Living on Mars (without leaving Earth)

Two groups--one civilian, and one institutional--are living the Martian life the only way they can: here on earth.
Written by John Herrman, Contributor

Founded in 1998 and operating almost exclusively off the generosity of its members, the Mars Society has created a manned Martian outpost. One catch: It's in Utah.

VBS Motherboard takes us inside the organization's Mars simulator in Utah (the other is in a barren area of Canada), where members are living an approximation of a life on the Red Planet. (Video below.) Water and food supplies are limited, inhabitants must suit up before they step outside, and the small, rotating crew of up to six people live in tight quarters, with minimal contact with the outside world.

The goals of the Mars Society are primarily aspirational: They want to encourage manned travel to Mars by fostering public support, raising political awareness and, where they can, contributing knowledge gained from their so-called Mars Analogue Research Station (MARS) outposts. The operation is modest, and some of its participants could be dismissed as dreamers. But silhouetted against the barren desert plateau, this base could almost be mistaken for a glimpse into humanity's far-flung future.

Meanwhile, six astronauts are nearing the fourth month of their ESA-backed, 520-day mission to Mars--in the outskirts of Moscow.

This mission is the third and longest leg in a series called the Mars 500 project, headed up by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Biomedical Problems with the ESA. Its mission is decidedly more specific than the Mars Society's, and altogether more daunting: It's intended to prove how--or even if--six crew members would be able to live in close quarters, and in relative isolation from the outside world, for the time required to get to Mars and back. (The Phoenix Mars Lander took about nine months to travel one way.)

Communication with the crew is subject to a 20-minute time delay, so their interaction with the outside world is somewhat stunted. They do, however, keep and publish diaries. A representative entry published two weeks ago, by crew member Romain Charles:

Our first days were spent getting used to our environment for all our basic needs such as food, cleaning and so on. Our adaptability was our most important skill. The end of June and the month of July were focused on our 100 experiments. We were often in contact with the scientists to make sure that the data we would gather for more than a year and a half was okay. Over the last six weeks we have settled into a smooth routine, which allows us to spend more time on our personal projects...

We don’t focus too much on the days left before we 'come back to Earth'. Instead, we spend all our energy trying to make everyday a good day.

This kind of optimism and focus is as essential a commodity as any in the Mars 500 project: Re-entry isn't scheduled until November of 2011, over a year from today.

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