You can tell the scientists in this picture are only in a Mars simulation – their lungs and internal organs haven’t exploded. But their research in the Utah desert is deadly serious: it could save our planet

Words: Warren Pole

(Live magazine, Mail on Sunday)

AFTER FIVE HOURS of empty blacktop since Vegas, it’s hard to know if Hanksville (pop. 200) is real or not. There’s hasn’t been another car for 40 miles. The Utah sun is sinking into the desert horizon. I pull into a petrol station – where there is no sign of the man who was supposed to meet me and guide me from here. A helpful local tells me where to go. ‘Up the road a way. Take a right. North. You’re looking at about five miles in.’ He means five miles into the desert. I pull out of Hanksville and hang a random right turn. There are no roads, no signs – not that I could see them if there were; the darkness is now absolute. I have to use a compass. How does it work? North is easy, isn’t it? I just have to follow the needle. Within seconds I am bouncing cross-country across the scrub. For two hours I criss-cross the bible-black nothingness, mapping my route by torchlight as best I can in a notepad at my side. Thank goodness I’m in a Land Rover and not the hire car that was originally planned.

Then I round the vast black outline of a giant rock outcrop and see a heavenly sight – a bright white shining cylinder, two storeys tall. It is the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), this planet’s only functioning Martian habitat simulation facility. I reflect on the nature of my arrival and consider it to have been a fitting approach path.

Knocking on the door somewhat spoils the illusion, but unless I want to sleep in the minus eight freeze of the winter desert night, it’s my only option. It’s almost midnight. Commander William Durocher, a 24-year-old space engineering post-grad student, and crew engineer Tom Haylock, also 24, swing open the giant door and invite me in, breaking their two-week Martian simulation briefly by exiting the station without their space suits, and sparing me the tedium of ten minutes in the mock airlock.

Inside, the ground floor of the station is partitioned into several areas. The one for engineering, electronics and robot development work has more tools than B&Q; another houses an array of scientific measuring, weighing, cooling, heating and handling equipment; next to that, there’s a cavernous room full of white suits and helmets.

Climbing the ladder in the corner leads up to the main living area above. Strewn with cables, laptops, radios, and with its walls plastered with Martian maps and memorabilia from past crews, the general ambience is of a very full and cosy student flat. They have chilli on the go – thankfully, they don’t eat space food. I meet the people I’m spending the next day and night with. They’re mid-twenties scientists and engineer whizzkids. They have the zeal of a common goal: they all want to go to Mars.

Operated by the privately funded Mars Society, the MDRS exists ‘to give a platform for scientific research as to what life is like on Mars and to prove to larger space agencies that Mars is a viable option’, Artemis Westenberg, one of the society’s directors explained to me before I headed out here. Until now, most astronauts have had military backgrounds. ‘What we need to know is not whether a pilot can stand the stress of space, but can scientists do it and not lose their creativity at the same time?’ At the MDRS they get the chance to find out.

After a fractured night’s sleep in my sleeping bag among the discarded PCs, furniture and boxes of the station’s loft (there are just six berths here and they’re already filled with the crew), I clamber down into the living area for breakfast and peer from one of the station’s portholes at the red, barren, Mars-like landscape beyond. As far as simulations go, it’s a powerful one. No wonder Nasa scientists use this area to test spacesuits.

Over an all-American breakfast of pancakes and syrup with coffee, Durocher expands on why man should go to Mars. ‘It’s a place human civilisation can expand to,’ he says. ‘Civilisations rise and fall and we need protection from that.

Martian breakfast: pancakes and syrup

In the Sixties when Nasa had a presidential imperative from Kennedy to go to the Moon they were more than willing to take risks, but now the culture has changed and things have to be safer. That’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t hold us back. We shouldn’t be so afraid to lose a life that we don’t go. If people can die fighting for their country I think it’s just as valuable they risk their lives exploring our solar system’.

To foray into the desert – or rather, the Martian atmosphere – we climb into the unwieldy space suits. They are not the suits you would actually use: the aim here is simulation, not replication, so they are merely very cumbersome, which is what the real suits would have to be. On Mars, oxygen levels are almost 200 times lower than on Earth, so unaided breathing would be impossible. Average temperatures of –53°C would destroy any exposed flesh. But step out unsuited and these would be the least of your worries. The pressure on the Martian surface is one per cent of that here on Earth. So our lungs would burst, along with the rest of our internal organs.  

