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New cachet for Martian wannabes

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) Some people look at Mars and see boulders and dust.

Others see stuff that isn't there. Not yet, anyway.

Colonies. Raccoons and maple trees. Astronauts chatting to robot assistants in sign language. Vegetable gardens, rabbit herds and fish farming made possible by, of all things, global warming.

Can a Wal-Mart outside the Gusav Crater Gated Community be far behind?

"The possibilities are endless," said Kevin Sloan, 22, president of the Mars Society chapter on the Pennsylvania State University campus. "Will we all be driving around in Mars cars? Will it be like The Jetsons?"

Whatever becomes of the planet, it can't happen soon enough for the Mars Society. Nonprofit, all-volunteer and less than six years old, the Mars Society is the unofficial international fan club of the fourth rock from the sun.

It is also a relentless advocate for the exploration and colonization of the Red Planet - an agenda that found a friend in the White House, which announced last week that it plans to send people to Mars.

The Society's purpose was laid out in August 1998 in the opening of its founding declaration: "The time has come for humanity to journey to Mars."

This was at a gathering at the University of Colorado in Boulder that Gary Fisher, 47, of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., recalls as "a Woodstock for geeky-type people."

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There were 700 attendees from as far as Mozambique, among them Fisher, who has a master's degree in industrial engineering and now leads the group's Philadelphia chapter.

Most were mathematicians and astronomers and scientists whose career choices had been inspired by the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space projects.

Many, deeply disappointed after the final Apollo mission in 1972, had been meeting regularly in Boulder for years to exchange ideas.

Their eyes were fixed on the skies, but in some ways they resembled the explorers' clubs of yore that plotted expeditions to jungles and polar icecaps.

They called themselves the Mars Underground.

The Internet made it easier for people like them to find one another. The 1997 landing of Sojourner on Mars galvanized them, as did the 1996 book "The Case for Mars," by aeronautical engineer Robert Zubrin.

When they came together to form the Mars Society, they elected Zubrin president.

Mars, they wrote in their founding statement, "is a New World We must go, not for us, but for a people who are yet to be. We must do it for the Martians."

Members immediately set about writing abstracts on rabbit farming and hydroponic gardens. They debated the feasibility of crashing asteroids into Mars to free greenhouse gases to transform the barren surface into a verdant landscape.

Zubrin spoke passionately about transplanting living things to Mars - he mentioned maple trees, raccoons and fish - to ensure the survival of species.

By December, according to the group's Web site - www.marssociety.org - it had 6,000 members in 50 countries.

Today the society that started with an idea nobody wanted to hear - Why stop with robots? Why not send people? - gets grants from NASA and invitations to address Congress.

And populating Mars is looking less like a sci-fi fantasy and more like a deadly serious endeavor.

To Mars Society member Gus Scheerbaum, 34, a civil engineer and Center City resident, sending a manned mission to Mars is "a milestone comparable to early humanity's emigration from Africa."

That's what he said by e-mail Friday from the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a squat, silo-shaped building run by the Mars Society with NASA's help.

In his two-week mission set to end today, Scheerbaum has explored the desert terrain in a spacesuit. He has baked adobe bricks to build a habitat and has kept notes on the generator, water supply and propane tanks supporting a six-member crew.

"Throughout history," Scheerbaum wrote, "progress has occurred because visionaries first put far-fetched ideas forward."

Meanwhile, at Penn State, Sloan called meetings last week to work on the "Rover and Gesture Control Project."

His Mars chapter is designing a virtual reality glove, to be worn inside a spacesuit glove. Computerized and similar to those worn for video games, it would allow an astronaut on the surface of Mars to communicate with robots by signing.

Sloan, who plans a career in robotics, said human exploration of Mars will start small, with teams of researchers.

"I'm not sure I'd want to go on one of the first missions," he said. "But later, if someone offered me the opportunity, I'd have a hard time turning it down."

Fisher, the industrial engineer, has spent two years working in his spare time on a project for recycling wastewater on Mars.

The first Martians will need to generate power, purify water and recycle waste on a small scale, Fisher said, requiring new technologies that could be used on Earth as well.

This could let us rid our planet of massive oil refineries and power stations, he said.

Critics argue that traveling to Mars is a waste of money, that colonizing it smacks of arrogance. They observe that we've already littered it with deflated balloons, abandoned landers and a stray Beagle.

"Mars is a place it would be hard for humans to make worse," Fisher countered. "You could drop atomic bombs on it and it wouldn't be more dead.

"If we can develop an ecology there that supports human life, we could learn something extremely valuable about how to save our own planet."

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