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Exploring Earth’s "Alien" Landscapes

Trujillo/Paumier Society members in their gear

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

Sheryl Bishop is about to explore a planet. Since she was a child, the University of Texas professor has dreamed of being an astronaut. Now, as she steps into a protective canvas suit and laces up her heavy black boots, she is at last going to taste that long-awaited experience. Inside the prep room of the habitation module, a fellow crew member helps her strap on a bulky backpack, attach a clear domed helmet, and check her communications gear. Ready?Ready!

Bishop steps into the nearby air lock with two fellow explorers, and a heavy metal door shuts behind them. They silently count down two minutes, then open the outer hatch. Before them lies an unrelentingly harsh vista of low hills that stretch to the horizon in shades of red, gray, and white. The team descends to the rocky surface, their scientific tools at the ready. Though much of it is invisible to the naked eye, there is life in this landscape: colonies of hardy bacteria; a scattering of stunted, spiky xerophytes; and, a good deal more noticeably, me, pulling up in a rented silver Cadillac.

I’ve driven about 400 miles from Las Vegas to a patch of wasteland near Hanksville, Utah, to visit the Mars Society’s Desert Research Station, or the Hab, as it’s informally known. The rounded white two-story structure is just one of the more elaborate manifestations of a peculiar but thriving subculture—an international fraternity of frustrated would-be astronauts. Impatient for technology to deliver on its promise of human space exploration, they’ve decided to go for the next best thing: traveling to the rugged corners of the earth in search of "extraterrestrial analogues"—places that mimic the low temperatures, extreme dryness, and all-around danger of outer space.

Here in Utah, Mars Society members dwell in a make-believe Mars station and put on make-believe space suits before piloting make-believe Martian rovers (actually, Kawasaki ATV’s) around the make-believe Mars-scape. "When you come back from an EVA [extravehicular activity], especially at night, and you see the portholes glowing and the red light over the air-lock door—it’s brilliant," says Natalie Cutler, a 27-year-old Australian robotics engineer. "You think, This is really Mars!"

The Mars Society, a 7,000-strong education-and-outreach group founded in 1998 to promote the manned exploration of Mars, maintains another Hab in the Canadian Arctic and plans two more, in Iceland and Australia. They’re not alone in conducting far-flung pseudo–space explorations. The International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA), a group of space-inspired illustrators, organizes trips to otherworldly locales like Death Valley and Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park. And manned-exploration enthusiasts within NASA visit a research base in the Canadian Arctic and undertake missions to such destinations as the lava fields of Iceland and Nevada’s Sedan Crater.

Indeed, it was NASA who first set about finding "alien" landscapes on our own planet. During the Apollo era, the agency sent astronauts to Iceland, Hawaii, and the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. The point wasn’t to pretend that they were already on the moon, but to train their eyes for the kind of geologic processes that they might find there.

"There aren’t any places on Earth that are really moonlike," says Apollo 17 crew member Harrison Schmitt, who went on several such trips. "There are places where there are impact craters, but they’ve all been weathered, which doesn’t happen on the moon. So we tried to find small technical analogues of some of the problems that we would encounter there."

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