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Space research in a Utah desert: how volunteers pave the way to Mars

They learn to take short showers, put on space suits, and do experiments in the desert. Around the world, more than 1,000 volunteers with a passion for space have been participating in simulated missions to the Red Planet for the past two decades. These scientists isolate themselves in a Mars-like environment for weeks, learning lessons that could help prepare humans for the demands of a real-life mission.

In Utah, for example, teams of six to seven rely on solar power, eat prepackaged frozen meals, grow crops and vegetables, dress up to study rocks, and track water use.

why are we writing this

For space lovers, traveling to Mars is the ultimate fantasy. These volunteers are harnessing their own dreams of space travel to help solve some of the logistical hurdles for all of humanity.

Collaboration is essential but challenging. “We had communication problems,” says Christiane Heinicke, who heads the Moon and Mars Base Analog project at the University of Bremen in Germany. “We said, ‘Okay, we have to figure this out. We have to find a solution. And that was what helped us continue with the third quarter.”

“We’re not going to leave Earth to leave Earth’s problems behind,” says Shannon Rupert, who leads missions in the United States supported by The Mars Society. “Going to Mars…makes us look into the future, not just on Mars, but here: what do we want Earth to look like when we’re on Mars?”

The calm of the morning was broken when an urgent cry for help rang out from Clément Plagne’s spacesuited crewmates. It was day 3 of this simulated excursion to the red planet and things were getting complicated.

“I’m not getting air from the suit,” a crewmate radioed. “If this wasn’t Earth, I’d be dead right now.”

“We have to return to the Hab immediately,” another instructed.

why are we writing this

For space lovers, traveling to Mars is the ultimate fantasy. These volunteers are harnessing their own dreams of space travel to help solve some of the logistical hurdles for all of humanity.

Inside the “Hab”, a hermetically sealed habitat, Mr. Plagne and two other crew members anxiously awaited the rest of the crew to return from walking on the “Martian” surface. The situation was eventually resolved, but they wasted time exploring the surrounding terrain.

As a designated reporter for Crew 223, part of Mr. Plagne’s job during this two-week simulation was document these roller coaster interludes. Problems found at The Mars Society’s Mars Desert Research Station (MRDS) in the southern Utah desert are valuable data points for disaster prevention and response plans for real-life astronauts.

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