Mars is within reach!
A world with a surface area the size of the combined continents of the Earth, the Red Planet contains all the elements needed to support life. As such it is the Rosetta Stone for revealing whether the phenomenon of life is something unique to the Earth, or prevalent in the universe. The exploration of Mars may also tell us whether life on Earth is the model for life elsewhere or whether we are just a small part of a much vaster and more varied tapestry. Moreover, as the nearest planet with all the required resources for technological civilization, Mars will be the decisive trial that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the open frontiers and unlimited prospects available to multi-planet space-faring species. Offering profound enlightenment to our science, inspiration and purpose to our youth, and a potentially unbounded future for our posterity, the challenge of Mars is one that we must embrace.
Indeed, with so much at stake, Mars is a test for us. It asks us if we will continue to be a society of pioneers, people who dare great things to open untrodden paths for the future. It asks whether we will be people whose deeds are celebrated in newspapers or in museums, whether we will continue opening new possibilities for our descendants or become less than those who tackled the unknown to give us everything we have.
Mars is the great challenge of our time!
To help develop key scientific knowledge and inspire the public by manifesting the vision of human exploration of Mars, the Mars Society launched the Mars Analog Research Station (MARS) project. A global program of Mars operations research, the MARS project includes two simulated Mars base habitats located in deserts in the Canadian Arctic and the American Southwest. In these Mars-like environments, we have launched a program of extensive long-duration field exploration operations conducted in the same style and under many of the same constraints as they would on the Red Planet. By doing so, we began the process of learning how to explore on Mars.
The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is a laboratory for learning how to live and work on another planet. It is a prototype of a habitat that will land humans on Mars and serve as their main base for months of exploration in the harsh Martian environment. Such a habitat represents a key element in current human Mars mission planning. MDRS serves as a field base to teams of six to seven crew members: geologists, astrobiologists, engineers, mechanics, physicians, human factors researchers, artists, and others, who live for weeks to months at a time in relative isolation in a Mars analog environment. Mars analogs are defined as locations on Earth where some environmental conditions, geologic features, biological attributes or combinations thereof may approximate in some specific way those thought to be encountered on Mars, either at present or earlier in that planet's history. Studying such sites leads to new insights into the nature and evolution of Mars, the Earth, and life.
However, in addition to providing scientific insight into our neighboring world, such analog environments offer unprecedented opportunities to carry out Mars analog field research in a variety of key scientific and engineering disciplines that will help prepare humans for the exploration of that planet. Such research is vitally necessary. For example, it is one thing to walk around a factory test area in a new spacesuit prototype and show that a wearer can pick up a wrench - it is entirely another to subject that same suit to two months of real field work. Similarly, psychological studies of human factors issues, including isolation and habitat architecture, are also only useful if the crew being studied is attempting to do real work.
When considering the effectiveness of a human mission to Mars as a whole, it is clear that there is an operations design problem of considerable complexity to be solved. Such a mission will involve diverse players with different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. They include the crew of the Mars habitat, pedestrian astronauts outside, astronauts on un-pressurized but highly nimble vehicles operating at moderate distances from the habitat, astronauts working at great distances from the habitat using clumsy but long-endurance vehicles such as pressurized rovers, mission support on Earth, the terrestrial scientific community at large, robots, and others. Taking these different assets and making them work in symphony to achieve the maximum possible exploration effect will require developing an art of combined operations for Mars missions. MDRS, in operation now for more than a decade and having hosted more than 1,000 crew members, is the pioneer station which began the critical task of developing this art.