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Exploring Earth’s "Alien" Landscapes

Trujillo/Paumier Society members in their gear

Photo: Trujillo/Paumier

When the Apollo program was cancelled in 1972, it was a crushing disappointment for aspiring spacefarers. "I was four years old when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon," remembers Dirk Terrell, vice president of the IAAA and an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute. "We lived in Florida, and I saw the rockets taking off, then saw the astronauts walking on the moon. I thought, ’Yeah, that’s what I want to do.’"

NASA instead turned its energies to the space-shuttle program and unmanned space probes. But true believers kept the dream alive, discussing and arguing passionately among themselves. The public cared, too. When NASA’s Pathfinder probe landed on Mars in 1997, its Web site received so much traffic that a small swath of the Internet crashed. The following year, a group of fellow space enthusiasts banded together to form the Mars Society. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was an early supporter, and former Infoseek chairman Steve Kirsch provided seed money. The group now has chapters in 43 countries.

For its first project, the society erected a 28-foot-high domed cylinder on the rim of an ancient impact crater on Devon Island, in the far north of Canada. Haughton Crater was chosen for its combination of unusual geology (impact craters are rarely seen on Earth but are common on Mars) and low temperatures. After encounters with polar bears, an errant cargo drop, and unpredictable weather, the Flashline Mars Arctic Research Station went up in 2000. The first crew moved in the following year.

Filmmaker James Cameron, an early Mars Society fan, helped the society find a site for its second research station. Cameron had been scouting the country for a location to shoot a movie about Mars, and reported that the desert outside Hanksville, Utah, was the most impressive look-alike. Compared with its counterpart in the Arctic, the new Hab was relatively easy to build, and crews started rotating through in 2002.

There are some who might detect in all this futuristic playacting a hint of the absurd. And yes, the sight of grown-ups in pretend space suits driving ATV’s can be a little comical. As if to forestall inevitable ridicule, participants in the Utah simulation are quick to talk up the actual research they’re doing. "Every team has to have a qualified geologist," says Cutler. "We’re not just picking up rocks because they’re pretty."

The fieldwork is intended to demonstrate that even in tough environments, humans are better observers and evidence-gatherers than robots are. As a side benefit, it engages a broad cross section of people in the process. When I visited the Utah Hab, the six people taking part in the two-week mission hailed from five countries and three continents.

It’s certainly a fact that around the world interest in space exploration is running high. In the past few years, NASA’s armada of sophisticated robot probes has shown us in unprecedented detail what other planets really look like—and it turns out that many look astonishingly like Earth. Put a picture of Mars’s Gusev Crater alongside a shot of the Moroccan desert, and you’d be hard-pressed to tell which was which. Even the mysterious, methane cloud-shrouded surface of Saturn’s Titan turned out to look no more exotic than a pebbly beach at low tide.

What the probes have done is drive home the message that the Earth is, really, another planet. The odd feeling of familiarity can be ascribed to Earth’s exceptionally lively geology and to its wide variety of climates. The ice fields of the poles resemble Jupiter’s frozen moons; the fresh lava of Iceland and Hawaii calls to mind the primordial basalt of the moon. "Seeing these images, you realize that Earth is not so different after all," says Terrell. "It gives you a feeling of connection. It makes you feel at home."

Jeff Wise is a T+L contributing editor.

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