Mars, the Reality

Special to The Times

The time will come when a human sets foot on Mars.

Here's my advice: Don't take the Isuzu. The only way to get into an Isuzu Trooper wearing a spacesuit is backward, helmet first, and then to wriggle into position. And if you catch your air pack on the seat belt like I did, you'll be stuck on your back for ages, flailing like a cockroach.

Mars — Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine article on simulating life on Mars incorrectly stated that Mars is as far as 248,500 million miles from Earth. At its farthest, Mars is about 249 million miles from Earth.

So no Isuzu, and pack plenty of Coke and cheese because we ran out, which is why we needed the Isuzu in the first place—to drive to the store. In truth, we shouldn't be driving anyplace because there are no convenience stores on Mars, and we're supposed to be duplicating the Martian life here, at the Mars Desert Research Station in Wayne County, Utah. We live in a simulated habitation pod and wear spacesuits when we go exploring outside. We ration water, rove on Mars-style buggies and dig holes with shovels. For two years now, scientists and sundry nerds have been doing this work, in teams of six, two weeks at a time, near the flyspeck town of Hanksville. Our aim is in part to inform future Marsonauts about how best to negotiate life in a capsule as far as 248,500 million miles from home.

Until recently, that prospect seemed more fantastic than real. But on Jan. 14, President Bush proposed a manned trip to the red planet, adding frisson to these simulated missions—including our own, which began days after Bush's announcement. So far, our team has learned this much—take extra Coke and cheese because it goes fast, especially the herb-flavored stuff. Now look at this mess—three spacesuited buffoons radioing one another across the store: Tschk. "Cheddar located on aisle five. Sliced or block, over?"

At the checkout, the cashier is in no mood. Hanksville locals are tired of this kind of Martian tomfoolery. She doesn't crack a smile as we bound up, waving and grinning inside our helmets. Dumping our change on the counter, she turns and peers into the distance. "Receipt's in the bag," she says.

It's time we returned to Mars. Earthlings hostile. Retreat! Retreat!

The research station is a wonderful tribute to the ingenuity and obsession of Mars nuts. A domed two-story cylinder on landing stilts, nestled among the ferric red mounds of the Capitol Reef area in southern Utah, it was built for $300,000 and completed in January 2002 by the Mars Society, a 6,000-strong band of Mars enthusiasts based in Lakewood, Colo. These folks aren't kooks. Many are serious scientists.

Back in the days of the elder Bush's presidency, the plan to send humans to Mars involved assembling a spacecraft at a space station and then embarking on a 19-month journey. But it was so costly ($400 billion) that it jeopardized the very notion of going. So a band of believers, sensing a crisis, proposed a leaner mission, which eventually called for a six-person crew to fly to Mars directly, in seven months. Under this "Mars Direct" plan, astronauts would explore the planet for 18 months, then return to earth in a separate vehicle that had harnessed Mars' resources and converted atmosphere into rocket propellant. "Mars Direct" is best described in the 1996 book "The Case for Mars," by Mars Society co-founder and president Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist and author who is pushing to have humans on Mars by 2020.

The Mars Society has built three "laboratories for living on another planet," including the Utah habitat and one on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, arguably the most Mars-like for its sheer hostility to human habitation. The third is awaiting funding to be shipped to Iceland.

These habitats (Habs) have no official ties to NASA, although roughly a quarter of the participants on the simulated missions are NASA engineers or scientists.

The Hab in Utah is designed to house six people in a space 27 feet across, dimensions that the society believes could be built and transported by rocket ship. The broad objective of the research is to test-run life on Mars, exploring the physical, scientific and psychological practicalities. What work can actually be done in spacesuits? What are the most effective tools for exploration? And, crucially, how do crew members interact in confinement; what makes team spirit fizz or falter? The simulations include an electronic link to volunteers in San Diego whose role is "Mission Support."

