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Utah as Mars: Desert research facility simulates rough conditions in space | (KRT) HANKSVILLE, UTAH — It's an odd sight, even out here in the surreal high desert of southern Utah, where biting winds swirl around pimply mounds of dirt and rock, and sandstone bluffs cast creepy shadows.

"Astronaut" Bob McNally is crouching on pinkish clay with teammate Louise Wynn, peering through his bubble helmet at the fine, dry soil. "It'd be nice," says a wistful McNally, "to find microfossils before we go in."

He looks toward a squat white cylinder. It's the Mars Desert Research Station, a private space camp whose crews simulate something beyond human experience but not outside our imagination - living and working on Mars.

The space advocacy group Mars Society, which sees the Red Planet as our manifest destiny, stuck the camp outside this nowhere town three years ago so lay people and scientists could experiment with being off-world explorers. It's a populist idea that's suddenly become timely and relevant.

Mars is all the rage.

The robotic rovers Spirit and Opportunity are finding evidence that the essence of known life - water - was once plentiful on Mars. Spirit also just clicked the first image of Earth taken from another planet. The missions are stirring huge interest; NASA-run rover Web sites have recorded 8 billion hits since the first "geobot" landed Jan. 3.

Now, there's also the prospect of humans eventually roaming the same world as the rovers. Two months ago, President George W. Bush outlined a new vision for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that calls for sending astronauts back to the moon as soon as 2015. They'd create long-term bases, possibly as a test bed for manned expeditions to Mars around 2030.

No one knows if any of this will happen. Aerospace experts say sending humans directly to Mars could cost more than $55 billion. The price might be prohibitive. The plan also is risky. And life here at the Mars Society's desert habitat, or "hab," is a reminder that it will take years to develop the equipment and knowledge humans will need for the harder job of surviving on Mars.

The rotating crews of six volunteers who live in the hab for two-week periods during the colder months struggle with things like limiting the dirt they traipse into their home after field geology. A real Mars hab will have to be as clean as possible, because the soil might contain harmful, corrosive chemicals.

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"Learning the basics - that's what's going on at the hab," says Greg Benford, a University of California, Irvine, astrophysicist and a Mars Society director. "But you have to start somewhere. Spirit and Opportunity have given us pictures, but not a real sense, of a planet that's essentially the moon with bad weather. There's also no ozone layer and no global magnetic field on Mars to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation.

"It's a cold, hostile place where we will have to live off the land, something we are not ready to do - yet."

Scientists say explorers will prosper on Mars only if they can make do with little and solve problems on the fly during expeditions that could last three years. The hab crews get a hint of this, though not entirely by design. The young, Colorado-based Mars Society so far has little money. It spends just $25,000 a year on the base. NASA spends that much about every 51 seconds.

The meager funding shows. Look closely at McNally, an acoustic instrument maker, and Wynn, a writer, and you'll see they are wearing nonpressurized canvas spacesuits that were stitched together by a sewing circle. Their air packs are the sort of boxes used to store file folders. They use duct tape to attach headphones to their ears.

It's Mars on the cheap, and many want in. About 900 people, many of them NASA and university scientists, are on a waiting list for crew spots in Utah and at the Mars Society's other base, Flashline, in the Canadian arctic.

Even if it had lots of money, the Mars Society could not replicate Mars. No one can.

Mars' thin atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. The temperature drops to minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit at the poles. Dust storms sometimes encircle the planet. The gravity is only about one-third that of Earth's, which might cause an astronaut's bones to become brittle and muscles to atrophy if countermeasures aren't found.

The Utah desert simply doesn't compare. But the hab has value because it tests the ability of crews to live and work in tight quarters under sometimes stressful and exhausting conditions in an isolated place where you can also simulate things like hunting for past signs of life, a leading reason to go to Mars.

"Such habitats, isolated in proper work contexts, are in my opinion the only way to learn how the parts fit together and where improvement (such as new kinds of automation) is required," says Bill Clancey, a NASA computer scientist who has done two rotations at the Utah hab.

The Mars Society is seeking volunteers for its crews. Prima donnas and the claustrophobic need not apply.

The crews live in a two-story, 1,140-square-foot hab; it's about the size of a two-bedroom condominium. The first Mars bases, say scientists, won't be much larger.

You can enter the hab through either of two mock air locks, which lead to a rudimentary laboratory and an area where crew members typically spend a half-hour donning $900 spacesuits for extra-vehicular activities. There's also a cubicle where people are permitted to take military-style showers once every four days. They take a sponge bath every two days. Yeah, it smells a bit.

