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?"