Having waited inside the airlock and heaved open its door, I stumble slowly out into the dusty barren landscape. Overheating, I lumber forward. A tinny voice crackles through the radio in my helmet, echoing loudly enough to be painful yet unclear enough that I have to ask the sender to repeat, a mission in itself as with huge gloves on it’s as much as I can do to find the transmit button on my suit, let alone press it.

‘Repeat, over’, I garble, hoping I’ve hit the button cleanly.

At work outside the MDRS deep in the Utah desert

‘We’re heading to Phobos Peak.’ Durocher is just feet away but sealed inside our helmets, these radios are the only communication we have.

Simple movements become highly constrained in the suits, and performing delicate tasks like bagging soil samples would be a nightmare because of the bulky gloves. Combine this experience with the confined close-quarters living and working inside a station exactly the same dimensions as would be expected on Mars and this project begins to make more sense.

‘I’m from Sri Lanka, a country torn apart by civil war, and I’ve always felt that space is something that can bring us together,’ says engineer Nimal Navarathinam, 25, a masters student working on power systems for small satellites, who has developed a radar to search for ice on Mars. His next aim after the MDRS is a placement at the European Space Agency.

Nancy Soontiens, the crew’s executive officer, is just 23 and is studying advanced fluid mechanics with a particular interest in looking at the behaviour of Martian dust. Tom Haylock, who specialises in what he terms ‘human systems integration’, is developing a Mars rover outside in the desert. Simply being around like-minded people is, it seems, a lot of what MDRS is about.

‘Being surrounded by people who share the same passions and have an appreciation for space exploration and science is great, says Janine Baijnath, a 21-year-old studying atmospheric science. ‘Just being around the table, conversation is very stimulating. It motivates you to continue in that direction.’

There are still parts I struggle with though. Like the ‘green hab’ that sits next to the station. Here, water is recycled and plants are grown, as could be necessary on Mars. But using Earth soil and water drawn from a well, isn’t this just an amateur greenhouse? I’m sure the Eden Project is a little ahead in this field.

But funding at the MDRS is clearly limited. The Mars Society relies on private donations and supporters include Elon Musk, Tesla Motors owner and one of the only active commercial space pioneers on the planet.

Nonetheless, there is something inspiring about the Society’s rhetoric and the ability it has to expose scientists to Martian-like conditions and protocol for living and working, allowing them to develop their own thinking, which could one day benefit the holy grail of Mars exploration. Its weaknesses lie in its quaintly basic set-up and its inability to turn a bountiful supply of ideas into truly meaningful action.

This smart motivated bunch out in the desert remain open-minded and idealistic but somewhat detached from the realities of the enormous funding needed to initiate a Mars mission, not to mention the delicate balancing of the various political agendas essential to secure that finance.

The real world of Nasa is a very different place.

Security is tight at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) 750 miles away in Pasadena, just outside Los Angeles. This is where Nasa was born, where America’s first ever satellite was built, and it’s home to the agency’s push to Mars. Some 5,000 people work here.

Mission Control, NASA. Looks just like it does in the movies

Callas, project manager of NASA’s Mars exploration rovers, is adamant about why we should be interested in exploring Mars.

‘Because scientifically Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our solar system,’ he explains. ‘We now know it once had water and a thicker atmosphere more like ours. Like the Earth it’s also tilted on its axis, has four distinct annual seasons, poles at the northern and southern tips, and polar caps. Of any other planet, Mars has the greatest potential to have supported life, and could be supporting life today.’

The evidence Nasa is amassing in the search for that life, including the recent discovery of methane there, is compelling. ‘Living creatures produce methane,’ says Callas, ‘and it’s one of the building blocks for life.’

This discovery comes on top of the evidence for water found last year. ‘Today Mars is cold, barren and dry. But geology suggests there was sustained water on the surface of Mars for a very long time in the ancient past. Today the atmospheric pressure on Mars is so low that water can’t exist as a liquid – there’s only ice or vapour. When water did exist, there had to be a much more Earth-like pressure than there is on Mars today.

‘We can estimate this as being about three-and-a-half to four billion years ago, which is when life started on Earth. So back then there are two worlds. One is Earth, the other Mars, and both have water, both have thick atmospheres. Life starts on one, but not the other. Why?’