But the frugality is fitting. On early Mars expeditions, astronauts will have to take all of the water they need, which is a drag. A weight drag. Consider this: Each hab member uses only 3 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by six people and you've got 18 gallons, which weighs 150 pounds. For just one day.

Water will be recycled during a Mars mission. But recycling technology needs to improve. And you need energy to recycle. It's unclear what the power source would be. It's equally unclear whether astronauts could easily mine Mars for ice or water that could be made potable or used to help produce rocket fuel for the return flight.

Climb a ladder to the hab's second floor and you enter a wardroom with a minigalley, workstations and six "staterooms." The rooms are about 4 feet by 10 feet. Think walk-in closet.

Preparing meals is easy. There's a microwave oven, hot plate, rice cooker and bread maker. But the crew's food budget for a two-week rotation is only about $400.

"I've learned the joys of rationing," says crewmember Wynn.

At least she can pull fresh fruit and vegetables out of a refrigerator. On a trip to Mars, astronauts might not be able to grow things either, leaving them with the ready-to-eat and freeze-dried foods consumed on the International Space Station.

Explorers also might not be able to do useful gardening on the red planet.

"We just don't know how the reduced gravity of Mars will affect plant growth," says David Klaus, a bioastronautics engineer at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "We'll have to take all our food on early missions. We couldn't risk a catastrophic crop failure."

The reduced gravity also could cause a gradual but serious de-conditioning of people's bodies, making them prone to bone fractures and possibly weakening immune systems.

"We might need special exercise machines for the astronauts," says Larry Young, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer who specializes in space travel. "We want to make sure weakness doesn't get to the point where it becomes dangerous or irreversible."

A partial solution might come from UCI, where physiologist Ken Baldwin is experimenting with the "space cycle," an exercise machine.

Avoiding injuries on Mars will be as important as conditioning, a point illustrated by an accident that's slowed Diego Casa, one of McNally and Wynn's crew mates.

The Chicago physicist pulls up his sweater, revealing a cast and bandages that cover part of his upper torso. He bruised his ribs when he flew off an all-terrain vehicle during a field exercise.

Digital images of his torso were e-mailed to a physician who instructed the crew on how to treat Casa. If the injury had been serious, he could have been transported to a hospital, an option not possible on Mars. Real explorers might not even be able to practice rapid telemedicine. It can take up to 22 minutes for an electronic message to travel from Mars to Earth.

Explorers also will have to cope with a threat that's not much of a worry here: micrometeorites. Mars' atmosphere doesn't afford as much protection from these bits of stone and metal. NASA will have to produce spacesuits that offer better protection than existing ones and that more effectively shield humans from radiation.

Mobility is another big issue, says Jeffrey Hoffman, an MIT engineer who flew five flights on the space shuttle.

"The Apollo astronauts had a lot of difficulty picking up rocks. They had to use special grippers. We need suits that are light and mobile enough to let people explore."

He's less concerned about how explorers will handle the loneliness and isolation of a long Mars expedition.

"If people are busy and doing useful work, they're usually satisfied and happy."

Well, maybe.

"If you get fed up being in Utah, you can drive home," says Colorado's Klaus. "Even in the Antarctic, it's possible to get out (of a research base) within weeks or a month. That's not the case with Mars.

"I also wonder about the psychological effect of this. It shook the psyche of the Apollo astronauts when they looked back at the Earth, which was still the dominant thing in the sky. From Mars, Earth won't even be the brightest dot."



Mars' atmosphere: About 95 percent carbon dioxide. Without a space helmet, you'd quickly die.

Surface air pressure: Less than 1 percent of that on Earth. Without a helmet, you wouldn't be able to take a single breath. Your eyes would dry out and you would get severe pain in your ears. You'd fall unconscious in less than a minute and die soon thereafter.

Average global temperature: Minus 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Global average on Earth: 59 degrees. Temperatures on Mars fall below 200 degrees at poles.

Gravity: 38 percent of Earth's. You would be able to jump at least twice as high as you could here. But reduced gravity could cause bones to thin, making fractures more likely, and cause loss of muscle tone.

Martian dust: NASA soil scientist Doug Ming reports that the dust might contain trace metals that, if inhaled, "could be toxic to lungs, and dust could also affect electronic devices like computers and vehicles that humans will need on Mars. We're also concerned that dust and soil could have the potential to develop electric charges."

Sources: Jet Propulsion Laboratory, UCI

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© 2004, The Orange County Register Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services