Who says you need to go to Mars to know what life could be like over there? Some places on Earth are apparently good enough to simulate the experience. And that’s exactly what a team of experts from Mars Society have done – recreated life on the red planet by dressing in space suits and living in isolation in a rocky Utah desert. The group of researchers lives there on a space research base, surviving on food rations, conducting research experiments and showering just once in three days.
The area surrounding the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is quite similar to the atmosphere on Mars – hot, windy, red, and rocky. Just like in the science fiction movies, every time the team needs to leave the station, they have to pass through an air lock. The team consists of four men and two women, living in a cramped, two-storey hut 40 miles from the nearest town of Hanksville. The crew sleep in small pod-like beds, have very limited contact with the outside world and a very slow internet connection to send only a few e-mails a day.
Most of their communication is with ‘mission control’, who monitor and record data about the crew’s lives every two weeks. This includes details like psychological status, food intake and exercise. According to 27-year-old Mission Commander Lara Vimercati, who is also a NASA biologist, “Everything we do each day must be as though we are on another planet. We have to go through an air lock procedure and suit up before we have any contact with the outside.” Visitors are sometimes allowed; they need to travel to MDRS on a slow buggy (only 5 mph), down an unmarked path filled with rocks.
The space suits that the researchers wear come with their own air-conditioning system, heavy helmets, boots and radio units. Donning these suits, each of them take turns in studying the Martian-like terrain outside. All the while, scientists simulate the conditions of Mars’ Gale Crater, where the Curiosity Rover is currently exploring.
But in spite of all the hardships faced by the crew, there is no guarantee that they’ll ever get to set foot on the red planet. “I’d like to be the first person to set food on Mars,” said Commander Lara. “But the first people up there will be engineers. You need to be able to fix things as they break. But I am a trained biologist, so maybe I’ll be the first person to discover life on Mars.”
We’re not even sure when that first flight will take place; scientists predict that it might happen in 20 years. The shortest possible journey is 140 million miles long – taking 7 long months to complete. The initial cost of landing on Mars is estimated to be over US $6 billion. Every subsequent manned mission after that will cost a whopping $4 billion. The crew that survives the trip will be expected to remain there for at least one-and-a-half years – waiting for Earth and Mars to re-align properly for the return journey. During this time, they will have to survive on a limited ration of food, oxygen, water and power.
The purpose for MDRS – and its sister station in the Arctic – is to help scientists understand more about what astronauts would endure on the Red Planet. I suppose the only way to figure that out is to send people to live in isolation in one of the harshest landscapes on Earth. A crew member said: “In a way, it’s great fun. You’re miles away from anywhere and you get to put on space suits and pretend you’re on a different planet. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? It’s like a childhood dream come true.”
But if you’re adamant about living on mars, you can try signing up for the Mars One project. Just remember it’s a one way trip.