Lived Through This

After Working on Mars, I’ll Never See Earth the Same Way

The red planet’s craters are as familiar to me as my yard

Dr. Tanya Harrison
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readApr 22, 2020
Mars imaged by MARCI aboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in March 2018. All of the wispy blue features are water-ice clouds. The puffy beige feature below center is a dust storm. The northern polar cap is visible at the top. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For over a decade, I went to work on Mars.

There was a routine to each day: Come into the office. Make a cup of Earl Grey. Sit down at my computer and delve into the images sent to Earth from Mars overnight. In those moments, I was no longer on Earth. A watchful robotic eye orbiting 175 miles above the surface of the red planet acted as my proxy in the harshness of space.

Alas, I wasn’t wearing an awesome spacesuit to make the journey — although I would like to think that my collection of space-themed T-shirts was at least somewhat as cool.

Artist’s rendition of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which arrived at the Red Planet in 2006. My first job on Mars was working in operations for the Context Camera (CTX) and Mars Color Imager (MARCI) on this orbiter. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To the untrained eye, Mars might appear as just a dead, cratered hunk of red rock cruising around the sun. But when you spend every day repeatedly examining the planet, its nuances reveal themselves: The northern plains stay shrouded in clouds during the fall and winter. Wispy cirrus-like clouds drift across its skies in spring and summer. There’s something about the craters in each region that make them identifiable in a way you can’t always put your finger on. You recognize the landing sites of various rovers at first glimpse. You smile thinking about the fact that encapsulated in that image is a testament to human ingenuity and achievement.

Working on Mars doesn’t just involve looking at it. When you beam down to the surface to work with the rovers, for a period of time you even operate on “Mars Time” — the local time for the rover, regardless of your life schedule here on Earth. Because a day on Earth and a day on Mars differ by around 37 minutes, it doesn’t take long before your 9 a.m. shift becomes a 2 a.m. shift. Mars time doesn’t do your human body any favors.

But that’s what it takes to be a Martian, and I loved every minute of it.



Dr. Tanya Harrison
Human Parts

Professional Martian who's worked on rocks and robots on the Red Planet on multiple NASA Mars missions