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Hanksville, Utah (VBS.TV) -- Travel twenty minutes north of this tiny town, to the craggy red desert of the San Rafael Swell, and you may discover a spaceship.
The cylindrical craft isn't from another world, but it offers a glimpse of one. It is the centerpiece of the Mars Desert Research Station, an environment created by the Mars Society, a growing non-profit organization that supports the research, exploration, and eventual colonization of the mysterious red planet.
The swell, chosen as a simulation site for its topical resemblance to Mars, provides the volunteer researchers who come here with an opportunity to live and work in a Mars analog, an environment that's as close to the red planet as is earthly possible.
While conducting geological and psychological experiments that could someday be useful to a real Martian expedition, this small group of Mars devotees -- some space scientists, some simply eager adventurers -- live and work in complete "sim." They consume only dehydrated, shelf-stable food like Bisquick and ghee, exercise to preserve their muscles in "reduced gravity," abide by the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" adage in an effort to conserve water, and wear spacesuits when they venture outside.
Animating their work is a vision of planetary colonization that is steadily creeping from the realm of sci-fi to reality. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA is shifting its focus to longer-term manned missions -- a dream that has been outlined by President Obama. "Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn, operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite," the president told NASA in April of 2010. He then followed this up stating by the mid 2030s, "I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And landing on Mars will follow."
Even if trips to Mars are still decades away, public interest appears to be reaching new heights. After the Journal of Cosmology published a paper in October suggesting that the first trips to Mars would be feasible only as one-way journeys, the journal's editor received over 400 emails from people "volunteering" for the mission.
Motherboard's Kelly Loudenberg recently paid a visit to the Station to get a glimpse of what life on Mars looks like on Earth. Compared with present government-run experiments, like NASA's undersea NEEMO and the European Space Agency's Mars 500 -- a six-man, 18-month-long isolation test inside a mock spaceship -- life in the Society's desert station can sometimes look like an elaborate make-believe game for grown-ups.
But this isn't a lark or a theoretical exercise: living in a state of constant "dress-up," in the words of crew member Nori Cassman, is meant to prepare for the possibility of life -- human life -- on Mars.