Naturally, the simulation has limits. On Mars, for instance, there is no oxygen, it's as cold as minus 130 at nights, and the atmospheric pressure is about 1% as thick as Earth's, so if you step outside without a spacesuit, you'll suffocate and freeze to death all at once. (The gaping hole we found in the Hab on Day 9 would have killed us all.) Still, the challenge of captivity and exploring in spacesuits has thrown up all kinds of pointers for a real Mars mission. They range from the grand, such as "exploration is physical so we must use artificial gravity" in the spacecraft so that muscles don't atrophy, to the relatively mundane, "time is precious—the main human factor issue is not boredom, but overwork," or "take a bread maker, the smell is good for morale."

My voyage to Mars began with a phone call. I was browsing the Mars Society website when I came upon the arresting image of men in spacesuits tramping about a vast terra-cotta wasteland. I called Zubrin to ask to visit the Utah site.

"I've got a better idea," he answered. "Why don't you become the first journalist to actually join a mission crew? How tall are you?"

Oh, about 5 feet 6, 150 pounds.

"Yep, we've got a spacesuit your size," he said. "Now, are you mechanically minded? Because the most useful people on a Mars crew are people who can fix things." After I confessed that I could sometimes fix dinner, and only then with a manual, he assigned me the task of keeping a daily journal. "That's an important job, too," he said. "All great explorers keep a journal."

It's kind of Zubrin to call it "important," but I've seen "The Right Stuff" and I'm not kidding myself—no one needs a journalist on Mars. If the generator blows up and we lose our satellite signal, the words "Quick, get the journalist" are as likely as "Is there anyone on this plane who can write a headline with a pun?"

Thankfully, Crew 22 would more than compensate for my deficits. Chosen specifically by the Mars Society for their skills and experience, these are dedicated Mars fans, and no fools.

Georgi Petrov, 27, is a Bulgarian engineer-architect whose recent master's thesis at MIT is about building a permanent settlement on Mars. The central objective of our mission is to test some of his ideas.

Richard Thieltges, 58, is an amateur polymath from Montana who grew up on a wheat farm fixing tractors all day. He has obtained a degree in agronomy, finished a master's in transpersonal psychology and made a lifelong study of stromatolites—fossils of single-celled organisms roughly 1 billion years old (the most likely fossils to be found on Mars).

Sandy Musclow, 24, is a geologist from Palmer Rapids, Ontario, with a particular interest in brine formation as it might occur on Mars. She's the only woman on the mission.

James Harris, 35, a soft-spoken computer network engineer from Austin, Tex., is a former electrician and chef now working toward a bachelor's in computer science and engineering.

Our commander is John Burgener, 52, owner of a company that makes chemical analysis equipment. He's a breezy, undaunted man who tells us at our first meeting: "I've been a biologist, a geologist, a physicist, a geophysicist, a geochemist, ooh let's see, and I've worked closely with rocket scientists. I've traveled and worked all over the world. And that's what you want in space—someone who has experience in a broad range of disciplines."

As I fly to Salt Lake City, the prospect of living with five strangers has me rattled. All I know of them is their frankly intimidating online bios. We meet at an airport motel and split into threes for the five-hour drive south to the Hab. Richard, Sandy and I take the lead in Richard's Isuzu as the rest follow in the Mars Society's clattering six-seat pickup, "Old Blue."

The views are stunning, running south through the snowy mountains and plains until we reach Hanksville and turn down an unmarked track into the red, rocky desert. Then, after 10 lurching minutes in low gear, we spy the Hab and gasp. That's Mars! A cute white thimble of a place, perched improbably upright among all the tumble and scree of an ancient seabed.

There is no time to let the impact properly register. The incumbent crew swings open the Hab doors and ushers us in for a swift tour. They seem remarkably at ease with each other. We're a subdued huddle in comparison, following them around, nodding and noting details. Here are the tools, OK, and there's the science area. There's a problem with the drains, I see, and, oh yes, the toilet. Then it's upstairs to the carpeted and somewhat cozier living area. It's not nearly as cramped as I'd imagined. A little cold, perhaps, but, hey, I'll wear a jumper.

