Gambling on Nevada desert as a substitute for Mars

LAS VEGAS — In this town of fanciful architecture, the oddest structure of all has been constructed — not on the Strip, but as a vision of humankind's first home and science laboratory on Mars.

The prototype habitat, designed to house explorers for up to 18 months on the Red Planet, was shipped earlier this summer to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for public display.

Its creators include the international Mars Society, a local manufacturer and mechanical-engineering students and faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Together, they built a domed cylinder, 29 feet tall and 27 feet in diameter.

It's not ready for space, but its backers hope to sell the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on the concept and to rally public support for human exploration of Mars.

Later this year, the structure will be returned to the desert for a terrestrial tryout, with scientists and researchers living in it for two-month shifts and mimicking the experiments that might be conducted on Mars.

"We don't want to say that NASA isn't doing enough (toward exploring Mars), but we want to push things along," said Frank Schubert, a Denver architect who supervised construction of the habitat on behalf of the Mars Society.

The 3-year-old organization claims more than 5,000 members worldwide and a steering committee made up of astronauts, scientists and other enthusiasts of Martian exploration. Its president is aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin, author of "The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must" and "Entering Space."

NASA officials say they appreciate civilian support of space exploration but suggest the Mars Society, good intentions notwithstanding, should not hold its breath waiting for a working version of its habitat to be sent to Mars.

"It's a very good thing that the public is interested in exploring Mars," said NASA spokesman Don Savage in Washington, D.C., "but the question is, how realistic are the various kinds of ideas out there?"

"The Mars Society is an earnest organization. But given how little we know about Mars, the biggest danger might be getting people to believe that (manned exploration) is an easier thing to do than it really is," he added.

But the Mars Society sees no harm in pushing its agenda and last year constructed its first Martian habitat. It was placed on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, which is so desolate it reflects the Martian landscape. But because of the harsh climate, it is available to scientists only about two months a year.

Intent on building another one to test for longer periods in the almost equally inhospitable desert, the Mars Society contracted BOI, a Boulder City, Nev., company that manufactures modular panels for the construction industry.

Schubert had visited the company's "Space House," a 3,000-square-foot, energy-efficient home sustained without the assistance of outside utilities. Impressed by the company's engineering prowess, Schubert asked its president, Scott Fisher, to help build the next model of a Mars habitat.

Remarkably, from contract to completion in early June, the project was finished in five weeks, at a cost so far to the Mars Society of $200,000.

"You'd think a university would be the last place to turn to to complete something in 30 days," quipped Darrell Pepper, chairman of the engineering department.

Constructing the habitat, made of galvanized steel sandwiched between layers of high-tech foam and covered in an acrylic coating, "gave us a lot of cutting-edge experience," he said. "It was a nice challenge to pull off in five weeks."

The real McCoy, however, would be constructed of more advanced materials to withstand the actual Martian environment.

The Mars Society plans to spend $300,000 more to finish the habitat as a working lab.

Schubert said he expects no problems getting scientists to try out the habitat upon its return from Florida.

"When we asked for volunteers to try the Devon habitat, we received 700 answers, and 250 of them were serious scientists," he said.

"We're not just kids 'playing Mars.' This is for real study."