Red-planet science in black and white

When humans finally colonize Mars (perhaps within a few decades, some scientists say) will they bring the baggage of earthly woes with them?

Probably. But if the team of researchers charged with figuring out how to sustain life on Mars is any indication, racial segregation is one of the problems they might be able to leave behind.

When NASA asked universities to make their pitches for leading its Specialized Center of Research and Training for Advanced Life Support, it encouraged them to partner with minority institutions. The winning proposal, from Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., included collaborations with two historically black universities – Howard in Washington, D.C., for its strength in engineering, and Alabama A&M in Normal, which offers expertise in agriculture and food science.

By urging these partnerships, NASA is helping in a government-wide effort to involve minority institutions more in science and technology efforts, says Purdue Prof. Cary Mitchell, the center's director.

In addition to exchanges among the 24 researchers, the center will sponsor summer fellowships for minority students, bringing them into labs where ground–breaking technology is being developed.

"Whenever you expand the scope of the researchers ... it helps," says Kimberly Jones, a Howard engineering professor. "Engineering is not just crunching numbers; it also involves a different way of thinking about things and learning how to be creative and bringing your background and experience into your work," she says.

Professor Jones's specialty is water treatment. So if you move to Mars in 2040, you can think of her when you raise that first glass of clean, recycled water to your lips.

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