Meet the People Living in Simulations of Life on Mars

Smithsonian magazine explores the many Mars simulation facilities around the world, including the Mars Desert Research Station — which is located in Utah, four hours south of Salt Lake City, "but everyone spoke and acted as though they were actually on Mars." A group of six people lived in a two-story cylindrical building. The commander, a former member of the Army National Guard, kept the participants on a strict schedule of fixing electrical systems, taking inventory, tidying up the facilities and sampling the soil. Everyone was assigned a special role: [photographer] Klos' was to prepare reports to share with the public. The health safety officer kept tabs on the crew's well-being, and the engineer monitored levels of carbon dioxide and solar power. Before stepping outside in a spacesuit, Klos and the others had to get permission from mission control back on "Earth" (actually a coordinator stationed in a nearby town). That person would send information about the winds and weather, and determine how long each person could stay outside the base. Sometimes dust storms rolled in, cutting off the solar power supply just as they would on Mars... There are about a dozen such habitats around the globe, hosting simulations that run anywhere from two weeks to a full year. One of these is run by NASA's Human Research Program at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. But other facilities are funded by private organizations. The Mars Society, established by Brooklyn-born aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, operates the habitat in Utah, where Klos returned for another mission in 2017, and another in the Canadian Arctic. Klos also took part in a mission at the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS. The facility is run by the International MoonBase Alliance, a group founded by the Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers. HI-SEAS is located on Hawaii's big island at 8,200 feet above sea level, on top of the active volcano Mauna Loa. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is collaborating with the facility to gather information about volcanic caves and the microbes that live in those Mars-like conditions. HI-SEAS is also studying the limitations of doing that kind of work while wearing heavy spacesuits. It's hard enough for astronauts to hold a screwdriver in a gloved hand while repairing the International Space Station, but if people are going to be clambering on Martian rocks looking for microbes, they'll need the right gear. The article notes these missions "are open to people who have no background in science, engineering or astronaut training. After all, the goal is to send ordinary folks into space, so it's worth finding out whether ordinary folks can coexist in Mars-like conditions here on Earth." (Some are even recruited off the internet.) "Sometimes people make the critique that we're role-playing too much," the photographer tells the magazine. "But the goal is to really live the way people are going to live on Mars so scientists can figure out how to make it work when we get there." And the article also points out that "The data we're gathering now about surviving on solar power, conserving water and growing plants in arid conditions could be useful here at home as our climate changes."

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