Immediately the work begins—our first crew meeting. Before we enter full simulation mode (or "Sim"), we need to stock up on food, so we painstakingly go through every meal and draw up a list. Two of us are to drive back to Salt Lake City, drop off four members of the existing crew (the others have their own transportation) and buy groceries. "So, we need volunteers," John says. Sandy raises her hand. The rest of us do not. We have just arrived and nobody's exactly keen to return to Earth so soon, especially in "Old Blue," that bone-shaker with no radio. We draw straws. Mine is shortest. Oh, well, at least it's a job I can do. What do they call it—taking one for the team?

The next morning, we set off at the crack and drive to Salt Lake City and back, returning with a bounty of smoked salmon, shrimp, steak, eggs, cold cuts, soft drinks, cereals and fresh fruit. It's not strictly Mars fare, but John's happy to cheat and he's the boss. John even wanted us to buy a keg of beer, since "all those bottles would be a wasteful payload." But try finding a keg on Sunday in Utah. We might as well have been on Mars.

At dinner, John regales us with stories from his life and times—how he once scared off a bear with a foghorn, and thought nothing of scuba diving under 6 feet of ice. By the end, he's showing us a video of a rocket launch that he's somehow involved with. Sandy is rapt. "John's just amazing, isn't he?" she whispers. "I'm going to learn so much from him."

Come bedtime, a setback—the rooms were allotted while we were out shopping. Commander John gets the roomiest. Mine is the smallest and the only one without an Internet connection. So much for taking one for the team.

This is fun, suiting up. It's a dance, not to be attempted alone. First you climb into the spacesuit and attempt to give yourself a wedgie, then you pirouette as a crew mate wraps your waist with duct tape by way of a belt. The Radio Shack earpieces have a habit of falling out, so more duct tape there, and be sure to wipe the inside of your helmet with dish soap, a remedy that real astronauts employ to stave off helmet mist.

Of course, they're not real spacesuits, all hermetic and pressurized, and we're spared the authenticity of catheters. But they're close enough—unwieldy canvas jumpsuits based loosely on the design of the Apollo lunar suit. They have the desired effect of rendering you as limber as an unoiled Tin Man and as dexterous as a bear with mittens. But whom am I kidding? It's a hoot to dress up like a spaceman.

It's the fifth day. Fully suited, Georgi, Sandy and I start up the all-terrain vehicles. Armed only with a topographic map and a full tank, we roar off toward the horizon. This is as good as Mars gets—flying the coop for a few hours to leave a scribble of tracks across the belly of an ocean now 85 million years dry. The landscape is magnificent. We surge from one breathtaking vista to the next. And since most of it is rust-reddish and barren, it's just possible to surrender to the illusion that this is in fact Mars and we are its first explorers. We follow a winding gully to an impassable crevice, and Sandy stumbles across a sea of mollusk fossils—imagine such a discovery on Mars!

In true explorer's style, we plot our route as we go, flagging buttes, canyons and passes with signposts named Copernicus, Kepler and Sagan. It strikes me as odd that the first 21 crews didn't take this basic step to make their brave new world navigable, but driving back to the Hab past our handiwork, I understand why Mission Support controllers were slow to sanction the project—they wanted to preserve its virgin state, so that others might also taste the illusion that they were here first.

But we're not really explorers. This feels more like a Mars-themed holiday camp. With lodging and food, ATVs and a desert on our doorstep, Club Mars allows us to play make-believe, with the added cachet of actually contributing to the dream of putting people on Mars. No phones ring, no TVs blare. Our earthly frets about rent and bills recede with every passing day.

