The Sciences

The Make-Believe Mars

Earthlings go to Mars-esque locales to prepare for the real thing.

By Bruno MaddoxJun 21, 2007 12:00 AM


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I drop my trusty bag upon the arid red crust of the Martian desert and flip my collar against the mineral wind. Far away, on the horizon, a small, cold sun dips lower behind a dune the color of paprika. It is getting chilly, though I am well protected, being clad on this day in a two-piece sage-green velvet suit with 30-inch bell-bottoms. It’s just as well. I hear that temperatures on Mars can fall as low as –190 degrees Fahrenheit.

Not that I’m actually on Mars. Rather I am standing alone upon the insane red Martian deserts (Martian in the utterly legitimate sense of Mars-like; you can look it up) of southern Utah, thumping periodically and in vain upon the Perspex porthole set into the outdoor air-lock door of a grubby white structure known as the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS). The station resembles a giant propane canister, except with portholes and antennas, and I had been led to believe I would find it occupied by a crew of aspiring astronauts training to go to Mars. Yet no one is answering my thumps. The air-lock door, like so many air-lock doors, has one of those round handles like a steering wheel. Yet it does not turn.

What’s that you say? Training to go to Mars? Why is anyone training to go to Mars?

I don’t know, is the answer. A manned trip to the Red Planet may theoretically now be on NASA’s agenda, but not until we’ve returned to the moon, finished the space station, and polished off a few other minor chores of similar magnitude. For anyone to be already preparing for Mars does seem a little premature. If I could find the crew, I could ask them about this. I could ask them who they are, what they think they’re playing at, why mankind should even be bothering with Mars, what sort of person should we choose for the mission, whether the MDRS has a functioning restroom, and if so, where?

Mars mission simulation in the Utah Desert | Image courtesy of NASA

The time has come, I decide, for action. If someday there’s a Code of Conduct written for interplanetary explorers, my guess is that fairly high up will be something about not using brute force to yank open other people’s air-lock doors without permission. But you know what? Until that day comes, I answer only to the Code of the Journalist, most applicably in this instance Rule 1: Thou shalt get the story by any means necessary, and Rule 165: No public urination.

Velvet flowing smoothly over my thickly packed muscles, I seize the air-lock handle and yank.

Half a century has passed since humanity first ventured into space, but this Homo sapiens sapiens, for one, is still palpably atingle with pride. The engineering of the feat, which seemed not far short of a miracle back in the late 1950s, seems not far short of a miracle today, quite frankly, especially when you consider that our closest rivals in the animal kingdom are still dining out on being able to open a coconut by hurling it at a rock. And come to think of it, I’m not even sure they manage that with any degree of reliability.

But there is more than just the rocket science to be proud of. Yes, the Conquest of Space once and for all silenced any muttering that the opposable thumb and the giant brain weren’t all they were cracked up to be, but it also showcased human nature at its selfless, rational, rarely seen best. Prior to the space age, human progress had been a haphazard affair. A few centuries of geniuses would typically waste their lives locked in their basements, ignoring their wives while trying to turn lead into gold. Then one of them would forget to wash out a petri dish and voilà: penicillin.

The way we conquered space was the ennobling precise opposite. It required a level of teamwork and self-sacrifice usually achieved only by ants carrying leaves and/or ruining picnics, and best of all, it was deliberate. Getting into space was one of but a handful of instances in which we identified a milestone in our progress not in the rearview mirror but before we’d reached it. We set ourselves a concrete if wildly ambitious goal, methodically broke it down into more achievable substages, then divvied up the labor and worked through the steps in order, testing and endlessly retesting every assumption and innovation to squeeze as much chaos out of the system as possible. Certainly there were mistakes, fiery and spectacular ones, but we handled them maturely, calmly figuring out what caused them and fixing the problem. It could be argued, I suppose, that our ascent to these unseen heights of focus and dedication was fueled by the very worst aspects of our nature, namely tribal fear and hatred of the cold war, but not, I would submit, by anyone who isn’t a paid lobbyist for another, lesser species. Fear and hatred are ubiquitous conditions in the animal kingdom; figuring out how to fly through space and come home again, to put it mildly, is not.

