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NASA hopes to send people to Mars sometime in the 2030s. President Trump would like to see that happen even sooner. And at a remote site in the Utah desert, would-be astronauts are already simulating what it would be like to live on the Red Planet. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell spent some time with one crew.
RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Victoria LaBarre was in her spacesuit, climbing out of a canyon, when she started to experience an astronaut's nightmare.
VICTORIA LABARRE: Suddenly I couldn't breathe.
BICHELL: But LaBarre didn't unlatch her helmet to get a breath of fresh desert air because in this simulation she was clambering out of a 5-mile-deep chasm on Mars. And on Mars, you do not take off your helmet. So instead she radioed her crewmates, who walked her through some breathing exercises.
LABARRE: I think that's one of the best things about Mars is the teamwork.
BICHELL: LaBarre and the rest of Crew 177, known as the Lone Star Highlanders, are a few days into their week at the Mars Desert Research Station.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome.
BICHELL: Hi. I'm Rae.
It's a two-story metal cylinder in southern Utah. There's a workshop and bathroom on the first level. And Pitchayapa Jingjit, the crew biologist, climbs a ladder to the sleeping area and kitchen on the second.
PITCHAYAPA JINGJIT: Most of us, like, just hang out here.
BICHELL: The only other people they talk to are the ones at Capsule Communications, the simulated command center. The kitchen pantry is stocked with freeze-dried ingredients so dry they rattle in the jars. Joseph Quaas is the team cook.
JOSEPH QUAAS: Here's our eggs. I don't think you've ever seen eggs that look like just a weird powder.
BICHELL: Today the crew has planned an excursion, a spacewalk.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You'll put your suit on in here.
BICHELL: Their goal is to collect rock samples so they can find out what resources the land might hold and what this place was like millions of years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There we go.
BICHELL: Elijah Espinoza, the crew engineer and geologist, points out a strange flag on the wall with blocks of red, green and blue. It's an unofficial flag of Mars.
ELIJAH ESPINOZA: I guess when we land on Mars that's what's going to be planted. I'm not really sure.
BICHELL: Many people think of Mars as the next frontier for human exploration. Victoria LaBarre is excited about all the technological advances the mission could spur.
LABARRE: Oh, man, it's going to be amazing.
BICHELL: Others like Elijah Espinoza view Mars as a necessary plan B.
ESPINOZA: Four or five generations on the road, there may be a point in time where Earth isn't suitable anymore. You know, you have to leave. And they're just - it's either, you know, the human race can end or the human race can progress on another planet.
BICHELL: A group called the Mars Society built this place in 2001 to promote the human settlement of the Red Planet. The group isn't affiliated with NASA. It's a nonprofit funded by grants and private donations. Groups pay the society to stay at the Utah site and work on research projects.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's the rover we put together. Esteban's working on a generator bike.
BICHELL: Usually the teams that come here are scientists from all over the world. The previous crew came from Poland. But this crew is made up of students from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Some are the first in their families to go to college. At least one hadn't been to a state other than Texas until this Mars mission. Now four of them are squishing into the airlock to leave the building. They count down a minute. It's a pretend depressurization to keep them from getting sucked outside like ants in a vacuum cleaner.
ESPINOZA: All right, guys, you ready?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yep.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yep.
BICHELL: The astronauts step out...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Radio check. Can you hear me?
BICHELL: ...Board a couple of electric ATVs and navigate their way between hills that come in stripes of maroon, white, red and yellow. They pull over to collect rock samples.
ESPINOZA: All right, guys, these are all ancient sand dunes. So what we're going to do is we're going to take some samples from them and the ground around them. Cool?
BICHELL: In some places the ground is sandy. In others, dirt crumbles underfoot like a stale muffin. The whole landscape looks extraterrestrial except for the cow off in the distance.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Alien spotting.
They wave to the alien and then hammer off a chunk of sandstone and zip it into a baggie. Later they'll test the samples for things like potassium, iron and uranium.
ESPINOZA: That way you know what you have to work with when it comes to starting a civilization and things like that. Y'all ready to head back?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
ESPINOZA: Yeah, we've got one more sample, then we're going to head back to the hab. Over.
BICHELL: After I leave, the group will watch the sunset from the porthole windows. And in a few days, they'll step out of the capsule, this time without spacesuits on, and go back to breathing the outside air. They'll go back to Waco, Texas, to classes and homework and dreams of graduate school. And if all goes as planned, by the time the members of this crew are in their late 30s, NASA will actually be sending humans to the Red Planet - the real one. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News.
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