In the early days of the Sim, we return to the Hab with moods high. Georgi whips up stuffed peppers and a Bulgarian tomato salad, washed down with some lethal grape brandy. And we have one of those great conversations, abuzz with ideas, about Mars, space and NASA. One subject, appropriately enough, is space tourism, specifically the idea that "before men will ever walk on Mars, private industry will need to turn a profit in space." We've considered mining the asteroid belt, which everyone agrees is a good idea. But tourism is controversial.

"It's the only hope, and I mean that quite seriously," John declares. "We need a space hotel more than an observatory because that's where the money is."

Georgi isn't so thrilled by space becoming a "playground for the rich."

"It's not," John retorts. "At $50,000, everyone can dream. It's the paperwork at NASA that wastes all the money. Did you know it costs more in fuel to fly to Europe than the moon?"

"Are you sure?" Georgi tips back in his chair. "I'm not so sure about that." The table goes quiet—Sandy, James, Richard and I are watching as John accepts Georgi's challenge.

"Yes, it is," he says. "Think about it. A rocket to the moon is 99% fuel, and a 747 uses about 120,000 liters of kerosene to cross the Atlantic, so if you take the weight of kerosene as ooh, say, 800 grams per liter . . . . " Off John disappears down an alley of arithmetic.

"Hey, I think John's got a point," Richard says, "because I've got aches and pains every day. I'm 59. And I tell you, older people will pay for the lower-gravity experience. You'll have these colonies in space with restaurants and movies and blackjack. It'll be like Vegas. But in space."

Richard hasn't said too much since he arrived. But he clearly has plenty of ideas. He got the space-bug during the Sputnik era, around the same time that he took up psychedelics. He's now an authority on herbal medicine and an avid collector of suiseki rock art—natural rocks that resemble landscapes in miniature. Once the beer comes out (a case of Utah-brewed Wasatch Polygamy Porter, with the slogan: "Why have just one?"), he announces his plan to build a viable society on Mars.

"Polyamory," he says. "You know, multiple partners? See, people who want to go into space are high-novelty-seeking individuals, so they need additional and alternative sexual activity for the long journeys. That's why they should also have consciousness-altering substances like hashish and peyote. It's all part of my paper on sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll in space."

I thought the sim rules were inviolate. Mars seemed a hard and fast place of the strict and pseudo-military. But, no, here we have "bubbles" and "tunnels," invisibly delineated areas outdoors where you can walk freely sans spacesuit. Each crew's commander decides where their particular "tunnels" should run. (Mars is an autocracy, not a democracy.) The commander also decides how long crew members must wait in the air lock, simulating the time needed for their bodies to adjust to the difference in pressure inside and outside a Martian Hab. A lot hinges on whether the boss is a Sim fundamentalist or not. Some previous commanders have demanded a 30-minute wait, which compares to NASA's recommendation of 40 minutes for space stations. But since there is no physical imperative at the Hab, the air-lock wait serves only to test the impact of the delay on a day's schedule, a function that is often outweighed by the psychological effect on crew members who find themselves hanging around for precisely nothing. Still, we're fortunate to have a moderate like John, whose decreed interval of five minutes seems to recognize that we're volunteers here.

Today, however, even those five minutes are getting whittled thin.

First, the excuses. We've been out digging holes, as per the edicts of some masochist at Mission Support. (The objective is to see how quickly the holes fill with dirt again, and to give Mission Support the experience of remotely coordinating a project that will be continued by future crews. Two conclusions—it is indeed possible to swing a pickax in a spacesuit, and after a couple of hours you'll have had enough.)

So, we've returned to the Hab, tired and hungry, our helmets all steamed up, and with at least one of us needing the restroom. John decides to save time by squishing us all into the air lock at once. It is built for three, which would mean a 15-minute wait—five for the first group, five to "depressurize" the chamber, then five for the next group. With all six of us in there like the Tokyo metro, we stand to gain 10 minutes, and air-lock minutes, as every astronaut knows, are the longest in the cosmos.

