Life on Mars Simulated by Crew in Utah Desert

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The first extra vehicular activity, for example, was fixing a water pump that took two people clad in the bulky canvas and plastic space suits a couple of hours rather than a few minutes.

An unexpected time sucker was meal preparation, which occupied 16.5 man-hours per day to cook macrobiotic foods. These are primarily organically grown green leaf vegetables and grains, which are thought might be easier to grow on Mars. "We ate so much kale and this rice product called moshi that our meals were more like science experiments than a stress release," Morphew said.

According to several crewmembers, this is the highest fidelity Mars simulation ever completed. The crew had no media exposure, a 45-minute time delay was imposed on all Internet communication, there were no phones, and the crew spent 20 minutes in the air lock before entering the "Martian" landscape in full spacesuits.

The two-week schedule that the crew adopted was taken from the Mars Reference Mission—a NASA operations manual that details activities that might occur during a 500-day mission to Mars. Snook chose a two-week period in the middle of this manual as a basic outline for the activities and studied how their actual schedule differed.

Aside from the hygiene and food preparation, the primary scientific goals of this mission were real. The team used all terrain vehicles (ATVs) that resemble moon buggies to investigate "desert varnish"—thin coatings of metals and clays formed by colonies of microbes living on the inhospitable desert rocks. This project was Boston's primary scientific goal until she crashed the ATV on the first day and was confined to microscope work inside the hab with a couple of severely bruised or broken ribs.

Similar geological studies on Mars might reveal signs of life. The team also embarked on exploratory missions to a 2,000-foot (610-meter) high monolith northwest of Hanksville, called Factory Butte, navigating the treacherous canyons and valleys and travelling more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) to reach the site—further than any other ATV mission.

One of the most creative projects was ICoMP—the Interplanetary Collaboratory Music Project. The goal was to test communication by composing songs by collaborating with musicians outside the Habitat "on Earth."

"We chose music because you know immediately whether the collaboration is working," Snook said. While only three were originally slated for the experiment, all of the crew participated using it as a major stress release.

The team did consider the experience a fairly solid simulation. Issues that plague inhabitants of the international space station also affected the crew, Morphew said. "We didn't have all the tools we needed and we have to be very creative with what we had—we couldn't just take off to Radio Shack and pick up a few things," Snook said.

NASA's approach to Mars missions is "people on Earth and robots out there," said Jim Garvin, lead scientist for Mars Exploration at NASA headquarters. In the next few decades NASA intends to launch a slew of robot missions and eventually bring a little piece of Mars back to Earth. But a manned mission to Mars is probably decades away, Garvin said.

Burbank admitted that while he is keen for humans to visit Mars, "I'm not in quite as big a rush to get there myself. After two weeks in the desert station I was left with a profound urge to visit the Earth—a whole planet to be explored. And you don't even need a space suit."

Sam Burbank's Mars series airs this week on National Geographic Today.

National Geographic Today, at 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news journal available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it. Go>>

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