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A mission to Mars, in Utah

Research from desert simulations aimed at easing life on an eventual Red Planet trip.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 26, 2008

Dress rehearsal: Members of an international group negotiate terrain at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. Team members test crew composition, tactics, and tools.

courtesy of perry edmundson/expedition delta

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Phillip Cunio celebrated his wife's birthday from Mars. He held a card up to his habitat webcam so she could see it online, and fellow crew members baked a cake.

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Granted, this "Mars" was the Utah desert, but spending two weeks on a simulated mission to the Red Planet gave him a taste of what it would be like to fulfill his dream. And the freeze-dried flavor didn't dampen his enthusiasm.

Mr. Cunio moved into the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), just outside Hanksville, Utah, to test equipment being developed by the Space Logistics Project and other partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. (http://spacelogistics.mit.edu).

He was part of an eight-person international crew including engineers, a biologist, and a GPS expert all doing their own research. For two weeks, they traded earthly conveniences for scientific progress. They imposed a delay of roughly 20 minutes on e-mails. When they ventured outside their cylindrical two-level habitat, they had to wait in an airlock and don bulky simulated spacesuits – complete with boots, ski gloves, and bulbous helmets.

The Mars Society has been running mock missions since 2002 to promote – and prepare for – sending humans to a frontier that only telescopes and rovers have explored so far. "It's kind of a dress rehearsal," says Robert Zubrin, president and founder of the nonprofit society based in Lakewood, Colo. "We're looking to see what would work on Mars and what wouldn't – what skill mix, what character mix, what set of tools...." The society also operates a research station in Canada's Devon Island in the Arctic.

Mr. Zubrin believes a Mars program could inspire this generation of youths the way the 1960s moon program inspired him. The technology would be ready if the new American president would commit next year, he says: "We could be on Mars before the end of their second term."

During Cunio's mission in February, he tracked supplies in the MIT research team's Smart Small Logistics Container – garbage bags, batteries, latex gloves. Using RFID (radio-frequency identification), the small hexagonal container can communicate via a Web-based server when items have been removed and replaced.

Fellow MIT graduate student Arthur Guest did his two-week stint at the research station first, to set up and test the container, while Cunio and engineers from Aurora Flight Sciences provided remote support in Cambridge. Then the two switched places.

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