In a remote pocket of Utah desert, scientists gather periodically for an otherworld experience — literally. They arrive at a facility near Hanksville where they conduct experiments that could someday help people survive a trip to Mars.
The Mars Desert Research Station was built on Utah's San Rafael Swell because the landscape there may come as close to approximating the Red Planet as anywhere else on this planet.
For those of a generation that witnessed the glory years of the U.S. space program, the fact that efforts persist to forge ahead toward new inter-planetary frontiers is comforting. Baby boomers were enthralled and inspired by the efforts that culminated in the first Moon landing. Their grandchildren now may be in a position to draw the same kind of inspiration from a new wave of space exploration.
In the 43 years since the first manned lunar excursion, the space program has seen as much tragedy as triumph. The space shuttles Challenger and Columbia met with disaster. Plans to develop a permanent American space station foundered in the wake of budget concerns. What had been a steady stream of human and technological "firsts" associated with space travel came to a trickle at the turn of the century.
The recent passing of astronaut Sally K. Ride gives perspective to the lagging timeline of accomplishment. She was the first American woman in space, inspiring a generation of young women in a way few have since. It's been nearly 30 years since that important milestone was recorded.
Little has happened since to re-ignite the sense of awe that accompanied the first manned space adventures, when America was captivated by the mustering of the technological wherewithal to travel beyond our blanket of gravity. Nothing before or after can lay claim to quite the same level of human accomplishment.
Now — when government can hardly afford the interest payments on its own debt — is not the time to launch a full-scale push toward the next extraterrestrial objective. But we hear about ongoing research in a variety of places that may steadily lead to a new legacy of space exploration.
Later this summer, a space craft launched last November will deliver a car-sized rover to the surface of Mars, where — if things go as planned — it will send back data on whether the martian landscape is capable of sustaining life.
In the meantime, scientists at Lockheed Martin are working with NASA to create a dietary menu that would sustain the first Mars travelers. And researchers from as far away as New Zealand travel here to walk along our red and arid acreage to simulate the first stroll on Mars.
There is no definitive deadline for the culmination of all of this work. NASA vaguely suggests the first Mars voyage may embark sometime in the decade of the 2030s.
In the meantime, it is good to know the human instinct to explore beyond our terrestrial bounds has not been abandoned.
It is possible, that right now, a child studying science in an elementary school somewhere will grow up to become the first person to set foot on the surface of another planet. Sally Ride, who devoted herself to encouraging children to study space science, would be proud.