When the explorers look through the porthole of their Mars habitat, they see a wilderness of red rocks with mineral staining. The view is reminiscent of a harsh southern Utah desert.
In fact, it is a southern Utah desert near Hanksville, Wayne County, a landscape that looks as much like Mars photos radioed by robotic spacecraft as anywhere on Earth.
NASA and the Mars Society — a nonprofit, privately funded group — established the Mars Desert Research Station in 2002. Staffed by volunteers rotating in and out, the station follows strict rules to make the situation seem as if it were on the red planet. Crews live in confined spaces, conduct scientific research, use robots and wear imitation spacesuits when they venture outside, according to NASA.
The project is expected to pay dividends in designing real stations on the moon and Mars, as well as in learning about the way people interact under such unusual conditions.
The level of realism is so high that on Sunday a Deseret Morning News interview with Jennifer L. Heldmann, commander of the present crew, took longer to complete than one might expect. Communication was by e-mail, and Heldmann waited five minutes after the arrival of each query before opening it, the better to mimic the time that a question would take to make the journey from Earth to Mars.
Besides Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., crew members are LaTasha Taylor, a student from the University of Washington; Genoveva Negron, a teacher from Puerto Rico; Robert Citron, a student from the University of Chicago; J.R. Skok, a Cornell University student; and Ben Corbin, a student from the University of Central Florida.
"We have been in the Habitat since Dec. 9, so this is our ninth day 'on Mars' here in Utah," Heldmann wrote in an e-mail. "We will be leaving the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) on Dec. 22. ... The goal of this program is to bring students and teachers into the field to train and inspire the next generation of space explorers."
Asked to describe the Habitat (the proper name for the living quarters), she said it is shaped like a cylinder and has two floors. Downstairs are the laboratory, bathroom and extravehicular activity preparation room, where the spacesuits are kept.
Everybody has a private room, and the Habitat is heated with propane. Power comes from a diesel generator and batteries.
The Hanksville vicinity bears a striking resemblance to the martian landscape, she added. "Looking out the porthole of our Habitat here in Utah shows a scene that looks like several of the landing sites on Mars where we have sent robotic spacecraft.
"The red Utah rocks contain iron just as the rocks on Mars do. There are other geologic features such as water-carved channels, mineral deposits, layered rocks, etc., that are similar to features we are discovering on Mars with robots."
The crew is comfortable, Heldmann added. "Each day here at MDRS is very busy as we try to accomplish all of the science and engineering goals, and so everyone has multiple tasks each day."
For recreation, the crew can watch DVDs or read books. Some play cards, and they keep one other entertained. "We try to schedule some time (especially on weekends) for recreation since it is difficult to work 16-hour days for two weeks straight," she wrote.
"For example, after our work was done yesterday (Saturday), we watched the movie 'Red Planet."'
The spacesuits seemed cumbersome at first, but the "astronauts" are getting used to working outside in them. It's much more difficult to do fieldwork, such as collecting samples and making notes, while wearing the large bulky suits, she said.
"But these are the challenges that astronauts on Mars will face, and so we are practicing them here on Earth first."
Asked how people relate to each other in the close quarters of the Habitat, she replied, "Thus far everyone gets along just fine.
"This is a very important point, though, and highlights the issues of crew selection. It is critical that the members of an expedition to Mars are able to get along — you will be living and working with the same people for about two years."
Finally, the newspaper asked if she would want to travel to the red planet for real. Heldmann wrote back, "I certainly hope to go to Mars someday."