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As you read this sentence, six grown adults are spending their waking and sleeping hours pretending they are on Mars. For several weeks they will live in a two-story mockup of a spaceship parked in the Utah desert, don spacesuits to explore the territory around the base, and labor under the apparent delusion that they are 150 million miles away.
But this make-believe is more than just a diversion, it’s a serious simulation to help teach scientists and engineers how to explore Mars. Because Mars is very very cold and has almost no atmosphere, humans cannot survive without the constant protection of pressurized habitats and spacesuits. Granted, the Apollo astronauts had these same constraints but they were in space for one week, and NASA is currently planning to send astronauts to Mars on two-year-long missions.
The group of volunteers in Utah isn’t the first, and the Utah station isn’t the only one. The Mars Society owns and operates two such stations with donated funds and volunteer “Marsnauts”. The Utah station is called the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), and has been in operation since 2001. The other, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station (FMARS) is on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic and was built in 2000 on the rim of an ancient meteorite impact crater. That is where I got the chance to spend four weeks during the summer of 2005 as part of the 10th FMARS crew.
The two sites were chosen because they are scientifically interesting, remote, and as Mars-like as possible here on Earth. These factors combine to increase the reality of the simulation; the Marsnauts can’t use their cellphones to call home, water and supplies must be driven or flown in at the beginning of the mission, and the beautiful unspoiled views appear untouched by human civilization.
Volunteer crews are composed of diverse groups of scientists, engineers, businessfolk, artists, journalists, and even homemakers that share one common goal: to get humans to Mars as soon as possible. While in their mock spaceships and spacesuits, the crews conduct science, engineering, and exploration just as true astronauts would on the Martian surface. Helmets cannot be taken off, for instance, if the Marsnuat wants to scratch their nose. On Mars that would be a fatal mistake. Also, the stations each have airlocks for the crew to stand and undergo simulated depressurization prior to entering and leaving, just as they would on Mars.
The Mars Society is always looking for volunteers for future crews, but even if you aren’t feeling particularly qualified you may still be in luck. A small startup called Red Planet Expeditions has built a 120-acre resort where anyone can be a “SimNaut.” Themed as small Mars settlement in the year 2035, but with all the comforts of home, the resort is conveniently located halfway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Welcome to the Dude Ranch of the 21st century!
People who will never get the chance to see Mars can now contribute to humanity’s effort to set foot on the red planet. In 2003 the first two field seasons at FMARS were the subject of a documentary on the Discovery Channel that exposed hundreds of thousands of viewers to the idea of humans once again exploring new worlds. For those who get the chance to participate in simulated Martian exploration, Mars will never have felt so close though their feet are still firmly on the ground.