Exploring Earth’s "Alien" Landscapes
For passionate would-be space travelers and Mars enthusiasts, happiness is spending time in some of the world’s coldest, driest, most inhospitable places.
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."
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.
The Mars Society conducts research trips to its Utah and Devon Island, Canada, locations, which are open to members. See www.mars society.org for details. Here are five more places to consider when organizing your own planetary expedition.
The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the closest thing on earth to the rigors of the moon or Mars: very cold, very dry, and, due to the shrinking ozone layer, dosed with dangerous ultraviolet radiation. If you’re lucky, you may encounter an actual chunk of Mars: Asteroid ALH84001 flew off of Mars after a meteor impact 16 million years ago and landed in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica. TravelQuest International (800/830-1998; www.tq-international.com) is planning a 14-day Antarctic meteorite-hunting expedition for January 2008.
Twenty minutes north of Tucson, you can walk through Biosphere 2 (520/838-6200; www.bio2.com), the ill-fated attempt to demonstrate how a colony of humans could survive self-sufficiently for long periods in an enclosed habitat—an important issue in the exploration of deep space. Thirty-five miles east of Flagstaff lies the 4,000-foot-wide Meteor Crater (800/289-5898; www.meteorcrater.com), the first impact crater ever identified.
ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE
Recently, NASA scientists studied our planet’s driest terrain to determine how various organisms cope with extreme conditions. In some areas there is virtually no evidence of life at all, but in others certain bacteria survive by sheltering just underneath the soil. (Organisms on Mars likely rely on the same trick.) Humans don’t have to be so crafty: the Atacama Desert is home to one of the most luxurious resorts in South America, Explora Atacama (866/750-6699; www.explora.com; three-day stays $1,546, double, all-inclusive; four days $2,060).
COLUMBIA ICEFIELD, CANADA
One of the International Association of Astronomical Artists’s proposed field trips is to an 80,000-acre frozen expanse on the Continental Divide between British Columbia and Alberta. The frigid landscape shares features with some moons of Jupiter and Saturn, such as Ganymede, Europa, and Titan—the latter is believed to have "ice volcanoes" that spew "ice lava" at temperatures of 290 degrees below zero. 877/423-7433; www.columbiaicefield.com.
DEVON ISLAND, CANADA
If remnants of ancient life are ever found on Mars, they may resemble the fossilized algae mats of Devon Island, site of Haughton Crater and the first Mars Society research station. The 10-day "Discover the World of the High Arctic" from Arctic Odysseys (800/574-3021; www.arcticodysseys.com; $11,995 per person, all-inclusive) includes legs on Devon, Baffin, and Ellesmere Islands.