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Of mice and men, and babies, in space

Artist's conception of mini-Apollo capsule for mice exploring the frontiers of space, and romance
Artist's conception of mini-Apollo capsule for mice exploring the frontiers of space, and romance  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- A crew of miniature mammals will go where no humans have gone before, into space for the specific purpose of procreation, if a private space exploration group can make the mission fly.

The proposed two-month orbital flight would allow enough time for the mice-stronauts to reproduce and the young to become adults, according to the Mars Society.

The experiment would place the orbiting animals in an environment that simulated the gravity of Mars, about one third that of Earth, in order to help plan long-term manned missions to the red planet.

"It's an important science study that has not been done by a NASA center. Before we can send people on a mission with artificial gravity, it's important to find out the effects," said Maggie Zubrin, Mars Society executive director, on Friday.

The flight, which could take place as early as 2003, could shed light on whether simulated gravity counters the deteriorating effects of weightlessness. Humans on long-duration space flights suffer marked decreases in bone density, immune system fitness and muscle strength.

It could also establish whether mammals from Earth can be born and develop into proper adults in Mars gravity conditions, the society said.

The society is discussing the mission particulars with a variety of other groups, including the Musk Foundation, headed by Elon Musk, a young dot-com millionaire and Mars Society board member.

Space explorers or snake snacks?

One challenge: how to simulate Mars gravity. Scientific teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and the University of Colorado are working on design proposals. One method being considered is a rotating spacecraft akin to a centrifuge.

Another hurdle: funding. The society hopes to limit the cost to $2 million, comparatively low by space flight standards.

To keep the mission cheap, the mice-stronaut capsule would hitch a ride on a commercial rocket carrying a weightier, pricier payload, or perhaps a space shuttle, said Robert Zubrin, the society president.

"It looks like an Apollo capsule, only smaller, about a meter across," he said.

As far as the mice are concerned, they would live in comfortable quarters and be brought safely back to Earth for study. It certainly beats the fate of many such rodents at pet stores -- winding up as snake snacks, Ms. Zubrin said.

"I think that to do science of this nature, to turn rats and mice into heroes for the human species, is a better thing to do with them."

• The Mars Society

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