Hab, Sweet Hab

(From left, rear) Steve Featherstone, Commander Gus Frederick,Gregorio Drayer; (front) Kathleen Johnson, Alyssa Rzeszutko, Greg Michael.

Syracuse, N.Y.; Monday, April 10, 2004—A week before his State of the Union address last January, President Bush announced a new initiative that, if fulfilled, could put humans on Mars within our lifetime. Bush’s speech was timed to coincide with the landings of NASA’s two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. Spirit was already transmitting back fantastic panoramas of the bleak Martian desert, and Opportunity was only days away from touching down on the red planet.

But the news failed to ignite a spark with an American public preoccupied with the increasingly bleak images broadcast from a desert right here on Earth. Pundits attacked Bush’s pie-in-the-sky plan as further evidence he was out of touch with the reality of the war in Iraq. One small section of the choir paid especially close attention to his speech, however. Members of the Mars Society—an international group of scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts dedicated to promoting human exploration and settlement of Mars—were thrilled that Bush had legitimized a subject that had for decades been the sole province of cheesy science fiction movies. But even they didn’t fully endorse Bush’s proposal.

The Mars Society wants to send people to Mars today.

In the early 1990s, the Mars Society’s founder, president, and cosmological gadfly, Dr. Robert Zubrin, developed a blueprint called “Mars Direct” while he was employed as a staff engineer for Lockheed Martin Astronautics. In it he detailed how NASA could send humans to Mars right now using off-the-shelf technology. Contrary to Bush’s current plan, Zubrin eschews the development of expensive new space vehicles and unnecessary detours to the moon. He insists that the job could be accomplished easier, faster, and cheaper by squeezing a crew of Type-A personalities into a rocket, blasting them toward Mars, and letting them figure out the rest once they get there.

Zubrin’s blueprint—at least the parts of it that don’t require rocket propulsion—is put to the test at two research stations operated by the Mars Society in remote locations chosen for their similarity to what we know about Martian geology: one in the frozen tundra of northern Canada and the other in the high desert of southeast Utah. For a few months of the year, crews of six volunteers are selected from a pool of applicants to live and work at the stations in a “simulated Mars environment.” That is, they pretend they are actually on Mars.

If crewmembers want to go outside the habitat module to stretch their legs, they need to file an EVA (Extra-Vehicular Activity) plan for their commander’s approval. They put on bulky canvas space suits, oxygen packs, portable VHF radios, helmets, gloves, and rubber boots. Thus encumbered, they can safely venture outside, but only after depressurizing inside an airlock for 20 minutes. Water is strictly rationed (according to Zubrin, water won’t be transported to Mars but generated in situ from available Martian resources). There’s even a mission support team in northern California, assumed to be 100 million miles away but still reachable via the Internet, that troubleshoots technical problems such as broken-down rovers and faulty water pumps. During the prescribed communications window, crewmembers are required to submit daily reports in their area of responsibility or expertise. The mission support team not only reads these reports, they also make comments on them and often ask for clarifications. Bureaucracy is one element that Zubrin didn’t streamline.

How much any of this “research” brings humanity closer to establishing a presence on Mars is debatable. Most recently, a team from NASA’s Ames Research Center spent two weeks at the station in Utah field-testing a mobile telemetry system that might one day link Mars astronauts, rovers, and earthbound mission-control personnel in a real-time communications network. When I applied for a crew slot and was asked what expertise I possessed, I referred to a guidebook I’d just published about using GPS receivers in the backcountry. Although it lacks a satellite-based navigation system, Mars has plenty of backcountry. If that failed to impress, I casually mentioned that some of my best friends were aerospace engineers. In the end, the fact I was a journalist was good enough for the publicity-minded Mars Society, and I was accepted for a two-week rotation as a member of Crew 28.

I lifted off from New York and drove 2,200 miles without stopping, a trip that would challenge the endurance of an Apollo astronaut. (What’s space compared to the howling void of central Nebraska at 3 in the morning?) Five miles west of Hanksville, Utah, I turned off the highway onto Cow Dung Road and descended a steep dirt track that twisted around jagged boulders and high outcroppings of crumbling orange rock. The sun was beginning to set. In the slanting light, the stark landscape gave off an unearthly, ochre glow. I’d read somewhere that James Cameron, film director (Titanic, TheTerminator, Aliens) and Mars Society member, had once scouted this location for a movie because of its resemblance to Mars; or rather, because of its resemblance to what movie audiences imagined Mars to look like. Cameron passed the information to Zubrin, and the Mars Society’s corporate donors erected a research station upon a patch of sand leased from the Bureau of Land Management.

A tiny yellow arrow painted with the word “Hab” pointed west. The car swayed and rocked around a rutted bend in the road and the Hab came into full view: a squat white cylinder set against a dramatic backdrop of barren, rust-colored hills. Nothing else suggested the presence of human civilization, not a single utility pole, jet contrail, or sparkle of broken glass. Maybe it was the 15 cups of gas station coffee pumping through my veins, or lack of sleep, but I felt a tingling sense of wonderment come over me. James Cameron himself couldn’t have built a more convincing Mars set. I drove behind a large mound of chalky red dirt opposite the Hab. I didn’t want to ruin the scene by parking a bright yellow Subaru smack in the middle of it.