Sunday, April 23, 2006

Another Mars probe from NASA was settling into orbit last month around the Red Planet, 132 million miles away. Back on Earth, at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, the crew had a problem.

“It’s the best we can do,” Veronica Zabala-Aliberto told her 11-year-old daughter, Madeline.

A concoction of corned beef hash and cabbage cooked under approximated Martian conditions on a solar-powered stove would have to pass for Irish stew. There would be no potatoes.

Their simulated space station in the Utah desert looks like a two-story tin can. It is an effort to drum up popular support for a manned mission to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

The roughly $750,000 Mars Desert Research Station was built by the Mars Society, a nonprofit group of space enthusiasts based in Boulder, Colo. NASA helps out where it can.

For instance, the research station analyzes desert rocks from equipment donated by NASA, although the project is not part of the space agency. Crew members have come from every continent.

Volunteers who staff the station venture out in spacesuits to imitate the conditions they would confront if America ever realizes President Bush’s goal of sending astronauts to Mars.

The research station creates only an image of an extraterrestrial habitation, and the crew members only pretend to be astronauts, but scientists around the world are watching as they try to meet Mr. Bush’s goal of returning to the moon by 2020 and later Mars.

Corporate sponsors who paid for the steel, fiberglass and Styrofoam living quarters include corporations such as telescope maker Celestron, equipment manufacturer Greenleaf Machine Tool Co. and space products development company Starchaser Industries.

Most of the sponsors are potential NASA contractors for a Mars mission.

“There are going to be jobs coming out of this that affect everybody everywhere,” said Michael Laine, president of LiftPort Group, a Bremerton, Wash., company that makes the kind of super-dense carbon nanotubes and communications systems that NASA might use. “There are ripple effects you just can’t calculate.”

NASA missions have produced advances in robotics, computers, medical breakthroughs such as magnetic resonance imaging and the kinds of Global Positioning System satellites commonly used in automobile guidance systems.

‘There to stay’

Unlike NASA’s giant leap for mankind to the moon and back, the agency is planning for a long-term presence beyond Earth.

“This isn’t about footprints and flags,” said Mr. Laine, whose company is helping to sponsor the Mars Desert Research Station. “This is about going there to stay.”

Web cameras placed around the 1,200-square-foot station, which crew members call the “hab,” allow anyone with an interest to monitor their progress at mdrs/fs05. All the crew members are volunteers, some paying their own expenses averaging about $1,000 for a two-week rotation.

Operation of the research station costs the Mars Society about $50,000 per year.

“There’s just something inside,” said Stacy Sklar, a Northern Arizona University paleontology student, explaining why she would like to explore other worlds.

Last month, the research station hosted three children and four adults in a first experiment of how families might interact in a Martian habitation.

One complaint from the adults arose when the children would rise early from their closetlike sleeping quarters to play the same Avril Lavigne song over and over.

Other times, they watched videos or played with a remote-controlled dancing robot.

The adults ventured out in all-terrain vehicles to test soil samples and gather rocks, similar to the methods of astronauts who walked on the moon.

In one trip to Box Canyon, where reddish cliff walls drop a quarter-mile to a riverbed, two research station crew members searched for concretions, or sphere-shaped rocks that form when chemicals in water attach to organisms or minerals in rocks.

NASA’s rovers photographed concretions on Mars, fueling speculation that primitive life must have existed on the planet millions of years ago. Scientists call them “Martian blueberries.”

After Todd Romberger, an assistant engineer, dug his pick into the soil to test its acidic content, he looked toward the overcast sky through his fishbowl helmet.

“We got to watch the weather,” he said.

“I know,” Mrs. Zabala-Aliberto said. “It’s raining over there.”

Beyond an outcropping of rock, toward a massive snowcapped mountain on the horizon, shafts of rain fell toward the ground.

“We got to do it quick,” she said over the hum of a fan in the simulated life-support system she wore on her back.

The scientists placed more concretions in a plastic sandwich bag and returned to the hab in their all-terrain vehicles.

In the hab’s first-floor laboratory, hydrochloric acid dropped onto the rocks determines whether they ever contained living organisms, if “it fizzles,” Mrs. Zabala-Aliberto said.

The research results that the Mars Desert Research Station reports on the Internet list work schedules, equipment performance and the “human factors” of cabin fever in a style that closely follows plans for NASA’s Mars exploration.

So far, the worst confrontations since the research station hosted its first crew in February 2002 have been “heated quarrels, but nothing violent,” Mrs. Zabala-Aliberto said. “Some people have been asked to leave because they wouldn’t follow protocol.”

The crew counts the mistakes as learning experiences.

“It’s slowly evolving,” said Miss Sklar, who was participating in her fifth crew.

During 47 crew rotations, most of them lasting two weeks, the research station has added a greenhouse, a system for recycling wash water and a telescope with a 14-inch mirror.

“All the systems are becoming more autonomous,” Miss Sklar said. “When we first came out here, we had to pump our own water.”

As the Family Living Analyses on Mars crew vacated the research station, Crew 47 moved in.

Their two-week mission was to test a radio transmitter-receiver attached to a balloon and tethered to the ground designed by LiftPort Group.

On Earth, radio transmitters bounce signals off the ionosphere.

“Mars doesn’t have that,” said Jan Osburg, the Crew 47 commander and Georgia Institute of Technology aerospace engineer. “Basically, you’re limited to line-of-sight communications.”

NASA’s new mission?

Underlying their hopes for a Mars mission is a government policy with as many questions about it as answers.