All of which is to say that the simplest and perhaps only necessary answer to why some of us are already in training to go to Mars, decades before any conceivable scheduled mission to the Red Planet, is that Mars is in space, and when it comes to space, human beings are well-versed in the importance of long-term thinking, focus, and commitment.

Like every decent spacegoing body, the Mars Society hews tightly to the principles of a rousing Founding Declaration. “The time has come for humanity to journey to Mars” is how the Declaration begins, and it ends with the words, “No nobler cause has ever been. We shall not rest until it succeeds.”

What that not-resting has largely consisted of, for the previous, first decade of the society’s existence, is sending crews of volunteers to some of the least hospitable environments on Earth, where they pretend that they’re actually on Mars. The crews live in structures known as Mars Analog Research Stations—a term that acronym­izes rather nicely, as you may have spotted—and if the crew is observing full simulation protocol—being fully “in sim,” as they term it—they will leave the faux-pressurized habitat only in a space suit.

This all has to do with, among other things, the development and testing of “crew selection protocols.” For those perhaps not familiar with the jargon of the Martian astronaut community, crew selection protocols are what you use before a trip to Mars to determine what kind of person is going to make a staunch and reliable crew member, as opposed to the kind liable to—as we say in astropsychology—fall victim to Space Madness, sell his soul to the onboard master computer, disembowel his crewmates somewhere deep in the black, unaccountable void, eventually landing on Mars only to scamper briefly across its surface, forgetting his helmet in a self-made diaper of hydraulic cabling, and finally collapsing with a mouthful of red dirt, advancing human understanding of the Red Planet millimetrically, if at all.

Which may explain why I am initially underwhelmed by crew 58 at the Mars Desert Research Station. Following my dramatic invasion of the MDRS, and climbing a ladder, I find myself face-to-face with a roomful of trainee astronauts who all look very, er, normal. They range in age from about 22 to 38, in gender from male to female. They are sporting things such as beards and spectacles and amusing novelty T-shirts. And while a few might conceivably be in the kind of peak physical condition we’ve come to expect of people sent into space, many, visibly, are not.

Nor is the facility quite as dustless and professional as I’d been expecting. The station’s main kitchen and common area feels more like a youth hostel than an antiseptic astronaut hatchery. There are coffee cups and Gatorade bottles strewn about the place, boxes of crackers and tangles of laptop cabling. On the wall is pinned a grubby map of Mars—appropriate enough, I suppose, only I think it’s the same one my 4-year-old niece has pinned on her wall, possibly extracted ecstatically from the same junior encyclopedia.?

Under the able command of one Commander Melissa Battler, the seven members of crew 58 have been selected by the Mars Society for its most arduous mission to date: a four-month stint at a station deep in the frozen tundra of the Canadian Arctic, 90 minutes by light plane away from the nearest human being—who may or may not be a doctor. The discussion I’d interrupted was of where precisely on the chest one is supposed to stab a crewmate with an empty syringe if he or she develops a “tension pneumothorax.” Once that is settled, the group briefly reviews their rules for family emergencies. Crew members will be allowed to “break sim” and go home for two weeks if a parent or sibling dies. But not if it’s a grandparent. And not if the parent or sibling merely gets told he or she has a week to live. In that scenario, a crew member will have to wait until he or she actually dies before getting the two-week leave.

Now this is more like the Right Stuff, I reckon. The crew’s casual, approachable demeanor, I decide—as they wrap up the meeting with a discussion of how to fend off two polar bears when you have only one shotgun—is not so much in opposition to their inner intensity as a necessary complement to it.

Mars, after all, is very far away: six months each way using the best of current technology, interrupted by a long period on the planet itself, mining and refining the fuel for the return trip. The reserves of inner fortitude required for something like that are staggering to ponder, but it’s also going to take a superhuman endowment of Roommating Skills. The people we sent to the moon may have all been able to land a wingless F-104 on a tennis court. The people we send to Mars will also have to know how to kick back of an evening, shoot the breeze, play a little zero-g Travel Scrabble, listen to a little Dave Matthews, and yes, hang up a poster or two. Nothing gets older quicker, I would imagine, in the vast reaches of outer space than some humorless astro-whiz who spends his downtime locked in his cabin doing sit-ups and shaving his buzz cut.

