Over the Moon
This warms my sciencefictional and scientific heart!
July 30, 2005
Over the Moon
By JOHN TIERNEY
DEVON ISLAND, Nunavut
While the Discovery has been orbiting Earth, I've been on Mars. More precisely, I've been on a desolate island in the Canadian high Arctic with six people in a mock spaceship they're pretending has landed on Mars. This is a strange exercise, but it is easier to explain than the shuttle's mission.
The Marsonauts, as these unpaid scientists call themselves, have been tromping around in spacesuits to dig up fossils and look for other signs of life in a huge meteor crater that may be the most Mars-like bit of real estate on this planet.
The Discovery, meanwhile, is gazing at its navel. The astronauts' primary mission is to discover, with the aid of new cameras trained on the shuttle, whether it's safe for them to be up there.
The answer was clear well before the latest bits of foam fell off. Sending astronauts on the shuttle isn't worth the risk, and not simply because of its design flaws. For all its problems, the shuttles have safely returned from 98 percent of their missions, which may well be the highest success rate of any exploration program in history.
The real problem with this exploration program is that it doesn't explore anything. Three decades after going to the Moon, NASA is sending astronauts a few hundred miles above Earth to conduct high school science experiments. Can you name anything - besides repairing the Hubble Telescope - they've accomplished?
They've delivered cargo and people to the space station, but that could be done far more cheaply and safely with old-fashioned rockets and capsules. Phasing out the shuttle quickly would be painful for the armies of government and aerospace-industry workers who've made a career out of it, but it would liberate NASA.
Instead of striving to produce a foolproof short-haul truck, NASA could try looking at space travel the way the Marsonauts do. They're not obsessed with worry about a little foam falling off their ship. Most of them said they'd go on the first mission to Mars even if the odds were only one in four of making it back alive.
"If it was the rest of my life - the end of my life - I would go to Mars," said Judd Reed, a 44-year-old software engineer from Santa Rosa, Calif. He's the commander of the team of unpaid scientists here from the Mars Society, a private group of enthusiasts determined to reach what they call the New World.
They don't have the money for the trip yet, but they do have a plan for getting there soon (more on that in another column), so they're already plotting logistics. They live in a round "habitation module" that's 27 feet in diameter, sized to fit atop existing rockets, with a lab on one floor and the crew quarters above it.
The Marsonauts are sticklers for staying "in sim," simulating every inconvenience they can imagine on Mars. No venturing outside the Hab without at least half an hour of preparation: putting on a spacesuit and helmet, wiring a radio, and going through five minutes of decompression in the airlock. No removing a glove to dig for a fossil. No food or bathroom breaks in the field.
They have their own jargon ("HabCom, EVA11 is ready to begin its egress de-co") and their own bureaucracy. Reports are filed nightly to Mission Support and the Remote Science Team, a group of researchers on three continents who are referred to as "the scientists back on Earth." There's even a Martian tricolor - a red, green and blue flag flapping above the Hab to symbolize their plans to "terraform" Mars into a green planet with liquid water and a breathable atmosphere.
I know this all sounds silly. I arrived sympathetic to the Marsonauts' cause, but ready to write a wryly detached column on an amusing bunch of zealots. Their fantasy sounded like a futurist version of explornography: the simulation of exploration by people trekking through terra cognita on adventure vacations.
But the Marsonauts are really figuring out how to explore the unknown, how to look for life in a place worth risking lives to reach. By the second day here, I was caught up in the sim, too. As we returned to our home on the edge of the crater, the white Hab up on the rocky brown ridge looked like a spaceship on Mars, and the sight was a bigger thrill than anything that's lifted off from Cape Canaveral in a long time.
Maureen Dowd is on leave until Aug. 10.
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For Further Reading:
Reports from the Hab, the Mars Society's Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station on Devon Island: www.marssociety.org/arctic/.
Reports from the Haughton-Mars Project, a separate group of researchers on Devon Island: www.marsonearth.org/
The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must by Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society (Free Press, 368 pp., November 1997)
a.. Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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