Since humans first looked to the stars for an answer to the great cosmic riddle, various celestial bodies have inspired a wide range of interpretations. In the past 100 years or so, the planet Mars has made a particularly strong mark on popular culture and holds a special attraction for many in the era of manned space exploration.
In 2001, filmmaker Gerry Williams helped found the San Diego chapter of The Mars Society. Its goal: "to send humans to Mars to explore, colonize and create a second home for human civilization."
Williams was in kindergarten when the first men were sent into space in 1961. "Our class made space helmets out of 5-gallon ice cream drums with pipe cleaners on top for antenna-I didn't take mine off for about two weeks," he recalled. "I grew up with the Gemini and Apollo programs. I have a degree in physics with a minor in astronomy that I don't use."
Fellow space enthusiast Dave Rankin, described reading the 1997 book, The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, co-authored by Mars Society founder Dr. Robert Zubrin.
"It detailed an explanation of how to go to Mars in a way that was doable using the current technologies," Rankin said, adding that participation in the Mars Society allows him, a lawyer and non-scientist, the opportunity to help create the space-faring civilization he's always envisioned.
At 2:51 a.m. (PDT), Aug. 27, 2003, Mars was the closest it's been to Earth (within 34,646,418 miles) in 60,000 years-as close as it gets until the year 2287. On Aug. 28 at 11:00 a.m., Mars will be at "opposition," meaning it will form a straight line with the Sun and Earth, with Earth in the middle and Mars fully illuminated.
For many people, 34 million miles might as well be 34 billion in terms of a voyage to Mars, which would reportedly take about two years round-trip. But according to Williams, if it could happen tomorrow, he would take a one-way ticket there, despite knowing he probably wouldn't come back.
Why Mars? Williams explained that, unlike our much closer and already-visited Moon, Mars has natural resources that can be mined and used, a 24-hour-and-37-minute day and enough gravity to keep the people healthy when they get there.
"We're going to go there and live off the land," Williams said, adding that if Lewis and Clark had been forced to take along all the equipment and food necessary to explore the Northwest Territories, they'd never have gotten west of the Mississippi.
The real problem is that the cost of space exploration is, well, astronomical. Rankin estimated it would cost $20 billion to $25 billion over a 10-year period to fully develop the technology to send a mission to Mars; each subsequent mission would cost $2.5 billion.
The Mars Society, founded in 1998, currently has roughly 6,500 members worldwide. It receives partial funding for projects from corporate sponsors, like Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, who ranked 23rd on Fortune magazine's September 2002 40-wealthiest-under-40 list.
The society has built three "Mars habitats," which six-member crews use to test operations necessary for a Mars mission. The two-story, 28-foot-diameter structures are based roughly on the Mars manned lander.
The first habitat, established in 2000 on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, is accessible only four to six weeks each year. The second, the MARS Desert Research Station (MDRS) in Utah, became active in 2002. A third habitat will be deployed to the volcanic/geothermal fields of Iceland. Plans are also in the works to build a fourth, the Australian Outback habitat.
MDRS is open from October through May. Every two weeks, a new crew is sent to the habitat, where they must be in full Martian simulation (in other words, pretend they're on Mars). They wear space suits, perform geology and biology experiments and, essentially, figure out "how six people can live in a tuna can," Williams said.
The isolated habitats have their own power generation, and crews communicate with the outside via satellite uplink to the Internet. Once a year, the San Diego chapter operates "Mission Support" for MDRS.
"If there's a problem, they call, "San Diego, we have a problem,' and we have to deal with it here," Williams said. "They uplink their reports to us every night, and we interact with them and then distribute the reports."
Three San Diego chapter members have gone to MDRS in the past two years. Williams went for a couple of days to shoot video for documentary purposes. The two others were both biologists.
While Rankin believes the day when an average person will be able to travel to Mars might be 100 years away, he said a mission could happen in 10 years if a concerted effort were made to fund such a program.
But this week, Mars Society-San Diego members will have to settle for heading out to Anza-Borrego to view Mars' close pass and opposition-the closest any of them have gotten to the Red Planet. So far.