Not that you could shave much of anything in the tiny cabins of the Desert Research Station, I observe as the crew readies dinner. They’re like coffins with desks and have the effect, suddenly, of focusing my attention on the issue of how a mixed-gender crew of Martian pioneers are supposed to handle the whole Sleeping With People side of human existence. When conducted in a handful of cubic feet, with five attentive ear witnesses, the result could be disastrous. There would be jealousies, and snickering, and eventually, if our experience on Earth is any guide, women would be flinging ashtrays at men, not to mention stuffing the men’s belongings into shopping bags and passive-aggressively depositing them just beyond the air-lock door.

The only answer, I guess, is self-control. My respect for the inner fortitude of crew 58 ratchets up another couple of notches, and a couple more when we sit down to dinner and I finally taste the food. Somehow I was under the impression that astronauts survived entirely on light-brown paste, squeezed into the mouth from a sachet, that transforms miraculously into a gourmet meal as soon as it hits the tongue. Turns out I have it backward. For dinner, I’m served a bowl of freeze-dried chicken and rice that looks like an actual meal but tastes like light-brown paste.

Yet the crew sucks it down with good humor, and increasingly I find myself staring at one or another of them and wondering how their face would look on a stamp, or even a banknote. The more they tell me about themselves, the clearer it becomes that these people are serious. They really think they’re going to Mars, and they’ve organized their lives around the prospect.

Crew Engineer Ryan Kobrick, for instance, happens to mention that he’s a graduate of the “International Space University.” I interrupt to ask if he’s sure that such a thing exists. He assures me it does. It’s in France, apparently, and I fall silent, suddenly aware that Kobrick has what must surely be one of the great astronaut names of all time: “Ryan Kobrick.”

Just then, however, there is an incident. From within a cardboard box of freeze-dried meals comes a scrabbling sound, and then the box topples over. Tumbling out onto the floor, grappling a packet of sweet-and-sour pork, is the station’s resident house cat, an orange tabby named Pixel O’Neill. The crew promptly loses it. Commander Battler announces, sobbing with mirth, that a more adorable, amusing spectacle she has never seen. Ryan Kobrick of the International Space University dives for his camera, and the next 20 minutes see the crew posing for pictures with Pixel O’Neill, whose name, I am informed, is an homage to one of the characters on Stargate, or Battlestar Galactica, or Star Trek: the Nth Generation.

Slowly, I grasp the essential truth: These people are nerds. Lovable nerds, without question, but nerds nonetheless. They’re content to spend months locked up together pretending to be Martian astronauts, because if they weren’t they’d be locked up together in one of their bedrooms rolling 12-sided dice and pretending to be battle dwarves or shape-shifting elves.

It’s an ungenerous analysis, I’ll admit, and one that persists until morning, when Commander Battler, looking rather fetching in her pajamas, grants permission for me to don one of the crew’s space suits and go walk around in the desert. I start out feeling very silly indeed. The space suit is unmistakably just a space-suit costume: a pair of white overalls with a fishbowl helmet and a motorized backpack pointlessly blowing air at my face through a tube.

The desert, however, is magnificently bizarre in the morning light, an endless blistered cinnamon crust shot through with mauves and mustards and periwinkles . . .

And then it starts to snow. I’m wearing a space suit, upon a multicolored alien landscape, and it’s snowing, and in the instant before my aesthetic apparatus overloads and jams my entire brain, I find myself wondering if Battler, Kobrick, and the rest might not make it to Mars after all. So what if they’re nerds and are driven as much by an urge to play dress up as by a realistic Martian ambition. Who’s to say the game has to stop? Maybe, in short, the business of exploring space isn’t quite as joyless and deliberate as I always thought. After all, it’s a task undertaken by living human beings, and life, it seems painfully obvious all of a sudden, has an incorrigible tendency to be deeply, cosmically strange.

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