to outings astronauts will take on Mars.
Before exiting the station in their space suits, the would-be astronauts had to step into an air lock, which simulated depressurization. The researchers observed policies that are likely to be put in place on Mars -- traveling in pairs and having two people at the station at all times.
The mental state of crew members will be important when astronauts go to Mars, Manyapu said. Two years of living and working in a close environment with five other people and isolation from Earth will be challenging.
Even in her 15-day stay, Manyapu noted changes in crew members' attitudes, particularly regarding food. Part of the time, the crew had to eat pre-packaged meals that required no cooking. Other days, the crew could cook using dried or vacuum-packed food.
"We noticed that everyone would get this glow on the days we cooked the food, even though it was really bad, pretty tasteless."
They also had to manage their limited water supply. If they used too much water one day, they'd limit showers even more than usual -- taking only one of no more than two minutes every three days, Manyapu said.
Besides the faulty toilet, the group had to repair several things, including the station's roof and back-up power generator. The repairs taught Manyapu what it will be like for Mars astronauts. They'll have to learn to fix equipment that they may not have much experience with, using limited tools.
"I'm really happy that I challenged myself," Manyapu said. "I know that I have the ability to adapt and to survive."
Manyapu hopes her story will encourage young children to pursue careers in engineering and science and to have an interest in space.
Manyapu plans to apply for a similar research trip, in which she would be stationed in the Antarctic, through the Mars Society. If anything, Manyapu said her stay in Utah has increased her interest in becoming an astronaut.
"It gave me hope and self-confidence," she said. "Now I really want to do it."