For a while, it is curiously calm. I can hear air pumping steadily into my ears and I think of those famous David Bowie lyrics, "Here am I sitting in a tin can, far above the world." Then Georgi digs me twice in the ribs with his elbow. He's giggling—this is a man with two master's degrees. Naturally I threaten to switch off his air pack, since you have to fight fire with fire, but Sandy comes to his defense by booting me in the shins, except she accidentally kicks James, who then steals her geological hammer. And like chaos theory this Little Lock of Calm descends into a scrum of schoolyard shoving, until—"Whoa!"—someone leans into the Hab door and it pops open.

Barely a minute has passed.


We shoot looks at each other, and then at John.

"Oh, well," he says, with a shrug. "No point closing it now. We've all got the bends."

Later, reviewing the day, we write in our reports—the very reports with which Mission Support hopes to inform NASA how to conduct future Mars missions: "Small holes are easier to dig than big ones." Sandy stirs apple crisp while John stitches up a torn spacesuit. It's a scene from Norman Rockwell.

As we pore through the day's photographs, the most vividly Mars-like is a shot of me. It looks as if I'm heroically scaling a mountain. "I wish I had a picture like that," says John. "Before we leave, I want one of you to take a picture of me like that, on that slope." Georgi sniggers. Sandy scribbles me a note. "Is he just in this for the pictures?"

We're lucky to have James on board—an ex-chef who can mend everything. So far he has fixed our backpacks, the radios, the generator, the computer network and the plumbing in the shower. And this morning, he's cooking up yet another hearty breakfast hash. We're going to need it. A day of grunt work awaits.

But it's our 10th day, and something's not right with these "research projects." I just can't see the Right Stuff doing this stuff. First we're digging—not for gold or oil, but for Mission Support. And now we're hefting rocks, the work of slaves or trucks, in an effort to build a barrel vault, according to Georgi's master's thesis. It's an interesting concept to use Egyptian construction techniques to build habitats on Mars, but the "tomb," as we call it, is also a killer for the lower spine. Suiting up isn't quite so much fun. We go about the business of mutual wedgies and duct tape in silence. Whatever happened to jetting around on the rovers?

At lunch, I find some mold in our loaf of bread. "Oh, dear," grins John. "On Columbus' ship, he nearly had a mutiny when the bread went moldy." And it's funny he should say that, because the tides have been turning against our commander of late. Like today, for example, when I beat him at chess three times in a row. Once John leaves for the restroom, both Sandy and Georgi come over to congratulate me. "Why don't you play him for the leadership of the crew?"

In a way, the growing tension is expected. Jack Stuster, a behavioral scientist who worked for NASA, wrote a study about human behavior in simulated space habitats. In it he describes a mission's leader as vulnerable. The confinement "renders informal even the most formal of hierarchies," Stuster writes. The commander loses the teeth necessary for enforcing order. Still, I suspect that were South Pole explorers Roald Amundsen or Sir Ernest Shackleton in charge, they'd probably pull their weight in the kitchen. John has made just one round of pancakes.

The layout of the living area maps out the tension. The five crew members are at their laptops facing the wall, while John remains in his stateroom. Occasionally he pipes in on the end of a conversation, but his remarks frequently fall flat. One day, John insisted that the sun's lifespan is 5 billion years (any self-respecting space geek knows it's 10 billion). He has never heard of Austin Powers. And after Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's victories in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, John said he didn't even know there was a presidential election this year, prompting the question, "What planet is he on?" (Looking back, weeks later, we were a bit unfair on John, a bit childish with the note-passing and sniggering. But at the time ... )

Then James yells from downstairs. "Hey, guys. We're all dead! Someone left the door wide open."

I'm feeling the confinement. Last night, I sneaked out for the first time, to look at the spangled skies, and it felt so good to break Sim and feel the wind on my face again.