Callas’s own project has two rover vehicles currently on Mars, while the more advanced rover Mars Science Laboratory is scheduled to launch in the autumn of 2011 at a rumoured cost of $2 billion (see panel).

Called Spirit and Opportunity, these rovers have been roaming the red planet for five years and are still there, beaming images daily over 200 million miles back to Earth. Using their own transmitters the rovers fire the shots 1,000 miles to one of three satellites orbiting Mars which then send the data back to Earth where it’s picked up by Nasa’s Deep Space Network of parabolic dish antennae around the globe, all of which have cryogenically-cooled receivers for maximum sensitivity. From here they’re relayed to Mission Control at the JPL.

It’s all impressively hi-tech, although less so when you consider their speed. The range of the rovers travelling the Martian surface outstrips anything that has gone before, but they have still travelled just 13 miles in five years – an average speed of 0.0001mph.

But there is plenty of advanced technology at Nasa, and we’ve been capable of launching spacecraft to Mars for years – so shouldn’t we have had men on Mars a long time ago?

The major barrier to a successful mission is payload. The fuel needed

for a two-way Martian trip would require a payload that would outstrip any LAUNCHING ROCKETS currently available, so new equipment must be built from scratch. But the Mars Society’s founder, Robert Zubrin, has come up with a way of slashing this cost. It’s called Mars Direct, and it sounds very neat indeed. The Mars Society’s UK boss, Bo Maxwell outlines it. ‘The Martian atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide, and there’s a common reaction where you combine it with hydrogen to create methane – a fuel. So instead of carrying fuel for both directions to Mars, you carry six tons of hydrogen and a chemical plant that can make the 96 tons of fuel needed for the return journey on the Martian surface.

‘To further save weight, this spacecraft, the Earth Return Vehicle (ERV) goes unmanned. Then two years later – the windows when it’s possible to get to Mars are every 26 months – a second spacecraft goes up along with the crew, who already know there’s a craft fuelled and ready to bring them back. It’s like leaving your car in the long-stay car park at Heathrow but on a larger scale.

‘These loads could be taken to Mars using modified Space Shuttle technology, also saving the main expense of building new rockets’.

A Mars Habitat Unit (MHU) would be sent up on the second rocket, which could become a permanent Martian base. Once established on the planet, one of the Society’s suggested plans is to then ‘terraform’ Mars, to replace and replenish its atmosphere and return it to the more life-friendly environment it once was billions of years ago.

In theory, Mars Direct sounds like a smart plan, and even the response of Richard Cook, manager of Nasa’s next lander project, doesn’t dismiss it instantly. ‘It is theoretically possible, but it depends on your tolerance to risk, because with a plan like that people might not be coming back.’

The problem is knowing that the fuelling reaction would work once there. Science says it will, but it’s not yet been tested on Mars. ‘So then you think, “Well, let’s send a mission first to prove fuel production works”,’ says Cook. ‘That’s a billion dollar project. So it’s Catch 22 – do you slowly build your capability, or do you just take a shot? And that’s what Mars Direct is. It’s taking a shot’.

For 2009, Nasa will be given $17.6 billon across all of its projects. According to Barry Goldstein, project manager for the Phoenix lander, Mars exploration receives around one per cent of this, or $176 million. That will pay for a lot more research, but it won’t put a man on Mars.

It remains to be seen whether President Obama will follow Kennedy’s Moon lead and initiate a ten-year plan for Mars. If he’s considering it, he certainly hasn’t told Nasa yet. The Mars Society, as ever, has a brighter view. Artemis Westenberg tells me, ‘We talked with Obama’s Nasa transition team (the six advisers the president chose to oversee the changeover) and just from the people he picked for that job you can see they have “manned space flight” written all over them.’

Despite their optimism, the response from Nasa suggests it’s unlikely there’s going to be a sudden cash injection heading in a Martian direction soon.

So when will we see a man on Mars?

‘To do a ‘hail Mary’ one-shot kind of thing and take a picture of a man stood there with a flag, we could probably do that in 20 years,’ says Nasa’s Richard Cook. ‘Or we’re going to do a very steady expansion in which case it could be 50 years. That’s not a long time looking at the big picture. But for all of us it seems like forever.

‘Time has convinced people this is easy. But the problems we face with each step are getting so much harder.’

But try telling that to the six MDRS dwellers currently holed up in the Utah desert - living on a 'Martian' planet, keeping their dream alive.


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