Researchers clad in space suits hike to a remote location in Utah's San Rafael Swell, an analog site for Mars. Photograph courtesy of The Mars Society
THE UTAH STATION IS ONE of two research sites that the Mars Society operates to learn to live and work on another planet; the other is in the high Arctic. The earth here is rich in sedimentary deposits,. The gray deposits are from the Cretaceous, when the area was underwater, part of a vast inland sea—there are marine fossils here. There's evidence that whole oceans or seas existed on Mars, so it's useful to have an analog site that was under a sea in the geological past. For example, there are canyons from past water flow, similar to features found on Mars. Also, a lot of experts believe the most likely way we'll find evidence of life on Mars will be via fossil traces, so it makes sense to be in a place that is rich in fossil deposits where paleontologists can work and study.
Our expeditions apply all the daily physical and mental stresses that life on Mars would entail, though the simulations aren't perfect—we don't recycle our air, and our ATVs are powered by gasoline instead of methanol-oxygen fuel cells. But the entire crew wears spacesuit simulators. Once outside they can't open the suits without "breaking sim." They can't use the bathroom; they can't blow their nose. They hike, dig, and drill in these bulky suits with limited mobility. It's tough work. Unfortunately, water is too precious to waste on showers, so the crew keeps clean with periodic sponge baths. Push water conservation too far, though, and you run into problems of morale: For six people living together inside a can, washing can become a big deal. — As told to Lee Billings