The San Rafael Swell in central Utah is a massive dome of layered rocks, surrounded by a Delaware-sized maze of deep canyons and multi-coloured cliffs.
More than a decade ago, Robert Zubrin, author of “The Case for Mars,” whom we spoke to over the phone, recognised the potential of this environment — and several others around the globe — to serve as a testing ground for manned Mars missions.
Aside from an interstate that slices through the scenic landscape, this patch of desert sits virtually untouched.
The region’s terrain and remoteness makes it one of the best analogs for Mars that exists on Earth.
Zubrin founded the Mars Society in 1998, of which he is currently president, and built two simulated Mars exploration stations — one in the Canadian Arctic and one in Utah. The Arctic location is more “Mars-like,” but has taken a backseat to Utah’s Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), where it is less expensive to live and conduct experiments.
For two weeks at a time, a six-person team composed of scientists and students cuts ties with civilisation to don bulky spacesuits, zip around on all-terrain vehicles, and collect rock samples.
The idea is for team members to operate as if they were really bopping around the Red Planet, from the clothes they would be required to wear outside of their spacecraft to the foods they would eat.
This is a dress rehearsal for sending humans to Mars, Zubrin told Business Insider, quickly brushing off the suggestion that it sounds an “awful lot like space camp with fancier equipment.”
“It’s not that at all,” he said.
This is not space camp
In 2004, Jack Jones, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked with Zubrin on a solar-heated balloon designed to land on Mars. Although the space agency decided not to fund the project, Jones described Zubrin as an “extremely enthusiastic, creative, and talented engineer.”
As for Zubrin’s latest project, the Mars research station “sounds like a fantastic simulation of an actual manned Mars planetary mission,” Jones told Business Insider.
Zubrin, 61, grew up during a period when America’s leadership was engaged in a fierce competition to dominate space exploration.
“I was 17 when we landed on the moon, and if anyone had told me then that I’d be 61 and we’d have not landed on Mars — or even that people were not going to the Moon anymore — I would have thought they were nuts,” said Zubrin. “We were on the brink of opening up space, and we just stopped.”
Several companies are now betting on sending the first humans to Mars by the end of the century. Recent space initiatives like NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover and plans to mine an asteroid have opened the door to a new era of deep space projects.
The case for Mars
People don’t need to visit Mars. Then again, Christopher Columbus didn’t have to risk his life to sail across the ocean in search of new land. But he did, and our global perspective expanded because of it.
Humans are naturally curious. By exploring space, we not only fulfil an innate human desire, we also help society evolve by gaining information about the diversity of life in the universe.
Plus, Earth won’t be around forever. If we challenge ourselves now, then “200 years from now there will be branches of a new civilisation on Mars,” said Zubrin.
A dry run for Mars
Beyond safety, staying true to the simulation has been Zubrin’s main priority since he commanded the very first desert Mars crew about 10 years ago.
That means crew members cannot step outside of their cylindrical “space habitat” without the proper gear and air supply packs; they must repair their own equipment; handle fieldwork and lab work; grow their own food; and communicate with remote science teams.
“My main thing is figuring out how to conduct an effective field exploration while handling all constraints you would find on Mars,” he said. “If you could get a really valuable sample by taking off the glove, I would say ‘no, we’ll come back tomorrow with the right tool to gather the sample with our space glove on.'”
It’s about answering all the “what ifs?” that might pop up in a foreign and likely hostile environment.
For example, what are the most useful pieces of field equipment? An enclosed SUV that offers protection against the elements, or an open vehicle that requires the driver to wear a spacesuit, but provides the flexibility of being able to reach down and pick up a sample? And, do you put the whole crew on one rotation or on watches so they are up at different times?
Each team goes for two weeks at a time and sets their own goals. Some teams are less concerned about mastering the art of human space exploration; they would rather break character for the sake of science.
“Those are two different methods,” said Zubrin. “If one team needed to stray from the simulation in order to test ground-penetrating radar, for example, they would do it.”
The human challenge
Isolation, boredom, decreased activity, and lack of sleep are all concerns in sending astronauts on an exploration of deep space.
A 520-day simulated Mars mission conducted between 2010 and 2011 by Russian scientists found that being cooped up for that long made the six-man crew sleepy, slow, and grumpy — not good traits for astronauts.
NASA, too, has long claimed that the most formidable challenge humans would face on Mars would be isolation and boredom.
That’s a complete mistake, says Zubrin. If you look at human history, there are plenty of instances where people were far more isolated than they will be on a trip to Mars.
NASA’s finding was largely based on human factor studies of U.S. Navy enlisted men on a base in Antarctica.
“Those guys were bored,” said Zubrin. “They didn’t want to be there. They wanted to be in San Diego where they can go out on the pier on Friday night and pick up girls.”
Test runs at Mars Society’s research station in the Arctic, on the other hand, have found that overwork, not boredom, is the key challenge.
The Arctic team was primarily composed of scientists who were very driven. These researchers had waited a long time to be place in this environment to do their research. They were so overzealous that they had to be ordered to stop working at night.
The Mars mission is “not about sitting in a room playing chess waiting for your 500 days to be up,” said Zubrin.
The perfect crew
The reality is that a Mars mission would take at least two and a half years, not a brief two weeks in the remote desert.
If the desert research station was playing by those rules, however, then the base would have been home to just four crews in the last decade, as opposed to 127.
Zubrin argues that if the goal is make general inferences about how humans interact with each other under trying circumstances, then you need larger numbers of people. Otherwise, the data could be seriously skewed based on who was picked for the crew.
There are plenty of instances, he said, where a person performed well in one crew and bad in another.
To get involved, individuals or groups, typically from a university or foreign country, can respond to an annual open call for volunteers.
Although the society provides food, housing, and equipment, accepted applicants will have to shell out $1,000, while students pay $500.
Explorers have come in all different shapes and sizes: all men crews, all women, all Austrian, all American, mixed international, young crews, and old crews. The purpose is to find the ideal combination of age, race, skill, and personality types to make up the first human team that blasts off to Mars.
Zubrin acknowledges that MDRS is not the final word in Mars research. It should be supplemented by insights and studies from organisations, like NASA.
Based on that information, Zubrin believes the next step would be to pick four very promising crews based on different principles.
It then becomes a game of survival of the fittest — placing crews under the most Mars-like environment for at least one year and enforcing the most Mars-like rules.
The team that performs the best, is the the crew you would want to send to Mars.
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