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Mars, the Reality

Dedicated Scientists and Space Enthusiasts Labor to Simulate Life On the Red Planet. Sometimes It's a Little Too Real, and a Little Too Labored. By Sanjiv Bhattacharya

March 28, 2004|Sanjiv Bhattacharya

The time will come when a human sets foot on mars.

Here's my advice: Don't take the Isuzu. The only way to get into an Isuzu Trooper wearing a spacesuit is backward, helmet first, and then to wriggle into position. And if you catch your air pack on the seat belt like I did, you'll be stuck on your back for ages, flailing like a cockroach.

So no Isuzu, and pack plenty of Coke and cheese because we ran out, which is why we needed the Isuzu in the first place--to drive to the store. In truth, we shouldn't be driving anyplace because there are no convenience stores on Mars, and we're supposed to be duplicating the Martian life here, at the Mars Desert Research Station in Wayne County, Utah. We live in a simulated habitation pod and wear spacesuits when we go exploring outside. We ration water, rove on Mars-style buggies and dig holes with shovels. For two years now, scientists and sundry nerds have been doing this work, in teams of six, two weeks at a time, near the flyspeck town of Hanksville. Our aim is in part to inform future Marsonauts about how best to negotiate life in a capsule as far as 248,500 million miles from home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 30, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Mars -- Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine article on simulating life on Mars incorrectly stated that Mars is as far as 248,500 million miles from Earth. At its farthest, Mars is about 249 million miles from Earth.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 04, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Mars -- A March 28 Los Angeles Times Magazine article on simulating life on Mars incorrectly stated that Mars is as far as 248,500 million miles from Earth. At its farthest, Mars is about 249 million miles from Earth.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 18, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Mars, the Reality" (March 28) incorrectly stated that Mars is as far as 248,500 million miles from Earth. At its farthest, Mars is about 249 million miles from Earth.

Until recently, that prospect seemed more fantastic than real. But on Jan. 14, President Bush proposed a manned trip to the red planet, adding frisson to these simulated missions--including our own, which began days after Bush's announcement. So far, our team has learned this much--take extra Coke and cheese because it goes fast, especially the herb-flavored stuff. Now look at this mess--three spacesuited buffoons radioing one another across the store: Tschk. "Cheddar located on aisle five. Sliced or block, over?"

At the checkout, the cashier is in no mood. Hanksville locals are tired of this kind of Martian tomfoolery. She doesn't crack a smile as we bound up, waving and grinning inside our helmets. Dumping our change on the counter, she turns and peers into the distance. "Receipt's in the bag," she says.

It's time we returned to Mars. Earthlings hostile. Retreat! Retreat!

The research station is a wonderful tribute to the ingenuity and obsession of Mars nuts. A domed two-story cylinder on landing stilts, nestled among the ferric red mounds of the Capitol Reef area in southern Utah, it was built for $300,000 and completed in January 2002 by the Mars Society, a 6,000-strong band of Mars enthusiasts based in Lakewood, Colo. These folks aren't kooks. Many are serious scientists.

Back in the days of the elder Bush's presidency, the plan to send humans to Mars involved assembling a spacecraft at a space station and then embarking on a 19-month journey. But it was so costly ($400 billion) that it jeopardized the very notion of going. So a band of believers, sensing a crisis, proposed a leaner mission, which eventually called for a six-person crew to flyi to Mars directly, in seven months. Under this "Mars Direct" plan, astronauts would explore the planet for 18 months, then return to earth in a separate vehicle that had harnessed Mars' resources and converted atmosphere into rocket propellant. "Mars Direct" is best described in the 1996 book "The Case for Mars," by Mars Society co-founder and president Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist and author who is pushing to have humans on Mars by 2020.

The Mars Society has built three "laboratories for living on another planet," including the Utah habitat and one on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, arguably the most Mars-like for its sheer hostility to human habitation. The third is awaiting funding to be shipped to Iceland.

These habitats (Habs) have no official ties to NASA, although roughly a quarter of the participants on the simulated missions are NASA engineers or scientists.

The Hab in Utah is designed to house six people in a space 27 feet across, dimensions that the society believes could be built and transported by rocket ship. The broad objective of the research is to test-run life on Mars, exploring the physical, scientific and psychological practicalities. What work can actually be done in spacesuits? What are the most effective tools for exploration? And, crucially, how do crew members interact in confinement; what makes team spirit fizz or falter? The simulations include an electronic link to volunteers in San Diego whose role is "Mission Support."

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