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Four months on a mock Mars

Joan Roch / Mars Society
Clad in simulation spacesuits, Mars Society crew members walk away from their
habitat for "extravehicular activity" during a 2004 expedition to Devon Island.

Being cooped up on a space mission can do funny things to you - even if it's a make-believe mission. During an extended simulation of a voyage to Mars back in 1999, a bloody fistfight reportedly broke out between two ersatz astronauts, and one woman participant complained of sexual harassment.

So it'll be interesting to see what happens next year, when the Mars Society is due to stage a simulated four-month mission - not within the comfy confines of a laboratory, but amid the frozen wastes of the Canadian Arctic.

The society's president, Robert Zubrin, confirmed last week's reports that his organization was forgoing its annual simulated mission on Devon Island this year, and concentrating instead on next year's Arctic expedition.

"Essentially we're saving the money from this year so we can do something bigger next year," he told me today.

Zubrin got the society steering committee's go-ahead last week for a project that would send a crew of seven up to Devon next year in the April-May time frame, when temperatures are still below zero Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) - and keep that crew there until the end of August.

During the Mars Society's past campaigns, crews rotated in and out for stints of one to four weeks at a time, during the warmest part of the Arctic summer. As in the past, next year's crew would go out in simulated spacesuits to conduct biological and geological surveys of the Marslike surroundings.

"They're going to be doing a sustained program of field exploration, while in isolation and amid a certain amount of dangerous situations," Zubrin said. "No one's ever done anything like this."

The risks include some factors that could play out on Mars - including extreme cold and the unpredictability of communication and supply links - and some that you're unlikely to see on the Red Planet, such as polar bears.

Zubrin said that the specifics for the expedition would be drawn up in time for this year's Mars Society convention in Washington this August, and that an "open call for volunteers" would go out after that. The crew candidates should have a blend of technical skills, wilderness skills, mechanical aptitude and a "strong commitment" to the eventual human exploration of Mars, he said.

There's already a pool of about 300 potential candidates: veterans of the Mars Society's past expeditions to Devon Island and the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah. Other volunteers would be accepted for support roles, he said.

"To the extent that space exploration can be democratized, this is it," Zubrin said.

Zubrin said it was time for the Devon Island operation to move beyond the shorter-duration stints. A a four-month expedition will be more costly than the usual summer field season, but he said he was certain enough funding would be available. "The question is how much we do in those four months," he said.

NASA and European Space Agency personnel have participated in past Mars Society simulations, producing exploration-oriented research as a result, and Zubrin said he hoped the coming expedition would do the same.

As I mentioned last week, the NASA-supported Haughton-Mars Project is already ramping up for its 10th field season on Devon Island. That project isn't so much geared toward reproducing the feel of a space mission - for example, the Haughton-Mars researchers aren't as religious about staying "in sim" and using fake spacesuits.

There are precedents for long-duration isolation exercises - including, of course, the real-life isolation of the international space station. NBC News space analyst James Oberg has suggested that the station be given the name "Endurance," which also happens to be the name connected with Sir Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic ordeal in 1915-16, and one of the names being considered for the Mars Society's expedition.

Russian experiments on the ground have reportedly gone as long as 220 days, and a 500-day isolation mission is in the works (although the schedule for that experiment has reportedly slipped into 2007). There's also the fascinating tale of Stefania Follini, whose body clock was knocked out of whack during her four-month solo stay in a New Mexico cave in 1989.

If you need more information about the upcoming expedition or the Mars Society's August convention - or if you have another suggestion for the expedition name - you can send an e-mail to info@marssociety.org. And feel free to share your reactions, concerns or name suggestions in the comments area below.