I'm not alone. Others are buckling too. It's the 11th day, and the edifice of Sim is crumbling. When John and Richard went out on an EVA, an extravehicular activity, Georgi went for a stroll. James popped out to get a picture of a sunset. Now John has this idea that we should reach a total of 30 EVAs, because it's some sort of record, and there's only a couple of days left. But why suit up anymore, go through that silly rigmarole with duct tape? And who cares about the record? As for the air lock, now we just pause to pay respects to a lost rite.

You know what I can't stand? The lack of privacy—just one room for everyone at all times to do everything. No nooks, no alcoves. Nowhere to have a private conversation. Only our pokey unventilated staterooms, miserably noise-proofed, badly lit and impossibly cramped. It's hard to read a book here without banging your head. I just need more personal space. Just a patch of the desk that I don't have to share with the rice cooker, Georgi's elbows and a tangle of wires. I want some silence, for just a few minutes. Doesn't everyone? Am I crazy? Is it asking too much, just for everyone to be quiet and leave me be?

Suddenly the Hab radio crackles into life. "Hab Comm. Permission to enter air lock?" It's John. He has just returned.

I look over at Sandy and she's grinning at the thought of denying him entry. "Shall we make him SIM-mer?"

It's day 13. the hab walls feel closer than ever as i lie awake contemplating the ceiling of my stateroom. I hear John outside calculating how many EVAs we need today to break the record. He wants Sandy to take a picture of him out on that slope, but Sandy is pleading with him, "Can't we just go out on the rovers?"

I've had enough. I want to go home.

It is hard to say to what extent this simulation has been a success. After all, most of the obvious conclusions were compiled by earlier crews as they scaled the steep edge of the learning curve and are explained in Zubrin's latest nonfiction book "Mars on Earth." Admittedly, thanks to Crew 22, we know that astronauts can use shovels but would prefer that robots did the job. But what use is that? Has the research station's usefulness expired?

(In an interview afterward, Zubrin says that the station "is like any university. It's partly there for research and partly for education. In terms of research, there is always more to do. There are so many technologies out there that we need to test for future Mars use." He mentions aerial drones and flying robots to help humans map out their routes over the Martian surface. Scientists and engineers thinking about manned missions often solve the wrong problems, he says. "One research team was working on a robotic llama, which accompanied the astronaut on exploration and carried all the tools. It seems to make sense, but only for pedestrian exploration.")

Confinement has a way of telescoping relationships and the natural tensions they involve. The thought of being trapped with this lot for two years is the stuff of nightmares. The Hab would become a barking asylum, although it's not the crew's fault, far from it. We gelled pretty well, considering. No real mission would have dared risk such random chemistry—"nitro meet glycerin, you guys are going to have a blast."

But some in our crew are best taken in small doses. Others, the quieter and less demanding ones, seem better suited to the long haul. John, perhaps predictably given his assigned role, has proven to be a force for cohesion in the crew. All of us, but for Richard, would have voted him off the island first.

Now John is yelling from downstairs. "Stop! Stop it! Turn it off!" There's some thundering up the stairs and frantic pacing about. At the table sits Sandy, looking uncomfortable. Georgi is standing behind her, consoling her. James and Richard are up. We're all here, opposite John, who's holding a broken water pump. It turns out John had told Sandy to keep the water pump on even though no water was pumping, so now the water pump is burned out. Which, on Mars, is a disaster.

"It's fine," says John. "It just means we use paper plates and not dishes, to save on washing up, and we just use the water for drinking. No showers, but that's all right."

Everyone looks at their shoes.

"When I was in the Canadian Arctic, I went for four months without a shower," John adds breezily.

The silence is deafening. Then Sandy offers a tentative suggestion. "Guys, if you want a shower, we could all chip in for a motel room in town. It'll be about $10 each tops, I reckon."

We look at each other. Then at John.

"Oh, well," he shrugs. "We may as well have dinner in town, too. What do you think?"

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