Mr. Bush raised the prospect of a manned expedition to Mars in a Jan. 14, 2004, speech at NASA headquarters in Washington, where in which he described his “Vision for Space Exploration.” It would start as a return to the moon, a lunar base and then a trip to Mars.

“With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond,” Mr. Bush said.

Some members of Congress hesitate to give a wholehearted endorsement of the idea.

“In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and during a time of war, some have proposed shifting money away from the vision,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, California Republican and chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee.

Mr. Calvert, who supports expeditions to the moon and Mars, argues against the critics, saying, “We can handle more than one important issue at a time. If we suspend our space program solely to shift money to other programs, America will be eclipsed by other nations that are emerging as space powers.”

Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Science environment, technology and standards subcommittee, said during a Feb. 16 NASA budget hearing that manned space explorations could put aside other technological advancement.

“I remain concerned that we will finance the return to the moon and travel to Mars at the cost of other critical scientific discovery,” Mr. Ehlers said.

NASA completed an “Exploration Systems Architecture Study” last year that estimated the cost for a return to the moon at $106 billion. The agency is operating with a $16.8 billion budget for fiscal 2007. No cost estimate exists for a manned Mars mission, which the space agency says will depend on the progress in establishing a lunar base.

The moon missions would be a test bed for a 500-day Mars expedition. If a return to the moon proceeds on schedule with the first landing by 2020, NASA then would direct its efforts toward lunar outposts. A timetable for a Mars mission would depend on technologies developed to maintain people on the moon.

Manning missions

NASA already is working on a Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, that looks like a larger version of the space capsules used in the Apollo program to carry astronauts to the moon in 1969. The CEVs would be launched on top of modified booster rocket from the space shuttles for trips to the moon.

NASA is scheduled to announce a contractor by October to build the ship, called a Crew Launch Vehicle. Top contenders include Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

If the project proceeds scheduled, the first launch would be in 2011 for a mission to the International Space Station. It would come about one year after the planned retirement of the space shuttles.

Initial plans call for the Mars lander to be similar to the lunar excursion module (LEM) used for the Apollo program. Its descent stage would use a four-legged platform with rockets that lower the lander to the surface.

Its ascent stage would contain the crew compartment and rockets underneath it to launch the astronauts back into space when their mission is completed.

The ascent-stage rockets are being designed to burn liquid methane, which NASA scientists say could be extracted from the Martian atmosphere.

Under one scenario, an outpost would be set up before the astronauts arrive. About five heavy-lift unmanned launches would carry the living quarters, communications and power systems to a landing on the Martian outpost.

A six-member crew would spend six months on their voyage each way. While on Mars, they would search for evidence of past life and try to tap into the planet’s natural resources.

Unmanned missions have found traces of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The oxygen could help sustain the crew. The carbon dioxide could be processed into the liquid propellant.

The Martian geology is only a small part of the engineering obstacles. More important is keeping the crew alive and healthy.

One hazard is the radiation exposure from extended sojourns in space. An atmosphere and magnetic field protect the Earth’s inhabitants from the sun’s most harmful radiation.

Astronauts who spend weeks to months in a low-Earth orbit have a 3 percent higher risk of cancer, NASA reports. Less certain is what happens to people who go beyond lunar expeditions.

NASA engineers are investigating materials that could shield against radiation.

Engineering glitches nearly killed the Apollo 13 crew and resulted in the deaths of 17 astronauts since the first moon landing program.

A rescue from the moon might be feasible, but the chances for a rescue from Mars are dim.

“Right now, such a rescue mission would be difficult,” said Carl Walz, acting director of the Advanced Capabilities Office in NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. “Astronaut survival would depend on the nature of the failure and the capability of other systems to pick up the slack.”

When an electrical explosion knocked out the Apollo 13 command module’s life-support system in 1970, the attached LEM provided life support to the crew for a quick return to Earth.

On a trip to Mars, any return to Earth would not be quick.

Also a consideration are the human factors of sending people into a tiny space prison for months or years at a time.

“Psychological and physical effects on the astronauts for a Mars mission are a major concern,” Mr. Walz said.

The agency is developing methods to reduce bone and muscle loss from extended weightlessness. Scientists also are working on a nutrition regimen that would keep the astronauts’ immune systems strong.

“Communications become more difficult on a Mars mission due to the long distances and time delays,” Mr. Walz said. “We need to understand how those might affect astronauts psychologically.”

Ten years and counting

Regardless of whether the manned missions proceed on schedule, the unmanned exploration of Mars is making impressive headway.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter survived its biggest threat March 13 when it entered the Martian atmosphere. It joined three other satellites orbiting Mars: NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.

Meanwhile, NASA’s two rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, continue to roam the landscape, testing soil samples and taking atmospheric readings.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is equipped with NASA’s most sophisticated technology for planetary observation, including a telescopic camera that can photograph objects on the surface as small as 20 inches and radar that can scan underground for ice that could be used for water.

Its two-year orbiting also is supposed to help NASA select a landing site for manned missions.

Back on Earth, the seven-year-old Mars Society hopes its research station in the Utah desert, along with another one on Canada’s far northern Devon Island, will help with the political will needed to send people to the fourth planet from the Sun.

“We are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to being able to send men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later,” said Robert Zubrin, Mars Society founder and a former Lockheed Martin engineer. “Given the will, we could have humans on Mars within a decade.”

The organization plans to build similar stations in remote areas of Iceland and Australia that mimic the harsh environment of Mars. So far, it has enlisted about 7,000 members worldwide.

Other private groups — such as the National Space Society, the Space Frontier Foundation and Students for the Exploration and Development of Space — promote a manned Mars mission, but none has the financial and technical resources to do it without government sponsorship.

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